Is the ‘phonics versus whole word’ literacy debate a false binary? CHELSEA EATON favours a bit of both

Since the introduction of the phonics screening checks in 2012 by the UK Government, primary schools in England have been encouraged to favour a ‘synthetic phonics’ approach to teaching their pupils how to read. Whether this is the best method to use is highly contested and up for debate.

Synthetic phonics focuses on individual (or combination) letter sounds within words (Willingham, 2015) – learning these sounds gives children alphabetic code which they can utilise to decode any text given to them. According to the then UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb, writing in The Telegraph newspaper (16 July 2014), support for the phonics approach is substantial, with advocates praising its ability to increase a child’s reading age by up three years. Gibb claims that the increase in reading age is illustrated in a study by Dr Marlynne Grant, which took place in a catholic primary school in the southwest of England. In the study, a phonics scheme was adopted in reception classes to see what effects it had. A year later Dr Grant returned to find the children had an average reading age of 8 years and 2 months, which was 22 months above the average reading age of 6 years and 4 months (Gibb, 2014). Not only does phonics appear to increase a child’s reading age, it also teaches other skills simultaneously. Debbie Hepplewhite (2011) points out that phonics teaches reading and spelling from the outset. Children are taught to read through the process of blending the individual speech sounds, and spelling skills come from segmenting the spoken word.

Previously, in his government report in 2006, Jim Rose observed an insufficient focus on an essential component of learning to read. This component was the promotion of listening skills to ensure that children “built up a good stock of words, learnt to listen attentively and spoke clearly and confidently” (Rose, 2006:3). This is a skill that could be built upon with the introduction of a synthetic phonics approach, according to Rose. So on the face of it the phonics approach seems to be an adequate way of teaching children to read – it can considerably increase a child’s reading age and teaches effective listening skills at the same time. But is total reliance on a phonics approach really the way to go?

Advocates of the ‘whole word’ approach would warn against the over reliance on phonics. The whole word approach involves the learning of words as wholes, through methods such as repetition, working out and focusing on meaning, context, pictures and other clues (Willingham, 2015).

Whole word supporters criticise phonics because it does not equip children with the tools to draw meaning from a text. Lyle (2014) gives a concise critique of phonics which points out the dangers of confusing “decoding” with “reading”. In her words “decoding has nothing to do with the whole purpose of reading – making meaning” (Lyle, 2014:1). So while there is no disagreement that phonics provides children with essential skills, there is an argument that it doesn’t teach children the meaning of what they are reading. It could be said that the absence of meaning makes reading rather futile.

With a grasp of meaning comes a knowledge of comprehension across sentences. Willingham (2015) shows how writers often omit certain parts of information in their text for literary effect. Children therefore need a knowledge of context and comprehension to be able to fill in the missing parts of information. If children do not have this skill then the meaning of the text can be lost. Supporters of the whole word approach say that the learning of individual words in context gives children a chance to grasp meaning.

Some supporters of the whole word approach point out that English is a very irregular language, which makes learning certain rules for certain words even more important. English is characterised by its irregularities (Lyle, 2014) and this is one of the reasons why relying on just a phonic approach can become misleading for some children. For example phonics doesn’t work for all CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words, of which there are plenty in the English Language. Children are often taught to sound CVC words such as <cat> in the phonics approach. However what happens when a child is faced with a word like <sir>? If they use their phonic knowledge will they know that the <r> changes the pronunciation of the letter <i> in this example? (Lyle, 2014:1). Lyle argues this could confuse children.

It is clear from the opposing arguments that both strategies have their merits and downfalls, but in my opinion we should be adopting a mixed methods approach, using the most effective parts of both strategies. We should be looking for a middle ground between the two methods. This would eliminate the “one size fits all” argument that may seem practical on the face of it, but just doesn’t work when put into practice.

CHELSEA EATON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester


Department for Education and Skills. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading

Gibb, N. (2014). Phonics Tests Show Progressive Teaching is Doomed to Failure. 

Hepplewhite, D. (2011). Debbie Hepplewhite’s Advice on Synthetic Phonics Learning

Lyle, S. (2014). The Limits of Phonics Teaching. School Leadership Today. 5(5), pp. 68-74

Willingham, D. (2015, February 27). And the Winner in the Reading Wars is…Times Educational Supplement, pp 24-28.




6 thoughts on “Is the ‘phonics versus whole word’ literacy debate a false binary? CHELSEA EATON favours a bit of both

  1. Vicki Toon says:

    A comprehensive discussion of the main arguments concerning this debate and well explained in a way that is approachable by all! If a mixed appoach to reading were introduced, how would you measure the success rates of this, as the current phonics screening check is highly debated?

  2. Alice Leather says:

    I agree with you that a mixed method would be the best approach in order for children to learn. In your opinion, what do you think the most effective parts of both strategies are? How could they be used together in the future?

  3. Lauren Hauton says:

    This is a fantastic summary of a very broad debate Chelsea and I very much enjoyed reading it! As I was taught using the ‘whole word’ approach, my first experience of the teaching of phonics was whilst I was undertaking work experience in a primary school last year. I felt that although there were advantages of using the synthetic phonics approach in English such as the ones you have discussed above, there were more disadvantages to this method. The children, although they were able to produce the word were unable to understand the context that the words were in and so when they came across words with the same spelling but different phoneme contexts they regularly produced incorrect pronunciations. For example, they would produce the ‘ow’ sound in /crow/ as if it were the ‘ow’ sound in /how/. As you explained, I feel that phonics is more a system of decoding rather than fully equipping children with the tools they need to read and write. I feel that the English Language has far too many irregularities and it is too complicated to teach children the rules and structures of the language in terms of sounds and phonemes for them only to come across instances where these rules are broken, such as the one above. Although your argument states that you believe a mixed methods approach would be the optimum way of teaching, do you favour one approach more than the other?

  4. Josh Cooper says:

    This is a really rounded and well outlined account of both approaches! It is very interesting, and a debate that will surely go on for many years to come.

    As you point out, although it is great that a child who has been taught using the phonics approach is able to produce and utter many words correctly with no errors, a lot of the time they don’t know in what contexts these words should be uttered and in many instances, they stumble across irregularities in English that are more likely to confuse and hinder their development and understanding. This is where, for me, a child who has been taught using the ‘whole word’ approach has a much higher level of literacy skills. Understanding how and where a word appears is essential in reading as this, more often than not, provides a cue for how this particular word should be comprehended.

    There is no argument that both the phonics and whole word approaches can be successful individually. However, I have to follow you in stressing that there should be a mixed method approach, whereby, the children coincide their abilities in decoding words through phonics, with an ability to learn and understand the meanings of these words they are producing, by focusing on the contexts in which they appear. The question is how can a mixed method approach be successfully introduced?

  5. Eleanor Heaton says:

    This is a great summary of the alternative ideas towards the phonics debate! I agree with the argument you mention that children can struggle to understand the meaning and context of a word if they just use the ‘synthetic phonics’ approach and that it takes away the purpose of reading. Like you suggest, I think that a mixed method approach is the best to combine children’s skills to develop their reading. However, this raises the question of what is the best way to combine the two?

  6. Tiffany Woodward says:

    In this discussion you explain that the phonics-only approach doesn’t necessarily teach children the meaning behind what they are reading. What kind of effect do you think this would have on an already able reader? Say, for example, that a child enters the EYFS with a good grasp of reading, if they have read at home already, will a focus on systematic synthetic phonics help or hinder their developmwnt and their phonics results? Might they be confused by going back to basics, to segment and blend the phonemes to read the words?

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