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 /phonics_check_leaflet_2013_.pdf
Ward. H. (2014). Can anti-dyslexia game boost poor pupils’ reading? Times Educational Supplement. 17th October, p.10.


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

  1. What other methods do you suggest are used?

  2. psmith1975 says:

    I think that phonics mixed with a contextual or grammatical approach to reading should be used. One of the most important things a child learns to do at school is read and because each child learns in different ways, what benefits one child may not be beneficial to another. A child should always be put at the centre of their education and the reputation of the school or their place in league tables that were introduced in the late 80s should not be a factor.

  3. jamesheyes says:

    Hi Paul, great article and an enjoyable read.

    You state that you feel that the phonics method should be used as a method of teaching in conjunction to ‘additional methods’. Would you be able to detail some of the alternative approaches to teaching that you feel would complement a phonics approach?

    Additionally, as you have demonstrated, there are clearly some issues with the phonics approach, and this has been brought up in various academic sources. Why then, do you feel, that the government has decided to implement phonics as the primary method of teaching in recent years?

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