MELISSA BADDLEY explores whether ‘phonics’ or ‘whole word’ are the best early literacy approaches

THE DEBATE about ‘phonics’ testing is perhaps one of the most controversial topics surrounding modern education at the moment. It raises the question of what are the most suitable and beneficial methods in teaching children to read – the ‘phonics approach’ or a method such as the ‘whole word approach’.

So what do these methods involve? Well, the Oxford Dictionary describes phonics as “A method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system”, in other words, a code that turns written language into spoken. This approach features two methods of teaching: Synthetic and Analytic phonics. Dombey (1999) informs us that synthetic phonics involves “learning individual sounds and assembling the words children read from sequences of phonemes”, allowing children to learn new words by recognising phoneme sounds and using these to break down new words. Analytic phonics refers to the recognition of certain combinations of letters and sounds, e.g. ‘hat’, ‘rat’, ‘cat’ to help pronounce new words. However, the arbitrary nature of the English spelling system and rules of the English language cast doubt on the use of these methods.

In comparison the ‘whole word approach’ recognises words as whole entities and focuses on “[…] the shape of a word and the presence of particular letters”, where they are situated within the word (Frith, 1985). This theorises that the more you read the more you learn, but does not consider the idea that if you do not recognise a word or pattern you will not be able to pronounce the new, unknown word; a consequence this method faces. These various approaches to teaching children to read have caused a national debate, as we wonder which methods suit learning best? Is there a one-size fits all solution? And if you were a parent, which method would you want your child to be taught?

The use of various methods however is not something that is new. As Cove (2006) shows there have been a range of methods used to teach children to read for over a hundred years; alternating from phonetic approaches and “sounding –out” phonemes, to later in the 20th century where “[…] understanding the meanings of words and sentences though careful questioning” became an important factor in children’s reading processes. Recently the phonics method has received further controversy since the introduction of the phonics-screening test in 2012 in UK primary schools, questioning the competency of the methods teachers are currently using to monitor child progression in learning to read and questioning the child’s actual ability to read at the age of 6.

So why are the government favouring the phonics approach to literacy learning instead of others? It could be suggested that this method operates as a ‘quick-fix’ in boosting the percentage of children that successfully pass the phonics test and therefore imply greater literacy development. However, it has to be considered that although the skill of physically reading what has been written on a page may be increasing, the comprehension and enjoyment that children should get out of this activity is being lost; and as Dombey (2009:10) states it is important that children have a “rich experience” when learning literacy skills to become fully competent readers, suggesting a combination of systems is more favourable and valuable in a child’s educational development.

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


 Cove, M. in Lewis, M. & Ellis, S. (eds.)  (2006) Phonics: Practice, Research and Policy. London: Paul Chapman. 

Dombey. H. (1999) Picking a path through the phonics minefield. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 27(1), pp.12-21

Dombey, H. (2009) ‘The simple view of reading’ – available at

 Frith, U. (1985) ‘Developmental Dyslexia’, in Patterson, al (Eds) Surface Dyslexia. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hove.

 Oxford Dictionaries. [Accessed 21 October 2013]. Available at: