STEPH JONES considers whether phonics means learning to read but not necessarily reading to learn

IT COULD be argued that one of the most important and fundamental elements of early school life is the process of learning to read. Without the skill of being able to recognise certain phonemes and decode new words, every other subject in school would be somewhat meaningless. Due to this fact, it is no surprise that the teaching of reading has been at the heart of educational policy and debate in recent years and has resulted in the development of the ‘phonics’ versus ‘whole book’ debate.

Phonics provides a structured approach to reading. After the publication of the Rose Review in 2006, schools were set strict guidelines to follow regarding the teaching of reading and the delivery of phonics lessons (Gooch and Lambirth 2007). This ensured that schools delivered a phonics lesson to their Key Stage 1 pupils for between fifteen and twenty minutes each day. By providing this structure, children are taught phonemes in a way which begins with the easiest sounds and progresses through to the most complex, which is described by the Department of Education as the most successful way to teach reading.

However it could be argued that phonics takes away the fun of reading. A survey carried out by the National Literacy Strategy (2012) explained that there is a strong decline in the amount of time that young people spend reading for pleasure. Although phonics teaches children how to sound out words, it does not teach them the skill of reading a book. It could be said that even children who perform well in phonics lessons, may have poor comprehension levels when actually reading a story. People read for meaning and to gain an understanding of whatever they are reading about. Without this level of comprehension it is understandable that children are not choosing to read for themselves as they may be able to recognise the phonemes used however may not actually understand what they are reading.

Can one method really be used to teach reading for the entire population of Key Stage 1 pupils? Surely each child should be looked at as an individual and a method adopted which will be best suited to them? The fact that mostly this is not the case, could suggest that phonics is a rigid approach which is impersonal and relies on the assumption that every child in England will be able to hear, see and have the ability to recognise the phonemes being taught to them. Featherstone (2013) claims that tuning in to the sounds of the English Language is essential for understanding phonics and this can make life difficult for children who have not been exposed to spoken language in their earliest years. In addition to this, phonics would not be accessible to children who may be deaf and according to the current policy in place, there would be no alternative method delivered to them.

Although phonics ensures children are taught the skills needed to sound out words in order to decode those they may not have seen before, it would make sense for phonics to be delivered in addition to providing children with an environment enriched with books and other reading materials. This would ensure that they are able to put their phonemic awareness into practice by successfully reading a book and understanding the meaning.

STEPH JONES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


 Department for Education. (2013) Learning to read through phonics: Information for parents [Accessed 21 October 2013]  Available at:  

Goouch, K. (ed.) & Lambirth, A. (ed.) (2007) Understanding phonics and the teaching of reading: Critical perspectives. Berkshire: Open University Press.   

Featherstone, S. (ed.) (2013) Getting Ready for Phonics: L is for Sheep. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 


3 thoughts on “STEPH JONES considers whether phonics means learning to read but not necessarily reading to learn

  1. Hi Steph,

    Good article for looking at different perspectives but I can assure you that all children need to learn the alphabetic code and phonics skills to guarantee them lifelong literacy. It is an extremely rare child/person with very unusual mental landscape that can pick up words as wholes seemingly without explanation but often such people still need phonics to help with spelling.

    Regarding the deaf and hearing impaired learners – I’ve just returned from a consultancy day at a school with a very large unit for such children. They have recently adopted one the phonics programmes I helped to create. The feedback so far from the school is that children are making much greater gains in their literacy ability and from the teachers’ extensive experience, they see that the younger children are making greater strides than in the past.

    I saw wonderful practice where one teacher used her left hand to demonstrate tallying the sounds in each word with thumb and fingers of her left hand facing the children so they could see left to right tracking.

    With her right hand, she was cueing the sounds at the same time. I’ve asked the school if they will film this practice.

    The teacher said she adapts the content of the CD-ROM so as not to overwhelm the children with vocabulary and clearly the way in which she combines the cued sounds is very important – all phonics nevertheless – the build up of the words from the smallest sounds and the breakdown of the ‘spoken’ words into the smallest sounds.

    If you have any questions regarding phonics, please do not hesitate to email me as this is my specialism.

    A great website with a huge amount of referenced information is:

    All the best,

    Debbie (

  2. Kathryn Holden says:

    Hi Steph!
    You have made some very interesting points here, most of which I am in complete agreement with.

    You state that children often cannot translate their phonics education into context when reading books and as a result children don’t tend to read for fun. From my experience in a primary school before the summer I can whole-heatedly agree with this conclusion. I was taking children aside on an individual basis to read their books to me. As they were reading, when they came across a difficult word, they would sound it out as phonics has taught them and I would ask if they knew what the word meant as they went to continue reading the rest of the story. Most of the children’s reply was ‘no’ and I would have to explain the meaning of the word to them. It makes me believe that if I hadn’t asked the question, they would have carried on reading without knowing and without finding out what that word meant. I question how healthy this is for any child’s development in English and the development of their vocabulary. And I also question how a child can understand a book littered with word that they do no understand.
    Furthering the point on enjoyment-factor, the children would HAVE to read a book independently in the morning before, during and after the register was taken (about 15 minutes in total). I would watch as the children were doing this and many (but not all) would scan their eyes over the books, not actually reading them or enjoying them at all. Before the children could get a new book they were asked to write a summary of the book they had just read and most of them were unable to write more than what they had read in the opening page-or-so (hence they had not read the book). And then when I would ask what they were going to do of an evening, many children’s response was ‘xbox’ or ‘TV’,not reading, which indicates to me a lack of enjoyment in reading. Whether this can be put down to phonics alone is very questionable and it would be unfair to assume so. However, I do agree that children have lost interest in reading.

    I like the fact that you haven’t ruled out the use of phonics in English education totally as a reading-aid stating that ‘it would make sense for phonics to be delivered in addition to providing children with an environment enriched with books and other reading materials’. Phonics obviously has the advantage of teaching children to sound words out (which is of course its purpose) and this will serve them well in communication, however a child will be less likely to remember a word unless they know its meaning or may even use a word that does not fit appropriately in the context that it is used.

    I agree with the ideal that each child should be looked at individually and there are certainly enough programs and methods of teaching phonics to suggest this as a possibility. However, I question the viability of this. As you state a teacher is only allocated 15-20 minutes per day to teach phonics to a class, but presumably, a teacher would spend many hours a week trying to teach each child phonics individually. And this debate could spread even wider to the fact that every person learns in a different way (from primary school through to university), but a teacher cannot reasonably adapt their teaching style to suit every single pupil in the classroom.

    KATHRYN HOLDEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

  3. Daniel Warren says:

    The debate on whether phonics is suitable in teaching kids or not has been on for a while now. I have used phonics with great success for a while now and I attribute my kids being able to read to that. I have no reservations recommending it to anyone.

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