AMELIA SHEPHARD investigates the wisdom of the latest phonics tests for young readers

The phonics v whole books debate is a thought-provoking dispute that has caused a lot of controversy. It is particularly interesting because of the vast number of opinions on how to teach children to read and improve the literacy skills of young children. Some believe that using phonics is superior, and should be the one solitary method used in schools. Others see it as a beneficial method when incorporated into a variety of teaching systems, and some believe that phonics is simply not a suitable, or strong enough process to teach children to read.

With education being considered high on the political agenda, as evidence displays that ten-year-olds in other countries such as Russia and Germany are racing ahead of children in England, is phonics the best way to improve the literacy skills of children?

Phonics can be described as the correlation between sound and symbol in an alphabetic writing system. By simply looking at that definition, it becomes apparent that a number of problems may arise here. Henrietta Dombey (1999), for instance, explores the complexity of the English orthographic system. Spoken English has 40-44 phonemes, the exact number dependent on your accent. Words made up of these phonemes are represented by the 26 letters of our alphabet (Dombey, 1999). In short, we cannot have a system where one letter stands for only one phoneme. Maintaining this argument means that due to a lack of a one – to – one correspondence between sound and spelling in English, this approach may be dysfunctional (Brindley, 1996).

A further issue that has arisen with the phonics approach is the method of testing each child’s reading skill. During the test, children are asked to sound out a mixture of real and made up words such as ‘drall’, ‘halp’, and ‘snope’. This method has been criticised by teaching unions who suggest that this will confuse and infuriate pupils who are expecting that what they will read will make sense. The results of the test, which took an average of four to nine minutes to complete showed that only 58% of six year olds reached the expected standard; the mark of 32/40, – 80%. However, independent evaluation of the test by the Centre for Education disagreed with the criticisms, and displayed a positive response, stating that 43% of pilot schools identified pupils with reading problems of which they were not previously aware, and 83% of the teachers said the number of words was suitable, including the non-words. Overall, there was a positive response to the test (The Guardian, 27 September 2012).

A variety of views have been considered whilst looking at this debate. There is the understanding that overemphasis on phonics may deprive children of other reading strategies, but it has become clear that the general consensus is that phonics is a valuable way to teach children to read when included into an assortment of systems, although some of the methods may be questionable.

AMELIA SHEPHARD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Brindley, S. & Swann, J. (1996) in Mercer, & Swann, J. (1996) Learning English: Development and Diversity. Routledge.

Dombey. H. (1999) Picking a path through the phonics minefield. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, (27)1, pp.12-21

The Guardian [online] 2012.


One thought on “AMELIA SHEPHARD investigates the wisdom of the latest phonics tests for young readers

  1. Gregory Cartwright says:

    You make many interesting points about the value of phonics as a method of teaching children to develop their literacy skills, and I do think there are many positive sides to using phonics. Yes, the number of letters in our alphabet doesn’t match up to the number of phonemes used by English speakers, but I think this is going to be a problem no matter what method is proposed. I guess some things just have to be adapted to, learned; ‘got used to’.

    The one area I am uncertain about is ‘non-words’ – The Guardian rightly pointed out that these words could ‘frustrate those who could already read and confuse pupils who have special educational needs, or those for whom English is a second language.’ I understand the idea behind non-words, in that pupils use their phonics skills and knowledge of sounds they have previously encountered to pronounce word, but surely it would be more beneficial for a similar ‘real word’ to be used? After all, a word a child is yet to see before is still functioning as a type of ‘non-word’, but at least once they have deciphered that word they can use this experience when they come across that word again. This furthers the pupil’s vocabulary, as well as their reading skill.

    I feel phonics tests should be context based, as I believe using language in context is an important skill for children to acquire. Pupils could read a book in class and then take a phonics test containing words, from a section in that book, which are related contextually. For instance, a test might contain the words ‘dog’, ‘lead’, ‘walk’, ‘animal’. The children, having studied the book, would hopefully pronounce ‘lead’ to mean the rope used to control a dog rather than ‘lead’ as in the material used in a pencil.

    The statistics you have cited from The Guardian show that phonics tests are having a beneficial effect on pupil’s literacy skills, and this can only be a positive. I also think it’s encouraging that phonics continues to be used alongside other methods. But if we want to further this success I think the inclusion of non-words should perhaps be revised and the idea of a context based phonics text be looked at.

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