Is phonics testing a sound idea? KATIE NOKES examines the latest literacy controversy

THE PHONICS debate is one which has caused controversy amongst not only linguists and politicians but parents and teachers. An argument that Cove (cited in Lewis & Ellis :2006) identified was sparked as early as 1850,  was reignited in 2012 with the introduction of mandatory testing of five and six-year-olds nationwide on their ability to read both real and nonsense words. Examples given by the Department For Education (2012) include, ‘start’ and ‘grit’ as well as ‘thazz’ and ‘tox’.

The phonics approach involves a child applying a sound to symbol correspondence and then assembling each individual phoneme to form a whole word ,often what is intended when instructing a child to ‘sound it out.’ The systematic teaching of phonics has been widely investigated to ascertain whether or not it is the most effective way of learning to read. Jean Chall (cited in Hempenstall: 2005) conducted a study which concluded that a phonics approach produced better word recognition, spelling and vocabulary in all children including those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This study is also supported by a much smaller investigation by Johnson and Watson (cited in Dombey:1999 ) who again found that the greatest improvement in reading individual words came from those whose learning was principally that of synthetic phonics. The problems came when analysing the comprehension of words by those who were taught mainly by synthetic phonics. For instance, in Johnson and Watson’s study the improvement in comprehension of words was significantly lower. Dombey (1999) illustrates more problems with a phonics based approach by highlighting that the English language is one which is not written in a constantly phonic way as, dependent upon accent, it contains between 40 and 44 phonemes assigned to 26 alphabetic symbols. The lack of one to one letter / phoneme correspondence poses a problem highlighted in words such as ‘bat’, ‘bar’ and ‘bathe’ whereby the vowel sound differs but the alphabetic symbol remains the same.

In contrast, a method commonly known as the whole word approach, or look-say, would involve a child becoming familiar with a word by the way it looks rather than the individual phonemes it contains. Goodman (cited in Hempenstall: 2005) describes this method as a teacher aiming to provide ‘a proper environment to encourage children to develop their skills at their own pace.’ The whole word approach is further explained by Frith (cited in Dombey: 1999) as children recognising words as whole entities and where the letters are situated thus allowing children to recognise spelling patterns in words. Dombey continues to argue that key findings in the last 20 years have indentified that children find the units of onset and rime much more accessible that that of the individual phonemes which make up a word. The whole word approach emphasises that learning to read should be enjoyable and involve reading stories and having pictures for reference. However similar problems to that of a primarily phonetic approach arise in that the capacity to retain the number of words and symbols that could arise is simply not possible leaving unfamiliar words and spelling patterns not accessible.

It is not possible to expect a ‘one method suits all’ approach to cater for every child. It is clear that neither method as a primary basis for a child’s learning will produce an autonomous reader. However, as Dombey (1999) claims, ‘a combination of both methods enables a child to not only master the mechanics of reading but make sense of written text.’

KATIE NOKES, English Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


 Cove, M. in Lewis, M. & Ellis, S. (eds.)  (2006) Phonics: Practice, Research and Policy. London: Paul Chapman. 

Department For Education. (2012) [Accessed 24 October 2013]. Available at:

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.

Hempenstall, K. (2005). The Whole Language‐Phonics Controversy: an historical perspective. Educational Psychology. 17 (4), p400-408.



One thought on “Is phonics testing a sound idea? KATIE NOKES examines the latest literacy controversy

  1. Rob Coleman says:

    I agree with the summary of this post, one approach cannot possibly fit all; we’re not all the same, so why would we all learn in the same way? Finland is thought to be one of the most literate countries in the world. This is due to a combination of factors, some cultural, some economic, but some due to their education system. Finnish children don’t start school until they’re 7 years old, opposed to their British equivalent who start at 4 or 5. There are also no standardised tests in Finland, something that the new Michael Gove/phonics regime brings yet more of, at an even earlier age.
    I also agree that phonics has its advantages and therefore should be taught to children, but only initially as the English language doesn’t match up one letter/one phoneme like it should for phonics to be a definitive method of reading. The whole word/look say method develops on the basic understanding built up by the phonics approach, therefore I feel that both should be taught, but without the standardised testing, as Finland supports, this just doesn’t help. Children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities may struggle with one method, but shouldn’t be left behind as more than one method is taught, unlike the current teaching methods.

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