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. 


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

  1. Kerry says:

    I agree that teachers should be allowed to exercise more power in regards to teaching their students; it’s damaging to children when we shoehorn them into methods of learning that isn’t compatible with them. While some children thrive with the phonics approach, not all do. More effort should be made to ensure each child is given the opportunity to learn in the best way for them.

    This in itself is a problem, though. If teachers were given more freedom in determining how they teach their students, how can we ensure that the children are receiving the education required? Testing them is one way of minimising the likelihood of children ‘falling through the gaps’, but I also believe that children learn at varying rates, and constant testing, in the long run, is regressive. I believe the curriculum predominantly using the phonics approach as opposed to individually tailoring teaching methods to each child is to ensure that no blame can be placed on the education system should a child fail to meet the standards set, as each child is taught in the same way, and given the same opportunities. Giving teachers freedom to teach by their own judgement is too great a risk.

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