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.


One thought on “MEGAN BATES asks ‘Phonics Only Teaching: Robotic or Justified?’

  1. Charlotte says:

    Hi Meg, great article! You’ve made some valid and interesting points which I agree with.

    I especially agree that the ‘one size fits all’ approach is not a suitable method, because as individuals we all learn in different ways. To push one method onto every child could hinder their development because there is ultimately no balance of learning the pronunciation and the meaning of a word. Davis states that phonics only has its place as long as it is “offered in the context of reading for meaning” (2014, p. 26). I agree with this statement because when learning how to pronounce a word you should also know the meaning of it, otherwise you will not know how to use it in the correct context.

    I like the fact that you have not ruled out the use of phonics completely, instead you have discussed how a mixed approach of phonics and reading would be beneficial. I agree that this would be a much more rewarding approach.

    With the evidence supporting a mixture of various methods, do you believe that the government will eventually introduce a mixed approach?

    Overall, I believe your blog addresses the topic of phonics debate in a fair, balanced way.

    Davis, A. (2014). To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy. (No. 20).

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