‘Can UK literacy standards be improved with a phonics-only focus’? asks ANDREW ROACH

Few education subjects provoke such a reaction as the reading debate. For years teachers were given freedom to use their own techniques until recently when a government enforced phonics-only literacy scheme was implemented, sparking controversy across the country. Phonics is by no means the only method which will successfully teach children to read and write, so why is it that the government chose phonics as their focal point?

Research both in the UK and overseas has proven synthetic phonics to be a valid way of teaching literacy. Synthetic phonics works because it allows children to learn to segment words into their constituent sounds and link these sounds to letters in order to spell them (DSF Literacy Sources, 2013). As Gibb (2014) explains, “A child would be taught to pronounce each phoneme in shop /sh/-/o/-/p/ and then blend those phonemes to produce the word.” Teaching children with phonics will, in theory, allow children to progress with reading quickly and independently.

Phonics testing doesn’t take regional accents into account, which can be problematic at times. Teachers across the country will all have different accents so how can we determine if a child is actually pronouncing the word properly? As Davis (2014) explains, “the concept of a phoneme is abstract; changing the sound may or may not change the word. A northerner, for example, is likely to use /æ/ when they say “fast”, while their counterpart from the south will probably use /a:/.”

Grant’s longitudinal studies are often used to prove the benefits of teaching infants with phonics. Her most recent study, taking place from 2010-2013, found that children from a variety of social backgrounds can “acquire a firm basis of English” using Phonics. Results showed that boys reading in particular drastically improved, challenging the national findings of the Boys’ Reading Commission who found that the reading gap between boys and girls is increasing (Grant 2014).

It must be noted that there isn’t an abundance of pro-phonics research. Goouch (2012) states that, “phonics information is something that can be tested easily and it provides short-term results. Governments often look for easily measurable options, so that they can tick boxes and say they have successfully raised standards.” Pairing this information with the fact that Grant used her own ‘Sound Discovery’ phonics program I can understand why some people believe the research isn’t 100% reliable.

Henrietta Dombey’s thoughts also oppose the ideologies of phonics advocates. She believes that the phonological complexity of English and the lack of consistency between spoken words and their written forms make it hard for English-speaking children to acquire the necessary phonological awareness which the phonics learning scheme promises (2007).

Phonics has proved itself to be one of the top ways to teach children literacy skills. However I personally agree with Grant’s notion that “phonics teaching is not an end in itself” (2014). I believe that it is simply narrow-minded to teach phonics in isolation and disregard the success which children may have if taught phonics in conjunction with other literacy methods.

The coalition has shown great initiative to imprint a strong literacy identity across the nation in an attempt to improve literacy standards but as McNeilly (2012) explains, “no child learns in the same way”. “Whole language teaching produces about the same results on standardized tests as does traditional skills-oriented teaching, including teaching that has emphasized phonics” (Heinemann Online Resources).

Although the government have had success so far with phonics, it is still not clear to me why this literacy scheme was singled out as a solution to the nation’s literacy problems. Yes, phonics is a very viable way to teach the nation’s children, but is it the best?

ANDREW ROACH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



 Dombey, H. (2007) The Simple View Of Reading. [Accessed 9th November 2014] Available at: http://www.ite.org.uk/ite_readings/simple_view_reading.pdf

DSF Online Resources. (2013)[Accessed 5th November 2014]. Available at: http://dsf.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Synthetic-Phonics.pdf

Gibb, N. (2014) Mumsnet bloggers network.  [Accessed 5th November 2014]. Available at: http://www.mumsnet.com/bloggers/guest-blog-phonics-debate

Gouuch, K. (2012) BBC News. 5 things about phonics. [Accessed 17th November 2014]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18493436

Grant, M. (2014)The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programme on Reading, Writing and Spelling

Heinemann Online Resources. (2012) [Accessed 11th November 2014. Available at: http://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/08894/08894f2.html

McNeilly, I. (2012) BBC News. 5 things about phonics. [Accessed 17th November 2014]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18493436




PAUL SMITH asks: ‘To phonics or not to phonics? That is the question’.

Learning to read back in dark ages of the late 70s/early 80s seem like a distant memory. But I remember that learning to read through the ‘look and say’ method of the whole language approach seems to have had no effect on my literacy skills. This country is notorious for having a high rate of illiteracy and reducing these rates has been the goal of this and the past government. But is phonics really the cure?
In order to combat illiteracy, the government have introduced phonics screening tests for five and six year olds to be taken at the end of Year 1 (Department for Education, 2013). The tests involve a child reading a series of real and pseudo words by blending the individual phonemes together, which could potentially confuse them. The English language is not the easiest of languages to grasp. Just look at the ough part of some words that are used every day. It could be tough to read through something thoroughly and to make it worse, imagine the confusion of the poor children that live in Loughborough.
Once the test is completed, the children who did not reach the required benchmark will have to re-sit the test in Year 2, but how is this fair? The child may not be up to the required standard for a number of reasons, one being that they were born later in the academic year than their peers, therefore making them think they are not as clever, in turn putting them on a downward academic spiral. What about the child with a learning difficulty like dyslexia? Phonics may not be able to help them learn to read but there are methods out there that will, such as the anti-dyslexia game, GraphoGame Rime, developed in Finland (who just happen to have a higher literacy rate than the UK), which teaches the use of onset and rime parts of a word (Ward, 2014: 10).
Michael Rosen, children’s author and former Children’s Laureate, wrote in Dombey et al’s (2010: 2) pamphlet that “English is not written in a consistently ‘phonic’ way” so teaching children to read in this way is not going to teach them everything. Reading should be a pleasurable activity that children should enjoy and what they are reading should have some kind of contextual meaning. If a child continues to read in this way, the books they read will also become more complex and further benefit their literacy levels.
Despite all the misgivings, phonics does have its benefits too. So what are these benefits? According to the Department for Education information leaflet for parents (2013), because children can decode a set number of words they can use what they have learnt to decode other words. This in theory will increase their literacy skills, as learning to read can be a lengthy process which can be sped up through the phonics programme. The structure of the programme starts with easier sounds progressing to more complex sounds which can help children. These children are then able to read more accurately than those using other methods (Department for Education 2013).
I am not saying phonics is bad and should be scrapped. I think it does have a place in the curriculum but not as a single tool to fix all the country’s literacy problems. Phonics should be used in conjunction with other methods so that a child can get the learning experience they require in order to flourish. After all, the child should be at the centre of learning and not told things to help them pass a test just so we can look good to our international friends.

PAUL SMITH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Dombey, H. et al (2010) Teaching Reading: What the Evidence Says. UKLA.
Learning to read through phonics: Information for parents (2013). [Accessed 26 November 2014]. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/194057 /phonics_check_leaflet_2013_.pdf
Ward. H. (2014). Can anti-dyslexia game boost poor pupils’ reading? Times Educational Supplement. 17th October, p.10.