AMANI NIAZ asks: ‘Is texting and CMC detrimental to literacy?’

For many years there has been an ongoing debate as to whether computer-mediated communication (CMC) and texting are imposing detrimental effects upon our literacy skills. Some say that it does have an impact on literacy and others believe that it does not and that it is simply just another form of the English language. In some ways it encourages the younger generations to explore and play with language, through the use of, for instance, contractions and acronyms. However some argue that it has been proven to affect the literacy skills of some young people.

“The popularization of CMC spread after the launch of the World Wide Web in 1990”  according to Tagliamonte and Denis (2008, p. 5). Due to the rising popularity of online messaging services and websites such as MSN and Facebook new forms of language became increasingly used. Crystal states that “people found the linguistic novelty to lie chiefly in the slang and jargon of its enthusiastic proponents, as well as in their penchant for playing with language and for breaking conventional linguistic rules of spelling and punctuation” (2004, p. 64).

As this was the new trend more and more people started to use this form of language. It was something new and intriguing. So intriguing in fact, that not just teenagers but also adults started to use it to seem somewhat cool….

According to the Daily Mail (2010), “[a]dults mimicking teen-speak are to blame for spreading sloppy English which is putting the future of the language at risk”. However, has it really put our language at risk? Today my believe is that text-message abbreviations are on the decrease. This could be due to the introduction of smartphones. In the early 2000s pay-as-you-go phones were commonly used. This type of phone had a limit to how much text you could send in a message. If you went over the limit you had to pay extra. Thus abbreviations and contractions were frequently used. Nowadays with smartphones and iphones, there is no limit to the amount of text we can input into a message. Also mobile phones now contain autocorrect, which automatically corrects a words spelling. Thus text language is less frequently used as messages are largely made up of full words and sentences.

However, some have argued that this form of language has been seen to venture beyond children’s technological devices and has become frequently used within their everyday language. Mphahlele and Mashmaite (2005; cited by Verheijen, 2013, p. 587) found that “[s]tudents fail to distinguish contexts in which text language is acceptable”. As texting is used by many on a day to day basis, this has become a linguistic norm for the younger generations. This may lead to it appearing in their schoolwork. Some are extremely concerned that texting is found in writing requiring more formal Standard English and gives the impression that young people are unable to distinguish when they are able to use it in a satisfactory circumstance. A study by Pew Internet & American Life Project found that “[n]early two-thirds of seven hundred students surveyed said their e-communication style sometimes bled into school assignments” (Lewin, 2008, p. 1) and “about half said they sometimes omitted proper punctuation and capitalized in school work” (Lewin, 2008, p. 1). Surely they must have some sort of knowledge to know when it is appropriate to use textisms?

Bernard (2008) found that “[s]ome teachers are not banning mobile phones from the classroom, as they believe it allows for more opportunities”. If the increased use of texting is detrimental to the English Language and is also harming students’ grades, then why are some teachers encouraging the use of mobile phones within the classroom? Evidently this is going to be harmful to students’ education. It will not only cause distractions, but also lead to text language becoming even more frequently used within the school environment.

As regards to the wide spread use of phones, Crystal (2004 p.81), stated that “[t]ext-messaging is often cited as a particular problem. Children of the future will no longer be able to spell, it is said.” This claim could very much be true. Children are becoming lazier now with language use. Technological devices have autocorrect built into them therefore they do not have to spell for themselves.

Overall I feel the technological advances in recent years have had an undesirable effect upon the younger generation’s literacy skills. More people have become extremely reliant on technology due to its popularity. I firmly believe that boundaries have to be put in place for when it is and is not acceptable to use this form of language, particularly for students who use this form within the school environment.

What do you think?

 AMANI NIAZ, English Language student, University of Chester, UK


Bernard, S. (2008). Zero-thumb game: How to tame texting. Retrieved November 17, 2015.

Crystal, D. (2004). The language revolution (1st ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press

Lewin, T. (2008). Informal style of electronic messages is showing up in schoolwork, study finds. The New York Times, April 25. Retrieved November 17, 2015.

Mphahlele, M., & Mashamaite, K. (2005). The impact of Short Message Service (SMS) Language on Language Proficiency of Learners and the SMS Dictionaries: A challenge for educators and lexicographers. IADIS International Conference Mobile Learning, 161-8.

Tagliamonte, S. & Denis, D. (2008). Linguistic? LOL! Instant messaging and teen language. American speech 83 (1), 3-34.

Daily Mail (2010). Informal style of electronic messages is showing up in schoolwork, study finds. Retrieved November 17, 2015.


Are Computer Mediated Communications dumbing down literacy? KIM NGUYEN INVESTIGATES

Many different forms of Computer-Mediated Communications (CMC) became available following the launch of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. Due to the rapid expansion of technology, they are now available across all different social media platforms and devices. Baron (2004) defined Instant Messenging (IM) as “a one-to-one synchronous form of computer-mediated communication” (cited by Tagliamonte & Denis, 2008, p.3). However, IM has since become much more advanced and is no longer restricted to a one-to-one exchange. In the present day, it is common for most young teens to have possession of a mobile device, and they too prefer using these devices for communication because “most do not think of their electronic communications as real writing” (Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith & Macgill; cited by Vosloo, 2009, p.2). More recently linguists, including Vosloo (2009, p.2) have taken the view that “texting is the written lingua franca of many youth today”. However, the important question to what extent, if any, CMC is having a negative effect on students’ literacy?

Contrary to popular belief that texting is ruining the English language, there has been very little research conducted to prove this, as Wood, Plester and Bowyer (2008) point out. Some studies –  such as the one conducted by Plester, Wood and Joshi (2009) and Wood et al., (2008) – have found that texting has positive correlations with levels of phonological awareness amongst students, as many abbreviations are actually acceptable phonetic representations of a word, such as ‘b4’ for ‘before’. Therefore abbreviation usage requires the user to have phonological understanding (Vosloo, 2009, p.3), and thus regular use actually enhances phonological comprehension.

There have been alleged cases where the use of text language, also known as ‘textese’, has been found to be creeping into various pieces of academic work. Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 66% of the 700 students in their study said that their “e-communication style sometimes bled into school assignments” (Lewin, 2008). This strongly supports Mphahlele and Mashamaite’s (2005) viewpoint that students are failing to recognise that texting is context and audience specific (cited by Verheijen, 2013, p.587). Additionally Clark (2008) highlights that some students are still losing marks for the use of IM abbreviations in their papers even after specifically proofreading for them.

Interestingly, many teachers do not mind e-communications sneaking into their pupils’ schoolwork, in fact some are even encouraging it. Some teachers are allowing students to use abbreviations during the drafting stage of their work, but emphasise the need to use Standard English when revising their final draft (Lee, 2002). So why not allow abbreviations and acronyms in schoolwork if they are more time efficient than typing out whole words? Moreover, some teachers purposely incorporate the use of CMC into their classroom activities. One teacher asked her class to translate the passage from Shakespeare they had been discussing, from text speak into Standard English, and vice versa, in order to confirm the students’ understanding of the text (Bernard, 2008). This teaching strategy is similar to the one used with foreign students, to improve their comprehension of their mother tongue, and thus stands to be effective (Bernard, 2008).

In my opinion, the benefits of CMCs have shown to outweigh the minor negatives found within studies. Not only does CMC act as another output for students to practice the language they have learnt at school, the use of group chats allows for discussions to be conducted in social and collaborative ways, which Bernard (2008) states to be very beneficial. Technological communication also allows for features of spoken communication to appear in written modes which before has never been possible. Emoticons replace facial expressions which are vital in contributing to meaning in spoken conversation, and capitalisation indicates hyperbole within IM (see Brown-Owens, Eason & Lader, 2003; Varnhagen, McFall, Pugh, Routledge, Sumida-MacDonald & Kwong, 2010, pp.729-730). As Crystal (2001) says texting is a “new species of communication” with its own set of usage conditions (cited by Tagliamonte & Denis, 2008, p.4). So why knock a creative form of language play, which helps to create beneficial opportunities for students?

KIM NGUYEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Baron, N. (2004). See you online: Gender issues in college student use of instant messaging. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 23: 397-423.

Bernard, S. (2008, May 28). Zero-thumb game: How to tame texting. 

Brown-Owens, A., Eason, M., & Lader, A. (2003, August 21). What Effect does Computer-Mediated Communication, Spevifically Instant Messaging Have on 8th Grade Writing Competencies? 

Clark, L. (2008, December 12). Two-thirds of teachers allow children to use slang and text message speak in school tests. The Daily Mail

Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, J. (2002, September 19). I think, therefore IM. New York Times

Lenhart, A., Arafeh, S., Smith, A., & Macgill, A.R. (2008, April 24). Writing, Technology and Teens.

Lewin, T. (2008, April 25). Informal Style of Electronic Messages is Showing Up in Schoolwork, Study Finds. The New York Times.

Mphahlele, M., & Mashamite, K. (2005). The impact of short message service (SMS) language on language proficiency of learners and the SMS dictionaries: A challenge for educators and lexicographers. IADIS International Conference Mobile Learning: 161-168.

Plester, B., Wood, C., & Joshi, P. (2009). Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(1), 145-161.

Tagliamonte, S., & Denis, D. (2008). Linguistic ruin? LOL! Instant messaging on literacy. English Studies, 95(5), 582-602.

Varnhagen, C. K., McFall, P., Pugh, N., Routledge, L., Sumida-MacDonald, H., & Kwong, T. E. (2010). Lol: New language and spelling in instant messaging. Reading and Writing, 23(6), 719-733.

Verheijen, L. (2013). The effects of texting on literacy and instant messaging on literacy. English Studies, 95(5), 582-602.

Vosloo, S. (2009). The Effects of Texting on Literacy: Modern Scourge or Opportunity? South African Funding Organisation,  The Shuttleworth Foundation.

Wood, C., Plester, B., & Bowyer, S. (2008). A Cross-Lagged Longitudinal Study of Text Messaging and Its Impact on Literacy Skills: Preliminary Results. Poster Presented at the British Psychological Society Department Section Conference, Oxford Brookes University, September 2008.


MEGAN ARMSTRONG asks: ‘Texting and CMC: destroying or improving our literacy?’

Since the rise of the internet in the 1990s and the sending of the first text message in 1992, technology has rapidly become essential to our the 21st century lives.  The development of Google in 1998 would also contribute to the changing of the way we live our lives, as the term ‘I’ll Google it’ is used daily by most people I know. In fact by 2007 it was recorded that 3.8 billion Google searches were being made per month in the USA (Baron, 2008, p. 13).

Baron (2008, p. 11) suggests CMC in the 1980s included email, chats or IM, but this term has broadened since social network sites and smartphones were introduced. The popularity of CMC and texting has been stirring up opinions as to whether these ‘amazing’ advances are actually having a negative effect on literacy. John Sutherland declares “texting is penmanship for illiterates” (The Guardian, 2008) but do you agree with this statement? Can texting really affect literacy?

Verheijen (2013, p.584) displays features of language variation of textese, such as the use of single letter/number homophones – ‘c’ = ‘see’ and ‘2’ = ‘to/too’, typographic symbols – ‘@’ = ‘at’ and acronyms such as ‘ttyl’ = ‘talk to you later’. These examples are frequently used in text messages, so many fear it will mix into schoolwork. Conversely, McIntyre (2009, p. 123) suggests that our writing can change depending on circumstances, perhaps arguing that textese features would not be carried over to school work.

Teachers are worrying that children will bring textese into the classroom as suggested by Verheijen (2013, p. 587). A study to support this theory would be the one conducted by Mampa, Mphahlele and Kwena Majhamaite (2005, pp. 161–8; cited by Verheijen 2013, p. 587) who explored the influence of textese in South Africa. They noted increasingly more use of textese in work and believe that students are “victims of SMS language” and blame exposure on the media.

Some newspapers have implied that texting is negatively affecting literacy, as according to Woronoff (2007; cited by Wood, Kemp and Plester, 2014, p.24) “texting influences kids to spell incorrectly”. In 2004 the Daily Telegraph stated that “pupils resort to text language in GCSE exams”. In addition,  in 2003 the BBC highlighted the alleged case of an essay written by a 13-year-old where textese was used repeatedly.  However, Crystal (2008, p. 151) implies that these essays may not have even existed. So how reliable are these sources in determining that our language is being affected by texting? Crystal states that “[e]vidence from examiners […] suggests that the vast majority of students are well aware of the difference, and do not use textisms in their writing” (2008, p. 166). It could be that pupils resorted to text language in the early 2000s as texting only became popular in the mid-1990s. This could play a role as the craze of texting was fairly new and it was likely deemed ‘cool’ to write in textese. However, now in 2015 it would be less likely that children would use textese in their schoolwork, as the craze has died off.

Texting and CMC is not always viewed negatively. Many linguists believe that it is positively influencing language. Varnhagen et al. (2010, p. 719) state that “electronic communication has generated a new language of abbreviations”. For example ASAP and PS are used daily in emails. Crystal (2008) suggest that texting encourages the coining of interesting neologisms such as ‘unfriend’ and ‘tweet’ which would not exist without social network sites. Crystal (2008, p. 41) also suggests that we already use initialisms, such as ‘BBC’ which is fully integrated into the English lexicon. So why are initialisms such as OMG and TBH seen as such a negative? Textese is slowly becoming more accepted as words such as ‘OMG’, ‘chillax’ and ‘unfriend’ have been added to the dictionary.

More recent views on this debate would suggest that texting is an addition to language. For instance, Tagliamonte and Denis claim “CMC is not destroying literacy skills or ruining this generation, but [is] an expansive new linguistic renaissance” (2008, p. 27). Baron (2008, p. 161) states that “[d]istinguishing between language change and language decline is a very tricky business”, so maybe prescriptivists cannot accept that language is evolving, and choose to believe that CMC is dumbing down literacy. Aitchison’s (1997) ‘crumbing castle’ metaphor would apply as the idea that language should be ‘preserved’ would suggest that teachers believe school work should stay standardised. My personal opinion is that technology does encourage creativity but would not have an effect on my literacy. All things considered, this debate is a matter of opinion. Some will believe that texting has a negative effect, and some will support the advancements in technology and encourage new additions to language.

MEGAN ARMSTRONG, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aitchison, J. (1997). The language web: The power and problem of words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baron, N. S. (2008). Always on: Language in an online and mobile world. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

BBC. (2003). Is txt ruining the English Language. BBC News [online], 6th March 2003 . Retrieved November, 3, 2015.

Crystal, D. (2008). Txting: The Gr8 Db8. New York: Oxford University Press.

Henry, J. (2004). Pupils resort to text language in GCSE exams. The Telegraph [online]. Retrieved November, 2, 2015.

McIntyre, D. (2009) History of English. Oxon: Routledge.

Mphahlele, Mampa L., and Kwena Mashamaite. The impact of Short Message Service (SMS) language on language proficiency of learners and the SMS dictionaries: A challenge for educators and lexicographers. IADIS International Conference Mobile Learning (2005), 161–8.

Tagliamonte, S. & Denis, D. (2008) Linguistic Ruin? LOL! Instant Messaging and Teen Language. American Speech (83) 1, pp. 3-34.

Varnhagen, C.K., McFall, P., Pugh, N., Routledge, L., Sumida-MacDonald, H., & Kwong,. T.E. (2010) LOL: New language and Spelling in Instant Messaging. Reading and Writing 23, pp. 719–733.

Verheijen, L. (2013) The Effects of Text Messaging and Instant Messaging on Literacy. English Studies, 94 (5), pp582-602.

Wood, C., Kemp, N., & Plester, B. (2014). Texting and literacy – The evidence. London, UK: Routledge.

Woronoff, P. (2007). Cell phone texting can endanger spelling. Retrieved November, 1, 2015.

Texting and Literacy: Tears of joy or tears of sadness (emoji..!). JOHANNA BOISSON investigates

The fast rise of technology has resulted in an increased availability of communication devices to the public domain. This has led to the belief that it has caused a decline in literacy skills. Does the use of technology make the lines between the spoken and written register blur? Or, as Tagliamonte and Denis (2008, p. 5) acknowledge, is there a whole new “hybrid register” that stems from computer mediated communication (CMC)?

Vosloo (2009, p. 2) acknowledges the negative stigma that is received from both parents and teachers as regards texting affecting literacy. Plester, Wood and Joshi (2009; cited by Vosloo, 2009, p. 3) found no association between texting and the spelling scores of 10 to12-year-old children. There was, however, an association between textisms and phonological awareness, suggesting that exposure to a wider variety of types of language, even in a non-academic context, may result in children developing their comprehension of the construction of language (Wood, Plester and Bowyer, 2008; cited by Vosloo, 2009, p. 4).

Crystal (2008; cited by Vosloo, 2009, p. 4) acknowledges that abbreviations in language are constantly used, for example ASAP (as soon as possible), thus textism abbreviations such as BRB (be right back) encourage creativity in language. Verheijen (2013, p. 586) supports this notion that texting allows creativity in language, suggesting that the use of technology and CMC “would motivate young people to read and write” and therefore develop their literacy skills. This is shown by Durkin, Conti-Ramsden and Walker (2011; cited by Verheijen, 2013, p. 589) who found that teenagers had better literacy skills when they were likely to reply to a text message, particularly from writing longer messages and using a variety of textisms.

Craig (2003; cited by Verheijen, 2013, p. 587) believes that “as language naturally evolves these novel creations may eventually become part of the Standard English lexicon”. This has been illustrated recently as the Oxford English Dictionary has announced the word of the year for 2015 as “face with tears of joy emoji” (Parkinson, 2015), which shows that CMC is becoming more accepted. Baron (2008, p. 177) acknowledges that as technology develops, changes to language may occur, such as the introduction of new words to accommodate innovations like email. Also, when neologisms appear, they should be considered rather than disregarded straight away because “distinguishing between language change and language decline is a very tricky business” (Baron, 2008, p. 161).

Although these all demonstrate the positive side to texting and CMC, it has also been shown to have an adverse effect on literacy skills. Geertsema, Hyman and van Deventer (2011; cited by Verheijen, 2013, p. 595) found that students would incorrectly use punctuation and also non-Standard English spellings, which therefore had “a negative impact on student’s academic achievement”. De Jonge and Kemp (2012; cited by Verheijen, 2013, p. 595) state that textisms could be used by some young students to deter from their underdeveloped literacy skills. Although these are differing views of the effects of texting and CMC relating to literacy, it is difficult to definitely determine whether there is an association. Verheijen (2013, p. 596) states that we should acknowledge that different results in studies can be obtained through using different independent variables, such as age, gender and education level of the participants. There will also be differences when considering how familiar a participant is with mobile phones and texting (Verheijen, 2013, p. 596).

So, are the literacy skills of future generations doomed by the existence of communication through technology? Not as much as some may think. There may isolated examples involving children are not being able to distinguish when is suitable to use textisms. However, in my opinion, most children have sufficient knowledge that CMC is in its own category for use. Therefore they would be less likely to use it in academic contexts. In my experience of academia I have not witnessed the use of textisms in any person’s work; it is more likely that someone may make a grammatical or syntactical error, which is something that can be corrected with proper guidance from teachers and thorough proofreading of work. Any encounter with language should be seen as a positive one and we should make the most of using technology to communicate. Who knows where it will take the English Language to next!

JOHANNA BOISSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Baron, N. S. (2008). Always on: Language in an online and mobile world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Craig, D. (2003). Instant Messaging: The Language of Youth Literacy. The Boothe Prize Essays, 116-33.

Crystal, D. (2008). Txting: The Gr8 Db8. New York: Oxford University Press.

De Jonge, S., & Kemp, N. (2012). Text-message abbreviations and language skills in high school and university students. Journal of Research in Reading 35(1), 49–68.

Durkin, K., Conti-Ramsden, G., & Walker, A. J. (2011). Txt lang: Texting, textism use and literacy abilities in adolescents with and without specific language impairment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27 (1), 49–57.

Geertsema, S., Hyman, C., & van Deventer, C. (2011). Short Message Service (SMS) language and written language skills: Educators’ perspectives. South African Journal of Education 31 (1), 475–87.

Parkinson, H. J. (2015, Nov 17). Oxford Dictionary names emoji ‘word of the year’ – here are five better options. The Guardian.

Plester, B., Wood, C., & Joshi, P. (2009). Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(1), 145-161.

Tagliamonte, S., & Denis, D. (2008). Linguistic Ruin? LOL! Instant Messaging and Teen Language. American Speech 83(1), 3-34. Doi: 10.1215/00031283-2008-001

Verheijen, L. (2013). The effects of text messaging and instant messaging on literacy. English Studies, 94(5), 582-602. doi: 10.1080/0013838X.2013.795737

Vosloo, S. (2009). The effects of texting on literacy: Modern scourge or opportunity? Shuttleworth Foundation (1), 1–8.

Wood, C., Plester, B., & Bowyer, S. (2008). A Cross-Lagged Longitudinal Study of Text Messaging and Its Impact on Literacy Skills: Preliminary Results. Poster Presented at the British Psychological Society Developmental Section Conference, Oxford Brookes University, September 2008.

Phonics or whole books: Do we have to pick a side? MEGAN DAVIES investigates

Learning to read is clearly an important part of our early years but is there a right and wrong way to teach children to read? Currently phonics is viewed as ‘the right way’ and because of that, it is the only way that four to five year olds are being taught. Not only are they being taught how to read using this restricted method, starting in 2012 they have also been tested on it! It is compulsory to teach it and compulsory to test it.

These tests involve the child reading a list of real words and non-real words (pseudo words) and using their taught skills of sounding the phonemes out and blending them together in order to ‘pass’ the test. Although the non-real words can cause confusion to those able to read real words and the fact that these children are only five years old, if they do not reach the standard that is expected of them, they have to re-sit the test. Surely a test suited for children who do well using the phonics method is unfair to those who find phonics mind boggling and mind numbing. What makes this worse is that the children who cannot learn to read using ‘the right way’ are then labelled as underachieving rather than being taught another way. Surely a test taken at the age of four shouldn’t determine a child’s literacy ability when it only tests one method, which in turn is a limited way of teaching children to read.

The ‘best’ way to learn to read has alternated between both the phonics approach and the whole book approach over the years with different methods being preferable depending on current views. Although phonics is the encouraged way to teach children how to read now, in the 1930s and 1940s the ‘look and say’ approach was the stronger focus (Krashen, 2002). Alternating the methods every forty years does not make one ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. Even though my mother and I were taught to read using different methods, we can both read perfectly well, so why are they always pitted against one another?

Phonics is criticised as being unfair as it doesn’t allow children to read using context, yet the whole book approach is criticised for not teaching children to decode new words. In short one size does not fit all in the reading debate and nor should it. Restricting a child’s learning due to the fact that the government prefer one particular method appears foolhardy. If a child learns a certain way they should not be punished for falling behind when they are unable to grasp one of the methods that can be used to teach them to read.

Clark and Rumbold (2006, p.8) suggest that pleasurable reading leads to better attainment and writing ability, better text comprehension and grammar as well as greater self-confidence as a reader.  A whole word or whole book approach allows children to read for meaning and enjoyment. However, it is claimed studies have shown that phonics is the most efficient way to drive up literacy scores and this evidence can be seen in the Rose Report (2006). The phonics approach is said to allow children to decode words in a systematic way meaning they can read words they may never have seen. The debate always focuses on the methods used, but should the importance of the scores and the teaching method used take precedence over the children themselves?

Do we all have to pick a side? Is it always going to be phonics vs whole books or is there a more effective way to teach children to read without hindering those with a different learning style? Maybe a mixture of phonics and whole words is the answer. Both methods have been criticised and always will be criticised as unfair to children with a different learning style. This suggests that one approach is not superior to the other and that a balance between the two methods is the fairest and most effective way to teach children to read (Willingham, 2015, p28).

MEGAN DAVIES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Clark, C., & Rumbold, K. (2006). Reading for Pleasure: A research overview. The National Literacy Trust. England.

Krashen, S. (2002). The reading debate: has phonics won? Retrieved November 2015.

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

Willingham, D. (February 2015). And the victor in the reading wars is… Times Educational Supplement, pp. 24-28.

MEGAN BATES asks ‘Phonics Only Teaching: Robotic or Justified?’

In 2005, synthetic phonics was introduced as the focal method for teaching reading skills to early years students (GOV UK): a child will be taught phoneme and grapheme correspondence separately before being taught to blend different phonemes together to form a word (Gibb, 2014), for example /m/ + /a/ + /n/ = /man/. This, alongside previous changes to the reading scheme, has become a hotly debated topic. The first change occurred in the 1980s when education ministers decided the ‘whole word’ (or ‘look and say’) approach was no longer the most appropriate method of teaching reading skills in schools, instead initiating a curriculum focused on phonics. Johnston and Watson (2007) explain that the decision was influenced by Adams’ (1994) criticism of Piaget’s suggestion that children are active learners and were therefore able to build on their basic phonics knowledge and apply it to whole sentences. Adams (1994) proposed that developments in phonics teachings destabilise children’s competence to understand what they are reading.

The government claims that for reading abilities of young children to improve, they must be exposed to a single method that hammers home phonetic correspondence, as a “direct, systematic instruction in phonics was necessary for children to develop word identification skill and reading fluency in an efficient manner” (Chall, 1967). To test a child’s ability the government introduced the compulsory ‘phonics screening check’ in 2012, which required Year 1 pupils to read aloud a mix of 40 real and novel (pseudo) words, presented to them in isolation. Pupils are expected to use their knowledge of phonetics and blending to help them work out the correct pronunciation of each word. The government states this method holds more benefits than those used previously as it helps identify pupils that need further guidance in learning to read. I disagree, being of the firm belief that this one-size-fits-all approach only hinders the progress of many young pupils. Government teacher training video footage of the test clearly depicts children being placed under unnecessary pressure to pronounce words in a certain way, whilst being scrutinised for the way they decode each word. Where this may seem appropriate for the pronunciation of words that visibly belong to a rhyme family, it is unfitting when assessing a child’s skills in decoding novel words as these words are not used in the real word and therefore cannot explicitly follow the rules of phonics directly (educationgovuk).

Despite such forceful efforts to persuade teachers and parents alike, to advocate this phonics focussed teaching method, there are large numbers of people, such as Davis (2014), who support the old-style teaching methods (a mixture of various methods) in order to provide a well-rounded introduction to reading. Baumann et al. (1998) found that 99% of elementary teachers across the US (which only highlights the widespread nature of this controversial debate) were united in the belief that a multiple teaching methods were key to teaching children to read, as it encourages them to engage with a text. They also drew attention to the fact these teachers all held master’s degrees and were teaching when the US ranked second best in educational standards worldwide (Baumann et al., 1998).

We are often fed the line “research shows…” by educational politicians when explaining why they are pushing a phonics focussed curriculum, however they tend to avoid any further mention of such research. It is interesting to note that evidence that supports use of a balanced approach is widespread and easily accessible to everyone. For example, Baron found boys were overall slower at reading orthographically similar words when “words with inconsistent spelling-sound correspondences were included (eg. ‘maid’, ‘said’), highlighting that a one-size-fits-all approach is insufficient in teaching reading skills en masse.

Overall, there seems to be more evidence to support the argument that “a combination of all teaching methods should be used” when teaching reading skills in schools (DfE). I stand in agreement with this evidence. I believe that whilst teaching each approach separately has its advantages, such as expanding a child’s ability of each skill, it in fact acts as a hindrance in their overall learning by slowing down their rate of learning. It appears this so called ‘systematic approach’ is more of an attempt to pull children into a robotic like state of learning, taming them to fit the Government approved standards rather than a way of allowing them to reach their full potential. In order to tackle this ever growing database of evidence stacked against them, the Government needs to start valuing evidence given to them from professionals in the field, who have first-hand experience in identifying what works when working with children.

MEGAN BATES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Adams, M. J. (1994). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press.

Baumann, J., Hoffman, J., Moon, J., & Duffy-Hester, A. (1998).Where are teachers’ voices in the phonics/whole language debate? Results from a survey of U.S. elementary classroom teachers. The Reading Teacher, 51(8), 636-650.

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

Educationgovuk. (2012). Year 1 phonics screening check training video. Retrieved November 2, 2015.

Gibb, N. (2014). Is phonics the best way to teach children to read? Mumsnet bloggers network. Retrieved November 3, 2015.

Johnston, R. S., & Watson, J. E. (2007). Teaching synthetic phonics. London: SAGE.

Why is the phonics approach to reading such a political hot potato? GEORGE CARSLEY-BROMILOW investigates

With the recent Government legislation that forces a phonics approach to teaching, there has since been a backlash by those who believe that teachers should be able to teach a child in a way that best suits him/her. However, despite this upset, the Government continue to promote phonics as the best way to teach children to read.

The Department of Education (DoE) (2013, p.1) advertise phonics as “the most effective way of teaching young children to read”, believing that it would help every child to read by the age of six (Watt & Asthana, 2007). The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, stated that since synthetic phonics has been in place, “up to 120,000 more 6-year-olds on track to becoming strong readers” (Gov, 2015), yet an extra 94,000 pupils in 2015 questions whether phonics is helping every child like the government alleges (Adams, 2015).

For much of the 20th Century, a whole book approach was the dominant approach, where children learned whole words in their contexts. They would be taught ‘cat’ in its whole form instead of ‘[k]+[æ]+[t]’ like they would in phonics. This would help to relieve any confusions the child will have with spelling and sound irregularities such as <play>,  <they> and <weigh> (Children’s Books and Reading).

Synthetic phonics teaches individual sounds so that children can blend them together to “find out the pronunciation of unfamiliar words” (Johnston and Watson, 2007, p. 9). They further explain that “when taught the letter sounds /s/ /a/ /t/ and /p/ the children can blend the letters in the words ‘at’, ‘sat’, ‘tap’”. The DoE (2013, p.1) suggest that children benefit from this because the knowledge that they gain would allow them “to ‘de-code’ new words that they hear or see”.

The children’s progress is tested using the phonics screening check. The DoE (2013,p.1) state that the child reads a list of 40 words that include real and nonsense words, such as ‘strom’, ‘snope’ and ‘vap’, to see that the child is progressing at their expected level. They suggest that this is a fair way to assess their ability because they have to use their decoding abilities they learned through synthetic phonics (2013, p. 2). Recent DoE results (2014, p.1) indicate that 74% of year 1 pupils achieved the passing grade of 32/40, or 80%, when compared to 2012 where pupils scored 58%. This shows how there is a steady increase in children being able to read through synthetic phonics.

Yet, phonics incorrectly teaches that there is one sound for each one letter. Through accent variation we can see that issues arise from this. Disregarding accent may negatively impact the child’s score. For instance “the Cockney vowel in but makes that word sound like bat to a northerner: […], the vowels in both words may sometimes considered to be the same. But […] they have different places in the systems of different accents” (Leith, 1983, p. 117). Although some phonemes may sound the same, because they have different uses in different accents, a teacher may claim a child has read a blend incorrectly because they used a phoneme in a way that is common in their regional accent but not their teacher’s. This raises questions as to how far teachers are trained on marking phonics checks, and whether it is done objectively or subjectively.

Rosen states that phonics is not a “one size fits all approach” (cited in Dombey, 2010, p. 2), and it is this research that the government is ignoring. A teacher knows how their pupils learn best, and with the government enforcing a phonics only curriculum it hinders both the teachers and the pupils by assuming that every child in the country learns the same way. By having a single system with flawed methods of assessment it eventually becomes counterproductive when a child, who may be bright and intelligent but struggles with phonics, falls behind purely because the teachers are unable to teach them in a different method because of government restrictions. So my question is this: why turn such a simple issue into a political issue? Is a politician’s pride more valuable than helping a child learn the fundamental basics of humanity?

GEORGE CARSLEY-BROMILOW, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Adams, R. (2015, June 11). Number of children in oversize primary school classes exceeds 100,000. The Guardian.

Department for Education. (2013). Learning to read through phonics: Information for parents. Retrieved November 17, 2015.

Department of Education. (2014). Phonics screening check and national curriculum assessments at key stage 1 in England. Retrieved November 16, 2015.

Dombey, H. (2013). Teaching reading: what the evidence says. United Kingdom: Literacy Association.

Johnston, R. S., & Watson, J. E. (2007). Teaching synthetic phonics. London: SAGE.

Leith, D. (1983). A Social History of English. New York, NY: Routledge

Look and Say Teaching Method. Children’s Books and Reading. Retrieved November 21, 2015.

Morgan, N. (2015). Nicky Morgan: improving child literacy in England. 

Watt, N. & Asthana, A.,(2007, November 18). All children must read at six, says Cameron. The Guardian.