Reading skills: a strict phonics diet or mixed methods? MELISSA TAYLOR investigates

The best approach to teaching children how to read has divided opinion. The government urge systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) as the “first, fast and only” way to teach reading (Rosen, 2014), so that phonics screening checks (tests) for five to seven year-olds have been compulsory in England since 2012. However, this ‘one size fits all’ approach “simply does not work” according to Sue Lyle (2014, p.68-74).

Children are taught the relationship between sounds (phonemes) and letters (grapheme) correspondence and how to blend sounds together .For example, “[shop] would be pronounced as /sh/-/o/-/p/ and then blend those phonemes to produce [ʃɒp]. This is the first important step in learning how to read and also to master spelling” (Education, 2012, p.6). The National Literacy Strategy (1998) states the English language has encoded “44 phonemes” which represent “26 letters” with “140 graphemes” throughout the written English language. Children are required to identify the phonemes and how they are “spelt, blended, segmented and manipulated”.

According to the former UK school’s minister Nick Gibb, evidence shows that systematic synthetic phonics “can boost children’s reading age by an average of 28 months above their chronological age by the time they turn seven” (Gibb, 2016). Dr Marlynne Grant, an educational psychologist conducted a longitudinal study of SSP (2014). Her research demonstrated SSP is an “excellent opportunity to drive up literacy standards. Children picked up reading quickly and become enthusiastic and confident readers”.

Despite this, opponents of SSP challenge this theory, arguing that phonics does not teach children how to read everything. Due to the complex, chaotic and irregular spelling system of English, problems will occur when it comes to reading for pleasure and taking meaning from a text. It is claimed that phonics does not take into consideration homographs (words that are spelled alike, but have distinct pronunciation) or homophones (words spelled differently but pronounced the same) or that combinations such as <th> can be voiced in the, this or that and also be voiceless as in thin, thank and thick. Also an <s> can be voiced, for instance, when in a verb, but voiceless in the noun form of the same word:

The cattery housed the lost cat (verb voiced)

Look at the house” (noun voiceless).

So the pronunciation can differ depending on the context.

Also, as Lyle, (2014, p.70) explains, “we read for meaning and decoding is not reading”. When confronted with a squiggle on paper, we look for meaning and understanding, usually by the context and pictures around the squiggle. The “first, fast and only” approach has led schools into using only decodable texts and preventing children being exposed to non-decodable texts (Rosen, 2014).

However phonics experts claim that English being too irregular to use phonics is just a myth. Hepplewhite (2007) for instances agrees that “the English Language is complicated with its spelling and pronunciation variations”. However, all this means is that “tweaking the pronunciation and examining the irregular parts need to be taught”.

The Department for Education is strongly encouraging schools to follow phonics programmes claiming “a single approach is more effective than mixing different methods”. They explain that “beginning and struggling readers need to understand that they do not have to know the meaning of every word they read. They need to be confident that when they encounter an unfamiliar word, they can decode it, even if it has no meaning to them” (Education, 2012, p.6).

Daniel Willingham (2015) claims that there is an “increasing evidence confirming that children learn better from different activities, depending on their strengths and interests they bring to learning. Therefore there should be a balanced literacy which is the best solution. The best cause of action is to react to the child with different strategies, not to make the child react to just one”.

In my opinion, SSP programmes were devised first to help children who could not grasp alphabetic codes, so it seems peculiar to apply this to everyone, especially when mixed methods worked. I am not anti-phonics, although I do agree it should be used as a method amongst other methods. Fixating on phonics has caused schools to overlook the significance of reading for meaning and pleasure. I do not think phonics alone equips children with these crucial, life skills.

MELISSA TAYLOR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Dept for Education (2014, June). National curriculum in England: English programs of study

Dept for Education (2015, March). Reading: the next steps. Supporting higher education in schools

Dept for Education (2012). The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading.

Gibb, N. (2014, 16 June). Phonics tests show progressive teaching is doomed to failure. The Telegraph.

Grant, D. M. (2014). Longitudinal Study from Reception to Year 2 (2010-2013). The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Program on Reading, Writing and Spelling, 2-24.

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

Rosen, M. (2014). Teaching phonics ‘first, fast and only’ is an absurdity’ Teach Reading and Writing.

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







5 thoughts on “Reading skills: a strict phonics diet or mixed methods? MELISSA TAYLOR investigates

  1. Paul Flanagan says:

    A well-reasoned blog Melissa; I like the clarity of your final opinion! Lyle’s comment that “we read for meaning, and decoding is not reading” is interesting to me, especially with the later mention of “non-decodable texts” (is this Rosen’s term?). Do you think it is possible to read for meaning without decoding?

    • Melissa says:

      Hi Paul, thank you for your interest. The debate regarding decoding has sparked my interest whilst teaching my son (which is 7 in year 2). Thus experiencing my son’s learning how to read, I found he struggled to comprehend meaning through decoding, along with other children his age. Therefore I agree with whole word method contributes towards meaning not decoding.

  2. Hi Melissa. Just wondering if your opinion on teaching methods changed as you were researching for your presentation/blog? If so, which particular argument or theory did you find most convincing?

    • Melissa says:

      Hi Emma, I wouldn’t say it has changed my opinion during the research however, it has certainly helped me clarify a few things, in terms of children being deemed as failure because they fail the screening check, which in actual fact majority of children are sound fluent readers. This has been the case for my son, he was reading books which were above his age range from the age of 4 however, as he tried to find meaning and turned pseudo words into real words, he was deemed as a failure and unable to read. This led him to be stuck on the same simple books to what he was used to.

      For this and many other reasons, I don’t think one method or theory should be in place alone to teach reading.

  3. Laura Bowater says:

    This is a very interesting blog and I think it really investigates into the methods of learning reading, despite being taught through the phonetics method in schools they still graduate school with the ability to read and write the same as other children over previous years that were taught different approaches. I myself was taught with the whole word approach and progressed through increasing difficulty reading material. I feel that the mixed method approach would be beneficial more than a single approach, which I feel helps mixed ability students.

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