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.




Reading for meaning or de-coding? GENEVIEVE KOUTSOUMANIS explores phonics and whole language literacy approaches


Choosing the correct method(s) to teach children to read has been an ongoing controversial issue, with two opposing sides in the debate: phonics and whole language. However, the question we need to first consider is: what is reading?

Leipzig (2001) states that “[r]eading is a multifaceted process involving word recognition, comprehension, fluency, and motivation […]. It is a process in which we make meaning from print”. The areas in which reading instruction divides people regards to what extent we should focus on each of these elements of early literacy. Pro-phonics advocates believe in developing the child’s reading skills first, with a strong focus on coding (i.e. segmenting <cat> into the separate sounds /c/ + /a/ + /t/ before blending it back into the whole word). Whole word advocates believe in a strong focus on learning to make meaning and comprehend the text through learning to read whole words. Ultimately, both are needed for a child to be able to read efficiently, but the main debate is to what extent a certain method should be used. Keeping this in mind, I feel an area to focus on is how both sides of the debate help children to learn to comprehend texts as this is an essential part of reading.

In 2005, the UK Government introduced systematic synthetic phonics as the main method for teaching literacy. Children are expected to learn the phoneme- grapheme correspondence (the sound and letter relationships) before being able to segment and blend the sounds. The Department for Education (2013) supports phonics as the most effective way of teaching children to read. In addition, the Government stated that children who learn reading through phonics do better than those who were taught using alternative methods (DfE, 2013).

However, Torgerson et al. (2006) found that “while there is an association between synthetic phonics and reading accuracy, “the weight of evidence on reading comprehension was weak, and no significant effect was found for reading comprehension” (p.10). This suggests that while phonics can be useful for children to be able to understand the connection between sound and print, there is not much evidence to show that children understand what they read. Furthermore, Lyle (2014) criticised phonics for putting too much emphasis on decoding and stated that “when we read, we care about meaning and not decoding – we want to understand what we read, not merely to decode words.” (p.4).  Therefore, teaching children early on with phonics (and not emphasising that reading is meaningful) suggests a flaw in the current way phonics is taught, particularly as the phonics screening check is done without contextual clues, in isolation and with non-words (also known as pseudo/alien words like ‘tord’ and ‘geck’).

On the other hand, whole word is a method that puts a strong focus on words having meaning (Davis, 2014). Whole language supporters argue that “students in these classes do better on tests of reading comprehension, with no difference on skills tests” (Krashen 2002, p 2). Unlike phonics supporters, advocates of the whole language approach claim that children will gain phonological awareness as they go (Willingham, 2015). Whole language advocates could therefore argue that their approach not only teaches the skills of reading, but also supports comprehension.

However, the whole language approach does not provide the child with a strategy for unfamiliar or new words. Phonics, on the other hand, provides children with a strategy for figuring out new words and once a child has decoded a word, they can then use context clues to confirm what they have read. Therefore, whole word alone does not necessarily teach children effectively.

Dombey (1999) stated that “Phonics is an essential element in literacy learning, and for the vast majority of children it needs to be taught. But phonics on its own will not teach a child to read” (p.10). Phonics can be useful in helping children begin to decode texts and read the words but without sustained attention to meaning and comprehension, children will struggle to become competent readers. However this discussion is far from over and it will continue to engage and interest  those who search for the way forward in the teaching of literacy but for now, what do you think?

GENEVIEVE KOUTSOUMANIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester


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

Department for Education, (2013). Gov UK.

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

Krashen, S. (2002). Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Reading Improvement, 39 (1): 32-42.

Leipzig, D. H. (January, 2001). What is reading? WETA.

Lyle, S. (2014). The limits of phonics teaching. School Leadership Today, 5 (5).

Torgerson, C.J., 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.

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

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.

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.






Phonics or whole books: Do we have to pick a side? MEGAN DAVIES investigates

Learning to read is clearly an important part of our early years but is there a right and wrong way to teach children to read? Currently phonics is viewed as ‘the right way’ and because of that, it is the only way that four to five year olds are being taught. Not only are they being taught how to read using this restricted method, starting in 2012 they have also been tested on it! It is compulsory to teach it and compulsory to test it.

These tests involve the child reading a list of real words and non-real words (pseudo words) and using their taught skills of sounding the phonemes out and blending them together in order to ‘pass’ the test. Although the non-real words can cause confusion to those able to read real words and the fact that these children are only five years old, if they do not reach the standard that is expected of them, they have to re-sit the test. Surely a test suited for children who do well using the phonics method is unfair to those who find phonics mind boggling and mind numbing. What makes this worse is that the children who cannot learn to read using ‘the right way’ are then labelled as underachieving rather than being taught another way. Surely a test taken at the age of four shouldn’t determine a child’s literacy ability when it only tests one method, which in turn is a limited way of teaching children to read.

The ‘best’ way to learn to read has alternated between both the phonics approach and the whole book approach over the years with different methods being preferable depending on current views. Although phonics is the encouraged way to teach children how to read now, in the 1930s and 1940s the ‘look and say’ approach was the stronger focus (Krashen, 2002). Alternating the methods every forty years does not make one ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. Even though my mother and I were taught to read using different methods, we can both read perfectly well, so why are they always pitted against one another?

Phonics is criticised as being unfair as it doesn’t allow children to read using context, yet the whole book approach is criticised for not teaching children to decode new words. In short one size does not fit all in the reading debate and nor should it. Restricting a child’s learning due to the fact that the government prefer one particular method appears foolhardy. If a child learns a certain way they should not be punished for falling behind when they are unable to grasp one of the methods that can be used to teach them to read.

Clark and Rumbold (2006, p.8) suggest that pleasurable reading leads to better attainment and writing ability, better text comprehension and grammar as well as greater self-confidence as a reader.  A whole word or whole book approach allows children to read for meaning and enjoyment. However, it is claimed studies have shown that phonics is the most efficient way to drive up literacy scores and this evidence can be seen in the Rose Report (2006). The phonics approach is said to allow children to decode words in a systematic way meaning they can read words they may never have seen. The debate always focuses on the methods used, but should the importance of the scores and the teaching method used take precedence over the children themselves?

Do we all have to pick a side? Is it always going to be phonics vs whole books or is there a more effective way to teach children to read without hindering those with a different learning style? Maybe a mixture of phonics and whole words is the answer. Both methods have been criticised and always will be criticised as unfair to children with a different learning style. This suggests that one approach is not superior to the other and that a balance between the two methods is the fairest and most effective way to teach children to read (Willingham, 2015, p28).

MEGAN DAVIES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Clark, C., & Rumbold, K. (2006). Reading for Pleasure: A research overview. The National Literacy Trust. England.

Krashen, S. (2002). The reading debate: has phonics won? Retrieved November 2015.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. DfES Publications. Nottingham

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

MEGAN BATES asks ‘Phonics Only Teaching: Robotic or Justified?’

In 2005, synthetic phonics was introduced as the focal method for teaching reading skills to early years students (GOV UK): a child will be taught phoneme and grapheme correspondence separately before being taught to blend different phonemes together to form a word (Gibb, 2014), for example /m/ + /a/ + /n/ = /man/. This, alongside previous changes to the reading scheme, has become a hotly debated topic. The first change occurred in the 1980s when education ministers decided the ‘whole word’ (or ‘look and say’) approach was no longer the most appropriate method of teaching reading skills in schools, instead initiating a curriculum focused on phonics. Johnston and Watson (2007) explain that the decision was influenced by Adams’ (1994) criticism of Piaget’s suggestion that children are active learners and were therefore able to build on their basic phonics knowledge and apply it to whole sentences. Adams (1994) proposed that developments in phonics teachings destabilise children’s competence to understand what they are reading.

The government claims that for reading abilities of young children to improve, they must be exposed to a single method that hammers home phonetic correspondence, as a “direct, systematic instruction in phonics was necessary for children to develop word identification skill and reading fluency in an efficient manner” (Chall, 1967). To test a child’s ability the government introduced the compulsory ‘phonics screening check’ in 2012, which required Year 1 pupils to read aloud a mix of 40 real and novel (pseudo) words, presented to them in isolation. Pupils are expected to use their knowledge of phonetics and blending to help them work out the correct pronunciation of each word. The government states this method holds more benefits than those used previously as it helps identify pupils that need further guidance in learning to read. I disagree, being of the firm belief that this one-size-fits-all approach only hinders the progress of many young pupils. Government teacher training video footage of the test clearly depicts children being placed under unnecessary pressure to pronounce words in a certain way, whilst being scrutinised for the way they decode each word. Where this may seem appropriate for the pronunciation of words that visibly belong to a rhyme family, it is unfitting when assessing a child’s skills in decoding novel words as these words are not used in the real word and therefore cannot explicitly follow the rules of phonics directly (educationgovuk).

Despite such forceful efforts to persuade teachers and parents alike, to advocate this phonics focussed teaching method, there are large numbers of people, such as Davis (2014), who support the old-style teaching methods (a mixture of various methods) in order to provide a well-rounded introduction to reading. Baumann et al. (1998) found that 99% of elementary teachers across the US (which only highlights the widespread nature of this controversial debate) were united in the belief that a multiple teaching methods were key to teaching children to read, as it encourages them to engage with a text. They also drew attention to the fact these teachers all held master’s degrees and were teaching when the US ranked second best in educational standards worldwide (Baumann et al., 1998).

We are often fed the line “research shows…” by educational politicians when explaining why they are pushing a phonics focussed curriculum, however they tend to avoid any further mention of such research. It is interesting to note that evidence that supports use of a balanced approach is widespread and easily accessible to everyone. For example, Baron found boys were overall slower at reading orthographically similar words when “words with inconsistent spelling-sound correspondences were included (eg. ‘maid’, ‘said’), highlighting that a one-size-fits-all approach is insufficient in teaching reading skills en masse.

Overall, there seems to be more evidence to support the argument that “a combination of all teaching methods should be used” when teaching reading skills in schools (DfE). I stand in agreement with this evidence. I believe that whilst teaching each approach separately has its advantages, such as expanding a child’s ability of each skill, it in fact acts as a hindrance in their overall learning by slowing down their rate of learning. It appears this so called ‘systematic approach’ is more of an attempt to pull children into a robotic like state of learning, taming them to fit the Government approved standards rather than a way of allowing them to reach their full potential. In order to tackle this ever growing database of evidence stacked against them, the Government needs to start valuing evidence given to them from professionals in the field, who have first-hand experience in identifying what works when working with children.

MEGAN BATES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Adams, M. J. (1994). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press.

Baumann, J., Hoffman, J., Moon, J., & Duffy-Hester, A. (1998).Where are teachers’ voices in the phonics/whole language debate? Results from a survey of U.S. elementary classroom teachers. The Reading Teacher, 51(8), 636-650.

DfE. (2011.) The importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading, policy and evidence paper.

Educationgovuk. (2012). Year 1 phonics screening check training video. Retrieved November 2, 2015.

Gibb, N. (2014). Is phonics the best way to teach children to read? Mumsnet bloggers network. Retrieved November 3, 2015.

Johnston, R. S., & Watson, J. E. (2007). Teaching synthetic phonics. London: SAGE.

Why is the phonics approach to reading such a political hot potato? GEORGE CARSLEY-BROMILOW investigates

With the recent Government legislation that forces a phonics approach to teaching, there has since been a backlash by those who believe that teachers should be able to teach a child in a way that best suits him/her. However, despite this upset, the Government continue to promote phonics as the best way to teach children to read.

The Department of Education (DoE) (2013, p.1) advertise phonics as “the most effective way of teaching young children to read”, believing that it would help every child to read by the age of six (Watt & Asthana, 2007). The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, stated that since synthetic phonics has been in place, “up to 120,000 more 6-year-olds on track to becoming strong readers” (Gov, 2015), yet an extra 94,000 pupils in 2015 questions whether phonics is helping every child like the government alleges (Adams, 2015).

For much of the 20th Century, a whole book approach was the dominant approach, where children learned whole words in their contexts. They would be taught ‘cat’ in its whole form instead of ‘[k]+[æ]+[t]’ like they would in phonics. This would help to relieve any confusions the child will have with spelling and sound irregularities such as <play>,  <they> and <weigh> (Children’s Books and Reading).

Synthetic phonics teaches individual sounds so that children can blend them together to “find out the pronunciation of unfamiliar words” (Johnston and Watson, 2007, p. 9). They further explain that “when taught the letter sounds /s/ /a/ /t/ and /p/ the children can blend the letters in the words ‘at’, ‘sat’, ‘tap’”. The DoE (2013, p.1) suggest that children benefit from this because the knowledge that they gain would allow them “to ‘de-code’ new words that they hear or see”.

The children’s progress is tested using the phonics screening check. The DoE (2013,p.1) state that the child reads a list of 40 words that include real and nonsense words, such as ‘strom’, ‘snope’ and ‘vap’, to see that the child is progressing at their expected level. They suggest that this is a fair way to assess their ability because they have to use their decoding abilities they learned through synthetic phonics (2013, p. 2). Recent DoE results (2014, p.1) indicate that 74% of year 1 pupils achieved the passing grade of 32/40, or 80%, when compared to 2012 where pupils scored 58%. This shows how there is a steady increase in children being able to read through synthetic phonics.

Yet, phonics incorrectly teaches that there is one sound for each one letter. Through accent variation we can see that issues arise from this. Disregarding accent may negatively impact the child’s score. For instance “the Cockney vowel in but makes that word sound like bat to a northerner: […], the vowels in both words may sometimes considered to be the same. But […] they have different places in the systems of different accents” (Leith, 1983, p. 117). Although some phonemes may sound the same, because they have different uses in different accents, a teacher may claim a child has read a blend incorrectly because they used a phoneme in a way that is common in their regional accent but not their teacher’s. This raises questions as to how far teachers are trained on marking phonics checks, and whether it is done objectively or subjectively.

Rosen states that phonics is not a “one size fits all approach” (cited in Dombey, 2010, p. 2), and it is this research that the government is ignoring. A teacher knows how their pupils learn best, and with the government enforcing a phonics only curriculum it hinders both the teachers and the pupils by assuming that every child in the country learns the same way. By having a single system with flawed methods of assessment it eventually becomes counterproductive when a child, who may be bright and intelligent but struggles with phonics, falls behind purely because the teachers are unable to teach them in a different method because of government restrictions. So my question is this: why turn such a simple issue into a political issue? Is a politician’s pride more valuable than helping a child learn the fundamental basics of humanity?

GEORGE CARSLEY-BROMILOW, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Adams, R. (2015, June 11). Number of children in oversize primary school classes exceeds 100,000. The Guardian.

Department for Education. (2013). Learning to read through phonics: Information for parents. Retrieved November 17, 2015.

Department of Education. (2014). Phonics screening check and national curriculum assessments at key stage 1 in England. Retrieved November 16, 2015.

Dombey, H. (2013). Teaching reading: what the evidence says. United Kingdom: Literacy Association.

Johnston, R. S., & Watson, J. E. (2007). Teaching synthetic phonics. London: SAGE.

Leith, D. (1983). A Social History of English. New York, NY: Routledge

Look and Say Teaching Method. Children’s Books and Reading. Retrieved November 21, 2015.

Morgan, N. (2015). Nicky Morgan: improving child literacy in England. 

Watt, N. & Asthana, A.,(2007, November 18). All children must read at six, says Cameron. The Guardian.