AMY CASLEY asks: ‘Can literacy standards be improved by phonics alone?’

For the past five years, it has been obligatory for primary school teachers to teach children to read using synthetic phonics. This no longer allows them to have their say on the most beneficial way of teaching their class to read. For this reason, along with others, synthetic phonics has sparked a vast dispute.

Synthetic phonics focuses on the relationship between phonemes and graphemes (Lyle, 2014, p. 69). Children are taught to ‘decode’ words by splitting them into individual phonemes, for example, ‘cat’ would become [k][æ][t]. Children are then taught to blend these sounds in order to pronounce the word successfully. This is undeniably an important skill for children to obtain.

According to an Education and Skills Committee document (2005, p. 13), the ability to decode words leads to success in reading, due to children being able to focus on the meaning of the book, rather than struggling to pronounce words. Additionally, Debbie Hepplewhite (2013) explains that phonics proves children have a solid understanding of how to pronounce words, as it involves them working it out for themselves.

The Clackmmananshire study (Johnston & Watson, 2005, cited in Scottish Executive Education Department, 2005) provides evidence supporting the teaching of synthetic phonics. This seven year study found that once taught using phonics, children’s reading age was three years six months above chronological age (Scottish Executive Education Department, 2005, p. 2). Overall, it was found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were able to progress their reading ability to reach the same level as children from advantaged backgrounds.

Despite these benefits, there are disadvantages to phonics, one being the phonics screening check. Since 2012, this tests five and six-year-olds’ phonological ability by asking them to pronounce both real words and pseudo (made up) words successfully. Campaigners against the screening check argue that five and six-year-olds are too young to be tested and could easily be intimidated by the test (National Union of Teachers). An article from the Guardian (2011) explains how thousands signed petitions against the test, including parents and the National Association of Head Teachers.

The synthetic phonics approach fails to provide children with any context and meaning, which is considered to be a major flaw (Lyle, 2014, p. 71). It is common knowledge that in order to have full comprehension of a story, children have to be taught what individual words mean. In spite of this, phonics ignores context completely and focuses solely on teaching children words in isolation. How can children be expected to progress to story reading with no concept of meaning? In simple terms, they can’t.

This flaw draws attention to the whole book approach, which unlike phonics does not ignore context; in fact it plays rather an important role. This approach focuses on children learning words as a whole rather than splitting them into phonemes. Children are encouraged to work out the pronunciation of words by focusing on context and props, such as pictures (Willingham, 2015, p. 24). Due to its simplicity, the whole book approach can be used for children as young as three to four months, which has positive implications on their reading ability in later life (Children’s books and reading, 2015).

It comes as no surprise that there are disadvantages of the whole book approach. As children are not receiving knowledge of phonics, they are at risk of failing to comprehend unfamiliar words (Children’s books and reading, 2015). Reid Lyon et al. (2004) criticise the whole book approach for the reason that unlike phonics, it has not been tested, thus there is no evidence of its success.

Looking at the advantages of both approaches, surely a combination of synthetic phonics and whole books would enhance the way children are taught to read? Not only would it solve the problem of the lack of context provided by phonics, but also ensure children can pronounce words successfully by decoding, as opposed to by memory. A balanced approach would solve an issue raised by Rosen (2010, cited in Dombey, 2010, p. 2), who draws upon the diversity of children’s learning and states how a single approach should not be used.

There is no doubt that the government has had some success using synthetic phonics in schools, however it should not be used in isolation. It’s time for a change – a combination of phonics and whole book is the way forward!

AMY CASLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Children’s Books and Reading. (2015). Helping your child become a successful reader. Retrieved November 4.

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

Hepplewhite, D. (2013). Phonics International: In a nutshell. Retrieved November 4.

House of Commons: Education and Skills Committee. (2005). Teaching children to read. Retrieved November 4.

Johnston, R. S., & Watson, J. (2005). The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment, a seven year longitudinal study. Edinburgh, Scotland: Scottish Executive Education Department. Retrieved November 10.

Lyle, S. (2014) The limits of phonics teaching. School Leadership Today 5 (5), pp. 68-74.

National Union of Teachers. Phonics: Too young too fail. Retrieved from

Reid Lyon, G., Shaywitz, S., Chhabra, V., & Sweet, R. (2004). Evidence based reading policy in the US. In G. Reid & A. Fawcett (Eds.), Dyslexia in context (pp. 161–176). London:Whurr.

The Guardian. (2011). Now they want all primary pupils to take a phonics test. 

Willingham, D. (2015, February, 27). And the victor in the reading wars is… Times Educational Supplement, pp. 24-28.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s