ABIHA RASHID argues that we should ‘stɒp tɛstɪŋ peɪʃəns wɪð fɒnɪks’ (‘stop testing patience with phonics’)

The synthetic phonics teaching method was imposed as part of the UK’s national curriculum to draw focus on phonetically sounding out letters and blending them to help drive up their literacy standards (DfE). It has been applied to primary schools (GOV UK) to supposedly teach four and five year olds how to read, write and spell since Sir Jim Rose’s report (2006). This apparently provided evidence of successes with the application of synthetic phonics. No matter how successful a study may be, more evidence of success needs to be provided before such movements should be put in place.

According to the government, ‘all pupils will have learned phonic decoding to an appropriate standard by the age of 6’ (GOV UK) and thus they felt compelled to take this teaching method further and enforce a test on children. The government’s ‘phonics screening check’ was compulsory in 2012 and required Year 1 pupils in maintained schools, academies and free schools to take part (GOV UK). It apparently had benefits, for example helping to identify children who needed extra help so they could receive support to improve their reading skills. However, I believe what has been revealed from such a scheme and test so far has been nothing but a method to put robotic control over little children. This is evidenced in video footage of the phonics check which shows how six year olds are pressurised to say words applying the phonics method (educationgovuk). The pressure of having to sound out something in a confined manner could easily lead them to make errors and lose marks (educationgovuk). The test also uses non-existing words (pseudo-words) which makes it even harder to be successful because if you are testing a child with a word that does not exist there is no meaning or purpose behind using that word and reading should not be made so tricky and pointless. In addition to this, children gain no credibility or recognition for words that are not on the test. For example, when a non-word is presented to a child like ‘sheb’ and a child articulates ‘ship’ in response they would lose a mark (educationgovuk). This should not be the case. The child who articulated a real word without being shown the word shows an aspect of creativity and initiative which should be recognized.

If I reflect upon my childhood, I remember learning literacy with games in circles where we would write poems with all the words we picked up and would read them out if we felt confident enough. With reading, I learnt with a mixture of methods including the famous ‘look and say’ method where you did exactly that to learn. I also recall having to copy words out by covering them and rewriting them from memory. All methods seemed to complement one another, but my favourite way to learn reading was with colour bands using a ‘whole language’ method, where meaning held just as much importance as actually learning to read the word. It made me rather ambitious as a child as I aimed towards the higher colour bands. This method helped me succeed in understanding words and enabled my love for books to grow.

Overall, I agree with 90% of literacy co-ordinators that ‘a combination of all teaching methods should be used’ when a child is taught literacy (Dfe). This is because it is better than learning with only synthetic phonics alone that leads to pressurised situations in which children sit a test that should determine their abilities even though this may not be an accurate reflection. Children should be given the freedom to work with a range of literacy methods which can ensure that they are understanding the words and the context behind the letters and sounds they are being taught.

 ABIHA RASHID, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


DfE (2011) The importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading, policy and evidence paper.

Educationgovuk. (2012) Year 1 phonics screening check training video. [Accessed 10 December 2014]

GOV UK. (2012) [Accessed 8 November 2014]

GOV UK. (2013) [Accessed 10 December 2014] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reforming-qualifications-and-the-curriculum-to-better-prepare-pupils-for-life-after-school/supporting-pages/statutory-phonics-screening-check

ROSE, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. Nottingham: DfES Publications.




2 thoughts on “ABIHA RASHID argues that we should ‘stɒp tɛstɪŋ peɪʃəns wɪð fɒnɪks’ (‘stop testing patience with phonics’)

  1. Sam Copson says:

    I agree with your final conclusion that a range of teaching methods should be employed in teaching children to read, and that only using synthetic phonics is restrictive. A possible expansion on this point, I think, would be that different children are naturally suited to different learning methods, so exclusively using synthetic phonics unfairly privileges children who are naturally suited to this method over everyone else.
    I thought you made a very good point that it is not academically sound for the government to base an entire education policy on one study, especially when you consider the number of studies which seem to support a whole-language or mixed method of teaching, such as the Bishop’s Road and Churchfields case studies cited in Dombey et. al. (2010), Beringer et. al. (2003), and the literature review by the Department of Education in 2006.
    I somewhat agree with your point about the “sheb” vs “ship” case, although I would point out that when I was a reading mentor two years ago children would sometimes make this jump with real words, realising them as incorrect words which looked similar. So there may be some value in encouraging children to use phonics in early stages, before they have enough vocabulary for reliable whole word shape recognition.

  2. What is ‘word shape recognition’? Phonics lets you read any word. Sometimes it matters a great deal that you get the right word. If a child read ‘ship’ as ‘shop’ in a sentence would this be creativity and initiative to be encouraged – even if it completely falsifies the meaning of what is being read?

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