‘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




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

  1. Not sure if I can comment but phonics is not a literacy system it is the bones of our language which is an alphabetic language. This means the sounds of the language map to the letters or letter combinations of the alphabet. In order to read you need to know the correspondences. Also being able to decode is not the whole part of reading, comprehension from a knowledge of vocabulary is also required – decoding is necessary but not sufficient. A rich literary programme is required as well as phonics – but not learning words as wholes, or predicting text or using pictures (these are not reading) and reading must be accurate, of course. Probably you would prefer a nurse dispensing medicines who could accurate read the names of the drugs, not predict the text from the shape of the word and the position of the letters. To be accurate she needs to be able to decode and may have been explicitly taught it, or be one of the 2% who learn to read on their own who have derived it from their reading (that two per cent is not representative, by the way, of most children, who need explicit teaching – and learning to read on one’s own is not an indication of intelligence or the lack of it!).

    • Sam Copson says:

      James, with your nurse analogy you seem to be implying that if children learn to predict words from shape or context that is as far as they’ll ever get, but that is not the case. Prediction from shape or context is a stepping-stone to fluent reading, just like synthetic phonics. And having a wide range of these stepping-stones available is important, so that we can teach every child according to their individual learning styles.

  2. Charlotte HIll says:

    Whilst I would be tempted to agree with you to a degree, as clearly phonics is one effective way of teaching children to read, I feel that you are disregarding the ‘whole book/word’ system of learning.

    If a child learns a word from the shape, or from pictures assosiated with it, they are still learning the word. As with other learning processes, their comprehension and understanding comes with this word through the development of their education that take place alongside their reading.

    To imply that, taking your example, a nurse is unable to correctly read without the necessitating of phonic decoding is implying a complete lack of comprehension of the English language, which is not only insulting but inaccurate.

    Whilst phonics can be beneficial to certain types of children learning to read, it is not for everyone. I would suggest that more consideration should be given to the ‘whole word’ model of learning instead of refusing to acknowledge it’s potential benefits.

  3. Rich Kelbrick says:

    Very well summarised, Andrew. It’s good that you pointed out the lack of pro-phonics research, as this is an important thing to take in to consideration when discussing the phonics debate.

  4. Tom O'Reilly says:

    You have noted at the end that you thought that phonics was ‘a very viable way to teach the nation’s children’, but that you were not sure that it was the best. Do you think that there is a way that is the best, or do you think that it should be completely open from child to child? Do you think that such an approach would be viable? When it comes to phonics, although the merits in teaching children it are still debateable, the one aspect they are successful is that you only need to make a teacher learn one method thoroughly, as opposed to many teaching methods on a shallower basis. Although there have been complaints that phonics texts books are often very expensive, and then in a questionable way) government subsidised, is it at least a good thing that there is a more definite way to grade children on how well they are learning? I understand that the final question is a little contentious as it could be argued that there should not be a need to perfect grade children on a skill that is not easily identifiable, but I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on the matter? Sorry if this is a little hard to reply to as it has quite a few questions, but let me know if you can.

  5. I would prefer a nurse to be able to read the name of a medicine. How is she supposed to differentiate between two similar, very long, Latinate words without being able to decode.
    I agree that self-teaching of reading is both rare and no indication of intelligence. That some do it is no reason to leave children to infer the backbone of our alphabetic language – many will not.

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