Is compulsory synthetic phonics the way forward? LUKE STOKOE engages with ‘The Reading Wars’

Controversies around how to teach literacy skills to young children have often been labelled ‘The Reading Wars’. The debate was reignited in the UK in 2006 when the Rose Report recommended the teaching of synthetic phonics in schools, begging the question, is this the correct choice and is the war finally over?

Michael Gove would suggest yes. In 2013, in his role as Minister for Education, he claimed that “systematic, phonics instruction by a teacher is the most effective and successful way of teaching children to read”.

Synthetic phonics is the practice of teaching children to read multiple new letters and sounds together by blending – pronouncing them as a unit, not individual letters (Johnson and Watson, 2014). An alternative would be the whole word approach to reading, which encompasses remembering the shape of a whole word and its pronunciation.

Under the current synthetics phonics scheme, children are taught phonics over the course of Year 1, (aged 5-6), with further learning supplementing the government’s “Letters and Sounds” programme in Year 2.

There are many reasons that synthetic phonics is favoured by the government, including claims of faster progress and outperforming non-phonics classes. It allegedly also boosts the abilities of students when dealing with unknown words, as the sounding method taught in phonics allows them to pronounce it correctly more times than not, the first time they see a word (Krashen, 2002).

However, the main argument raised against synthetic phonics is not the idea that people should “learn to read by reading”, as was suggested by Goodman (1982) relating to the comprehension hypothesis, which states that any skill is learnt via practicing that skill. The central complaint against compulsory synthetics phonics teaching is that the children are not taught to read in context and are expected to only read one word at a time even though experts like Rumelhart (1976) would suggest otherwise, stating that reading is a “simultaneous, multi-level interactive processing”. This effectively means that reading is not reading without some meaning being attributed to the word, it is simply decoding (pronouncing). The issue concerning parents and teachers alike is not only angst as to whether this system will kill children’s love of reading before it has even developed, by making learning to read boring and too complex, as suggested by Michael Rosen (2012). Rather, the final nail in the synthetic phonics coffin is the compulsory, national tests that accompany the programme.

The tests were rolled out nationally for the first time in 2012. They consisted of children being asked to pronounce 40 words, half of which are so-called ‘pseudo words’ (invented words), that has met with substantial opposition from teachers. The pass rate in 2012 was 58%, which rose to 80% by 2016, as reported by Adams in The Guardian (2016).

Encouraging, yes, but all that may display is that teachers are now better equipped to teach to the tests.

All told, the vitriol and contempt with which the two main sides of the debate refer to one another’s arguments is counter-productive. The idea that only one method should be used to teach children to read is flawed, with Michael Rosen (2012), stating, “One size fits all typically fits no one”. One academic opinion supporting this idea, provided by Willingham (2015), is that perhaps a mixture of these main methods would be beneficial to more pupils. Surely, all anybody wants is for children to succeed? If so, why not seek to create as fair and accessible a system as possible?

LUKE STOKOE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Adams, R. (2016, September 29). Phonics test results rise again but poorer pupils lag behind. The Guardian.

Goodman, K. (1982). Language, Literacy and Learning. London: Routledge.

Johnston, R and Watson, J. (2014). Teaching synthetic phonics in primary schools. London: Sage Publications Ltd. 

Krashen. S. (2002). Defending whole language: The limits of phonics instruction and the efficacy of whole language instruction. Reading Improvement, 39(1), 32-42.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Final Report

Rosen, M. (2012, May 3). My thoughts on the Year 1 phonics screening test. Michael Rosen Blog.

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


One thought on “Is compulsory synthetic phonics the way forward? LUKE STOKOE engages with ‘The Reading Wars’

  1. helena says:

    Hi Luke. I think this is a very informative blog post regarding the current debate between whole word and phonics. Whilst I was on placement in a school I experienced year one children being taught to blend. From my experience, none of the teachers saw synthetic phonics alone as a good enough method to teach children to read. I was told by one teacher that her children could easily decode the words and pronounce them correctly but struggled when asked the meaning behind them. Evidence of this could be seen when they were asked to read, even though they could recognise the word, they could not decode the sentence meaning. Surely that is not reading, but simply just sounding out rehearsed phonemes? In my opinion, teaching children nonsense words is a waste of their time, that could be better spent reading. What do you think?

    Furthermore, I agree with your quote from Rosen (2012) regarding the fact that one method is not suited by everyone. I think the government are naive to think that it could suit all abilities. There is evidence that suggests that children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia are not benefited by a synthetic approach and I believe different teaching strategies should be set in place for them (Marshall, 2013).

    I would agree that a mixture of whole word theory and synthetic phonics should be used to teach children. I think that this would mean children have rules to decode a word, but then could also learn it in context to also grasp the meaning.

    Reference list
    Marshall, A. (2013). When phonics doesn’t work. Davis Dyslexia Association International

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