The part or the whole? SHANNAN KELLY explores the great literacy debate

How should we teach children literacy skills? Is there a definitive approach? With crowds of parents, politicians and PhD persons shouting for their favoured contestant like supporters at a boxing match, it is difficult to make sense of such a boisterous discussion.

Simply put, the argument centres over two main methods: synthetic phonics or the whole language / ‘look and say’ approaches to teaching literacy.

These latter approaches tackle learning to read by teaching children to recognise whole word shapes and through this method they learn to read by way of association. For instance, an image will be shown to a child and then they will be asked what the word underneath says. As a result of this, the children learn that the spoken word corresponds to particular word shapes.

The synthetic phonics approach works differently. It attempts to teach children the sounds (phonemes) that each letter (grapheme) makes. For example, they will be taught that <t> makes the sound /t/ as in <tan> or <pot>. As they learn the 44 phonemes of the English language they are also taught to ‘blend’ their sounds to make words. It is here where <t>, <a>, <n> will be formed into the single sound /tan/.

An enthusiastic promoter of this approach is the UK government’s Department for Education. In 2012 they dictated the implement of phonics screening checks in all primary schools within the UK for school pupils aged five to seven. Under their infallible authority they declared phonics as: “the most effective way of teaching young children to read” (Department for Education, 2013).

However, despite the governmental assurances, each adversary has its weaknesses and no punches have been pulled. For example Dombey (2009), previously argued against phonics to insist that “[t]he difference between spoken and written language, and between the processes involved in listening and reading, coupled with the overlap between decoding and comprehension (particularly noticeable in English with its problematic orthography) indicate that to teach children to read English effectively, we need to do more than teach them synthetic phonics and careful listening.”

Dombey points out two main things here. You need context to read a word correctly. For instance, the word  <read>  can be decoded in two different ways –  /ri:d/ and /rɛd/ dependant on context. And decoding and reading are not necessarily the same thing. A child may be able to decode a word correctly, just as I may be able to decode German, but that does not mean we would understand the words on the page. For this reason she calls to those in the middle for solutions.

In the middle there are those who call for an end to the tensions between the two sides, to put aside their differences and work together in order to resolve the debate and compromise with a balanced approach. Children should be taught the skills to decode words accurately and with understanding. In this idealist community, children would learn to decode the words phonetically, in context within interesting texts, and without the pressure of standardised tests.

The findings of the University of Sheffield (2006) suggest that this may not be the best solution. Their Systematic Review of Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling concluded that, “phonics instruction within a broad literacy curriculum appears to have a greater effect on children’s progress in reading than whole language or whole word approaches”. Therefore those who support phonics-only teaching, such as the Department of Education, and the Reading Reform Foundation may be correct in asserting that it is “the most effective for teaching everyone to read” (2016).

On the other hand ‘everyone’ may be a broad statement on the part of the RRF, because there are findings which suggest phonics teaching is not suitable for all students. Marshall (2013) has claimed that those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, can “resist progress even under the highly intense and careful phonics teaching”. With this in mind perhaps it should be considered that ‘one size does not fit all’ and there that a mixed approach would be more beneficial to more children than the ultimatum of phonics or whole language.

The debate may continue as those passionate enough search for definitive answers but for the meantime: where do you stand?

SHANNAN KELLY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Department of Education. (2013). Learning to read through phonics; Information for parents

Dombey, H. (2009). The simple view of reading. ITE English: Readings for discussion

Marshall, A. (2013). When Phonics Doesn’t Work. Davis Dyslexia Association International 

Reading Reform Foundation (2016)

Torgerson, C., Brooks, G., & Hall, J. (2006). A systematic review of the research literature on the use of phonics in the teaching of reading and spelling. Nottingham: DfES Publications.


15 thoughts on “The part or the whole? SHANNAN KELLY explores the great literacy debate

  1. Paul Flanagan says:

    An engaging blog Shannan! Dombey’s point stands out to me here: “we need to do more than teach them synthetic phonics and careful listening”. My fiancee teaches in the foundation stage, in a class which has 96% of children learning English as an additional language. Naturally, these children have different educational needs from those in a ‘mainstream’ classroom. Do you think schools (and more specifically teachers) should be equipped with the ability (and permission!) to use either of these strategies, or indeed both, depending upon the particular needs of children in their classes.

    • Shannan Kelly says:

      Thanks Paul! Personally I think that we should try and make education as personal as practically possible. Particularly in your wife’s case where the majority of her student population is learning english as a second language, it seems to me that it would be illogical to teach and test them in the same way you would teach a native/primary speaker because they have different needs. If the aim of education is the support and development of learning, then I think we are only limiting success by prescribing methods that do not benefit everyone.

  2. Kate Green says:

    From your own experiences of working with children, do you have a preference between the phonics or whole books approach?

    • Shannan Kelly says:

      Hi Kate! I have seen the benefits of the phonics approach in practice when a child I was observing accurately read a book I knew had previously struggled with. For this reason, I cannot doubt that for some children it works. Despite this, I have also observed children reading accurately but with limited understanding. I think that phonics should be taught but in a way that engages more with texts. Perhaps a system where children read books categorised around their phonic content so that comprehension can also be supported.

  3. Jordzhah-Lou Rowley says:

    Do you feel strongly towards one approach over the other? Or do you feel that a combination of both methods would be more beneficial to the children?

    • Shannan Kelly says:

      Hi Jordzhah-Lou! I think that neither approach is strong enough (on its own) to teach reading as a whole. Phonics is brilliant at teaching decoding but not great at teaching the comprehension necessary for full understanding and there I believe a mixed approach would be better for overall development of language skills.

  4. A really good read, Shannan 🙂 I was never introduced to the phonics approach as a child and remember learning words by simply reading as many books as possible. I have never struggled with reading and picked up language really quickly this way – so I find it hard to imagine any real benefits to learning through phonics. My mum is a teacher and has to use phonics in her lessons, she often says it is unnecessary and unnatural, and that children are all so different it is impossible to test them against one standard. You have summarised different points from either side really well though, it’s definitely thought-provoking.

    • Shannan Kelly says:

      Thanks Emma! I was taught the same way, I remember trying to get through the Biff and Chip books as quickly as possible to get to the next stage! I think the government try to make education as cost effective and efficient as possible and phonics provides this for them. The sad reality is that students all learn in different ways and the standardised tests do not fully reflect this. With phonics testing and teaching the sounds are often so fragmented that they do not reflect normal, everyday use.

  5. Josh Cooper says:

    How important do you believe that a combined approach would work? What are your views on how we can implement an approach similar to those employed in Finland where children have very high literacy skills?

    • Shannan Kelly says:

      Hi josh! I think the combined approach must already work to some degree because children are exposed to so much language in their everyday lives. There’s text on billboards, bus stops, in shops, online, in television programmes: there’s words everywhere. With this in mind, I find it difficult to comprehend that children are only learning to read via phonics.

      Good question! I think if we were to try and implement a similar approach to that of Finland a lot would have to change. If we were to allow children to learn through play and only attend school from the age of 7, we would have to change the way we manage work and childcare. Perhaps this problem can be resolved by establishing a lower working week for parents of children under 7, and/or more financial support from the government to subsidise the childcare required.

      Maybe a better way of implementing a similar approach would be be to keep schooling at the same age but reduce the hours children are actively taught. The average school day in the UK has two breaks, one between morning classes and one at lunch ( If class times were lengthened and 15 minute breaks placed between each class (as done in Finland) perhaps children would focus better and advance quicker than under our current system.

  6. Courtney Thomas says:

    Really detailed blog Shannon, is there any research which shows that learning through phonics is particularly beneficial to children with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia? Or is it generally just considered a harder way for them to learn?

  7. Shannan Kelly says:

    Hi Courtney, thank you!

    There is an interesting page here: that goes into depth on the impact of phonics teaching on dyslexic learners.

    From my reading I found that teachers often support dyslexic learners through phonics because it is during phonic decoding that they often struggle and thus need support. However as mentioned in my blog, this support is not always successful or beneficial to the student.


      Thank you Shannon!
      I’ve just read through the phonics page you posted, there’s a lot of interesting points on there! In particular Dr. Hilde L. mosse’s findings, in which she suggests it can be damaging to teach children using sight words as it takes time to undo the guessing habits that sight words produce. Contradictory to a number of school teachers and academics, she thinks that teaching phonics with no sight words is the best way to train children’s brains correctly the first time.
      A really interesting read-thanks again!

  8. Penny Adams says:

    A very interesting blog Shannan. I found Marshall’s point surrounding learning disabilities particularly compelling. As someone with dyslexia, I can sympathize with the difficulties these children have learning through the phonics method. Many children with dyslexia have low phonemic awareness, which is the understanding that words are comprised of individual sounds that can be manipulated. This is one of the most vital skills needed for a phonics based approach to reading. Therefore, it definitely does not suit those students who have a deficit in their phonological abilities. However, phonological awareness can be developed, if those children who struggle to break down individual sounds are taught to listen to the sounds without using any of the corresponding orthographical letters, children can begin to understand and manipulate the phonemic sounds. This is because they are not confusing the letters (which can symbolise more than one sound) with the actual phoneme.

    I do understand that for the majority of children, phonics is effective. However, I believe that other strategies should be put in place for children who do not learn effectively with phonics, or phonics teaching should be approached in a different way in order to aid learning. If these different strategies are implemented, do you think children should be given the opportunity to voice their own opinion on what works best for them?

  9. Curtis Priday says:

    Hi Shannan,
    This is a very engaging and concise blog. It appears that both sides of the debate have limitations. As you rightly pointed out, it is a naive assumption from the Department of Education to state that phonics-only teaching is “most effective for teaching everyone”.
    The English language is a complex language with many rules that may cause confusion to early readers, such as the silent ‘g’ in gnome and the silent ‘k’ in knife. If children are taught a phonics-only approach then surely this will lead to mispronunciations, with the phonics approach, these words would be pronounced /gnəʋm/ and /knaıf/.
    Dombey’s point regarding comprehension is particularly thought provoking. Children should be taught with the aim of inferring meaning from text, not to simply be able to correctly pronounce the words they see.
    It seems apparent that a more balanced approach to teaching literacy needs to be considered to ensure that all children are catered for. As you pointed out, children with learning disabilities (such as dyslexia) may resist the phonics approach, regardless of how this method is presented to them.
    I feel that the Department of Education and other institutions should endeavour to find an educational approach that will help all children become competent and efficient language users. A blend of several approaches may be needed to achieve a level of language that sees children able to both decode words and to comprehend what they read in context.

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