MELISSA BADDLEY explores whether ‘phonics’ or ‘whole word’ are the best early literacy approaches

THE DEBATE about ‘phonics’ testing is perhaps one of the most controversial topics surrounding modern education at the moment. It raises the question of what are the most suitable and beneficial methods in teaching children to read – the ‘phonics approach’ or a method such as the ‘whole word approach’.

So what do these methods involve? Well, the Oxford Dictionary describes phonics as “A method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system”, in other words, a code that turns written language into spoken. This approach features two methods of teaching: Synthetic and Analytic phonics. Dombey (1999) informs us that synthetic phonics involves “learning individual sounds and assembling the words children read from sequences of phonemes”, allowing children to learn new words by recognising phoneme sounds and using these to break down new words. Analytic phonics refers to the recognition of certain combinations of letters and sounds, e.g. ‘hat’, ‘rat’, ‘cat’ to help pronounce new words. However, the arbitrary nature of the English spelling system and rules of the English language cast doubt on the use of these methods.

In comparison the ‘whole word approach’ recognises words as whole entities and focuses on “[…] the shape of a word and the presence of particular letters”, where they are situated within the word (Frith, 1985). This theorises that the more you read the more you learn, but does not consider the idea that if you do not recognise a word or pattern you will not be able to pronounce the new, unknown word; a consequence this method faces. These various approaches to teaching children to read have caused a national debate, as we wonder which methods suit learning best? Is there a one-size fits all solution? And if you were a parent, which method would you want your child to be taught?

The use of various methods however is not something that is new. As Cove (2006) shows there have been a range of methods used to teach children to read for over a hundred years; alternating from phonetic approaches and “sounding –out” phonemes, to later in the 20th century where “[…] understanding the meanings of words and sentences though careful questioning” became an important factor in children’s reading processes. Recently the phonics method has received further controversy since the introduction of the phonics-screening test in 2012 in UK primary schools, questioning the competency of the methods teachers are currently using to monitor child progression in learning to read and questioning the child’s actual ability to read at the age of 6.

So why are the government favouring the phonics approach to literacy learning instead of others? It could be suggested that this method operates as a ‘quick-fix’ in boosting the percentage of children that successfully pass the phonics test and therefore imply greater literacy development. However, it has to be considered that although the skill of physically reading what has been written on a page may be increasing, the comprehension and enjoyment that children should get out of this activity is being lost; and as Dombey (2009:10) states it is important that children have a “rich experience” when learning literacy skills to become fully competent readers, suggesting a combination of systems is more favourable and valuable in a child’s educational development.

MELISSA BADDLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

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

Dombey, H. (2009) ‘The simple view of reading’ – available at

 Frith, U. (1985) ‘Developmental Dyslexia’, in Patterson, al (Eds) Surface Dyslexia. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hove.

 Oxford Dictionaries. [Accessed 21 October 2013]. Available at: 



2 thoughts on “MELISSA BADDLEY explores whether ‘phonics’ or ‘whole word’ are the best early literacy approaches

  1. Hi Melissa,

    Without doubt the systematic synthetic phonics approach is streets ahead of whole language and there is a great deal of research and information on the internet to demonstrate this but you may not have been pointed in the right direction to find it.

    The danger is that you may not even have a detailed enough understanding of modern systematic synthetic phonics teaching either.

    One heavily referenced and acclaimed website is created by Susan Godsland. Do please find time for a visit there.

    If you would like further information regarding the level of phonics being introduced in schools by at least some teachers nowadays, do visit my alphabetic code charts website which provides free downloadable charts – some I’ve designed specifically for student-teachers at:

    Kind regards,

    Debbie Hepplewhite

  2. Jack Thirlby says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I think that you summarise the main points of the debate very well. I agree that the introduction of the government’s new system of teaching synthetic phonics in 2012 was probably implemented as a ‘quick fix’ to improve the declining literacy standards in UK children. However I also think that if taught well and in conjunction with a number of other methods, synthetic phonics definitely has a place in primary school classrooms.

    Having recently worked in an outstanding primary school I have seen first hand the teaching of the government’s ‘letters and sounds’ method of teaching phonics. Speaking to teachers and early years coordinators within the school, there was a mix of opinions but generally, teachers commented that they believe synthetic phonics works as a part of a larger approach to teaching children to read. During my time in the school I worked with small groups of children doing a guided reading task. It was immediately evident how every single child was able to identify and say aloud the individual sounds of each word before blending them to form the whole word. So as a technique for systematically decoding words on a page I think it works very well. However, this is only a small part of teaching children to read.

    Synthetic phonics seems to run into problems firstly due to the largely ambiguous and irregular nature of the spelling system of the English language. Secondly I think that children need a more structured, whole book approach in schools (in conjunction with synthetic phonics) that encourages them to engage with literature. Surely learning to read should not just be about decoding sounds? We should be encouraging children to want to go home, pick up a book and enjoy it. After all, phonological awareness develops the more you read so children should be getting as much practice as possible to familiarise themselves with words that they have previously decoded, but IN context!

    Lastly, I feel that the phonics-screening test is a lot of unnecessary pressure to be putting onto six year old children. Whilst I agree that nationally comparing results can improve standards, I think there are so many factors that could influence the results of a test of this kind with children so young. Teachers that I have worked with in primary schools also reported the most able children passing the phonics test first time, but having to be taken back down a level at the start of year 2. This is to do with their reading being improved but their writing showing a decline.

    Overall I think that the search for a ‘perfect’ method of teaching children to read is one that will continue long into the future. For now, a combination of little bits of methods that work seems the most appropriate way. Teachers should be allowed more freedom in their own classrooms to design and implement methods appropriate to individual child. There simply is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that will work here.

    Jack Thirlby, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s