ELIZABETH FREETH asks ‘Is phonics really that fantastic?’

There is a historical and ongoing debate as to whether phonics or the whole book approach is the best way to teach children to read. On one hand, over sixty years ago Flesch (as cited by Westcott, 2012) produced the phonics book, ‘Why can’t Johnny read?’ which was referred to as the ‘bible’ to how children should be taught to read. On the other hand supporters of the whole book approach, e.g. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, aimed to demonstrate how reading can be broken down into text, art and design work (pictures) (Lambert, 2010, p, 2). This debate is fuelled by the knowledge that reading is a vital and crucial part of a child’s education.

Synthetic phonics is currently the UK Government’s preferred method of teaching children to read. Thirlby and Davies (2014, p.35) define synthetic phonics as “the system whereby children are taught to recognise the sounds (phonemes) that each individual letter (grapheme) makes”. In addition, children are then expected to blend these sounds together to produce words (Thirlby & Davies, 2014, p.35). Lyle (2014, p.69) however, states there are simply too many irregularities within the English language to teach all the words to children. Lyle (2012, p. 69) supports this claim by highlighting the magic ‘e’, which represents one of these irregularities. The magic ‘e’ is what we put on the end of words which can change the vowel sound, for example ‘pan’ becomes ‘pane’ and ‘can’ becomes ‘cane’ (Lyle, 2014, p.69). Another example of irregularity within the English language is spelling and this can be demonstrated from the alliteration in title of this article ‘Is Phonics really that fantastic?’ The phoneme /f/ is represented here by two different graphemes /ph/ and /f/. It could be suggested that all these irregularities can cause confusion for children especially when all they want to do is read successfully and easily.

The Phonics Screening Test was introduced in 2012 for children aged five to six which allows teachers to identify the current reading ability of the child (Thirlby & Davies, 2014, p.35). The child is asked to read forty words: twenty pseudo and twenty authentic words. However, Lyle (2014, p.73) argues it can be confusing for intelligent children. If the child reads a pseudo word they may correct it themselves and say the real word, which would be marked as incorrect. Also, Dombey (as cited by The Guardian, 2011) has argued that learning to read is a complex process and learning phonics is only one contributing factor. Furthermore, Dombey (as cited by The Guardian, 2011) explains that there is extra contextual knowledge to be gained by children which will allow them to read all words.

It could be suggested that the whole book approach is the answer to this problem. Willingham (2015, p. 26) suggests that if a child is a good reader then they must also have good comprehension skills of the text they are reading. However, this highlights another flaw within synthetic phonics, which is omission of word meaning. The whole book approach is the teaching of “whole words by sight through repetition or by using the pictures and other cues to discover the meaning” (Willingham, 2015, p.24). Mann (as cited in Willingham, 2015, p.27) criticises the phonics teaching method for being “skeleton shaped, bloodless and ghostly apparitions”. Surely, we want children to grow up to enjoy reading instead of thinking of it as a chore.

In opposition to synthetic phonics, advocates of the whole book approach claim that children will learn the corresponding sounds and letters as they go (Willingham, 2015, p.27). An additional way of teaching children to read which incorporates the whole book approach is ‘The Storytelling Curriculum’ (Lyle, 2014, p.72). This is where a child would sit down and tell a story to an adult who would write the story down. The child would then read the story aloud recognising and learning the words as they go because they understand the context.

It can be suggested that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is ideal in theory but unrealistic in practice. Every child learns in their own way and even though every class cannot be adapted to their each individual needs, we need to acknowledge the fact that teachers should not be pressured to teach in such a strict and regimented way. It could be argued in fact that a blend of the whole book and synthetic phonics approaches would be the most beneficial teaching method.

ELIZABETH FREETH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Lambert, M. (2010). Using the Picture Book as an Art Form. Retrieved November 21, 2015.

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

Mansell, W. (2015, November 21). Now they want all primary pupils to take a phonics test. The Guardian

Thirlby, J. & Davies, M. (2014) ‘The Great Phonics Debate: Are children benefiting from systematic synthetic phonics?’ Babel, Issue 9, 35-38.

Westcott, K. (2012). Five things about Phonics. Retrieved November 19, 2015.

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



One thought on “ELIZABETH FREETH asks ‘Is phonics really that fantastic?’

  1. Emily says:

    Hi Beth,

    I think you raise an interesting point with the view that there are too many irregularities in the English language for the synthetic phonics approach to account for and that the approach may be too simplistic as a method to teach children the vital skill of learning the relationship between letter and sound, which is a precursor to learning how to read and write. Lyle (2014) argues that reading is a meaning making process, hence there is a large difference between decoding words and reading, and so presenting a child with a word to read possibly before they recognise it for its meaning may not be a fair test. I think that in some cases, children may find it difficult to apply their knowledge of letters and sounds to words as a whole because the sounds change in different contexts and with different letter combinations.

    I agree with the idea that there should be multiple ways with which children are introduced to learning the grapheme-sound correspondence, possibly to cover the range of skills needed to attain literacy and to account for different learning styles of different children. For example, I think that the ‘story telling’ approach that you outlined, whereby a teacher writes down a story that has been dictated to them by the child in their own words, reinforces structures and meanings of words to the child, possibly drawing a link between the words’ grapheme structures, their sound and their meaning. This paired with the phonics approach was found to aid children in their reading progression (Lyle and Bolt, 2013).

    Do you think that there should be a dominant approach in teaching children to learn how to read?

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

    Lyle, S. & Bolt, A. (2013). The impact of the story telling curriculum on literacy development for children aged 6-7 and their teachers. Welsh Journal of Education, 16, 4-20.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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