Does a ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ work when teaching young children to read? ELEANOR HEATON investigates synthetics phonics screening checks

In 2007, England introduced synthetic phonics lessons in primary schools following the suggestion of the Rose Review (2006) which claimed success in this style of teaching after a study in Clackmannanshire (Scott, The Guardian). Then in 2012, this systematic synthetic phonics style of teaching was adopted nationally (Sellgren, 2013) and continues now to be the main way children are taught to read. Pupils are educated to recognise phoneme and grapheme relations separately and then they are taught to blend these together to read a word (Lyle, 2014, 69). For instance, the letters (or graphemes) <c> + <a> + <t> when pronounced as their individual sounds (phonemes) /k/ + /æ/ + /t/ should be blended together to make /kæt/. According to Lyle (2014: 69) “[i]t assumes that simple decoding is all that is required in reading and aims to teach the sounds of individual letters and the 44 phonemes of English”. The Rose Report resulted in drastic changes to the reading scheme. This impact causes a great deal of controversy on how children should effectively learn to read.

The Rose Report (Rose, 2006) stated that the Searchlights model which sculpted the current reading scheme, and first used in 1998 (Dean, 2013, p22-23) must be scrapped and be replaced by the Simple View of Reading model (Glazzard and Stokoe, 2013, p47-48). The Searchlights model placed a clear emphasis on phonics, but also how the knowledge of context, grammar and graphic/word recognition should be reinforced too (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). It implied that decoding and comprehension complemented each other, and that a variety of strategies can be used to teach children how to read (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). It should not rely solely on phonics (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). However, Sir Jim Rose stated in his report that decoding and comprehension are two distinct skills and should be taught separately (which is shown in the simple view of reading model) and that phonics should be the only focus when teaching how to read. UK Education secretary at the time, Michael Gove, stated that phonics is the most successful way of teaching children to read and the government argued children must be drilled with one single approach that focuses on phonetic correspondence.

Therefore, to test a child’s ability to read, the government introduced phonics screening checks in 2012 which requires year 1s to read aloud 40 words – 20 real words and 20 made-up (pseudo words) ( With their knowledge of phonics, they should be able to individually decode each of the words ( The argument behind using pseudo words is that they are new to children and if they can decode these words they can decode any unfamiliar words ( Also, using a mixture of words can highlight if a child needs extra help. The government screening check teacher training video ( demonstrates pupils reading aloud each word presented to them in isolation. At times they do appear to be put under unneeded pressure whilst they are examined to correctly pronounce a word. Whilst it may seem acceptable to judge a child’s reading ability to the government, I and many others disagree with this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Not all children learn to read at the same pace so why should they be tested the same and feel judged and criticised if they fail the test. Furthermore, some words do not follow the rules of phonics (e.g. ‘who’ and ‘was’) and are not spelled the way they sound ( This can add even more confusion to a child when tested in this way.

Despite the government’s efforts to convince us all that a systematic synthetic phonics approach is the best, there are still people who favour a whole word approach. This requires children to learn large numbers of words and not break them down into smaller units (Walker-Gleaves and Waugh, 2017, p51). They can then guess a word if they are unsure by using other words in a sentence as a clue and rely on context (Walker-Gleaves and Waugh, p51). Those who support the whole word approach state that it does not ‘drill’ children in letters and it makes reading more pleasurable and authentic (Willingham, 2015, p76). This focuses more on comprehension than isolated words in tests, but it can also be criticised that this way takes longer, and it is not practical with one teacher in a class of 30 pupils.

Since both phonics and whole word styles of teaching can have its pros and cons, why not adopt a new method based on a combination of approaches when teaching children to read? Could this be the solution to suit everyone? As the Searchlights model previously suggested, it is possible to teach children with a variety of strategies (‘cues’) where comprehension and phonics complement each other. The current methods focus directly on a one-size-fits-all idea and the same phonics screening checks to test different children on their different reading abilities can seem unfair. Phonics should not be the only method to teach literacy skills.

ELEANOR HEATON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Dean, G (2013). Teaching Reading in the Secondary Schools, Second Edition. London: Routledge.

Glazzard, J and Stokoe, J. (2013). Teaching systematic synthetic phonics and early English, Northwich: Critical Publishing Ltd. Phonics.

Great Britain, Parliament. House of Commons, Education and Skills Committee. (2005). Teaching Children to Read: Eighth Report of Session 2004-05, London, United Kingdom: The Stationery Office.

LCP. Phonics Screening – Why Use Pseudo Words?

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

Scott, K. (2010, January 19). Phonics: lost in translation. The Guardian.

Sellgren, K. (2013, June 5). Phonics Test: ‘accurate but unnecessary’.

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

The Understood Team. (2017). Decodable Words vs. Sight Words: How They Compare. Understood. 

Walker-Gleaves, C and Waugh, D. (2017). Looking After Literacy: A Whole Child Approach to Effective Literacy. London: Sage.

Willingham, D. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. San Francisco: Wiley.


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.

How easy is it to read ‘bread’ and ‘bead’? LUKE EDWARDS explores synthetic phonics.

The teaching of literacy skills to UK children has been the subject of a long running debate. Literacy is obviously a key part of learning as it sets a foundation for children in later life. However, in the past the different teaching methods could be confusing, with a child being taught one method in one school which is vastly different to that of children in a neighbouring school.

This is why the UK government proposed ‘synthetic phonics’ as its main literacy method. Lyle (2014) explains that learning to read using a phonics method is about looking at the sounds (or ‘phonemes’) that letter combinations make. English itself contains 44 phonemes. The Dyslexia Reading Well provides a full coverage of these phonemes. This is the UK government’s approved method of teaching as it is more quantifiable than other methods – it is easier to test and therefore teachers can work out pupils’ reading level. It is also allegedly easier to learn and memorise 44 phonemes than learn via reading in context which requires a child to learn the shapes of whole words based on context and prior experience.

Synthetic phonics is primarily aimed at five-to-seven-year-olds though there is some degree of vocal ‘play’ before this age. This would involve games, singing, alliteration and other language play (Johnston & Watson, 2014). Then in Year One they begin being taught phonics to its full extent. The teaching starts with looking at words, segmenting them to understand the different phonemes involved. This is also done the opposite way,  phonemes being blended together to form whole words. These practices are then applied to reading and spelling (Johnston & Watson, 2014). After this children are taught ‘digraphs’; whilst this sounds daunting, a digraph is simply a pair of letters representing a single speech sound.

At the end of the digraph stage they have learnt all the phonemes taught in the current guide. They will then learn the alternative pronunciations of some phonemes (Johnston & Watson, 2014). This involves the differences in the pronunciation of words such as ‘bread’ and ‘bead’. These words both have the /ea/ phoneme followed by  a /d/. This is one of the key issues with phonics teaching as it confusing for children to learn the irregular forms of words (Lyle, 2014, pg. 70). This is compounded by the quantity of irregular sounding words the English Language has developed and adopted over its life.

There are many compelling views from both sides of the phonics debate. Some researchers and academics such as Sue Lyle, Andrew Davis and Michael Rosen object to a solely phonics based approach. Lyle (2014) believes that reading and understanding words in context is more important to children’s learning than learning the pronunciation. Davis appreciates some of the key arguments in favour of the phonics method but disagrees with it as a sole method.  He states, similar to Lyle, that he is against the “imposition of text decoding outside of ‘real’ reading contexts” (Davis, 2013, pg. 14). He also has a chapter dedicated to the statement “letter sounds and decoding is not reading” (Davis, 2013, pg. 19) again giving weight to the idea that there are other important aspects of reading aside from phonemic spelling. Michael Rosen’s (2013) blog which also follows the opinions of Lyle and Davis in the idea that phonics is not truly reading.

In his report, that is one of the key studies that led to the implementation of phonics teaching , Sir Jim Rose (2006) suggested that the older methods risked “paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition” (Rose,2006, pg. 36). The phonics method provides a set outline of how to teach a large class all at once rather than a teacher having to attempt one to one reading with 30 children which is a somewhat daunting task. The phonics approach is also quantifiable, as mentioned above, and there is currently a test in place that tracks a child’s understanding of phonics.
So in the UK, currently the phonics approach is prevailing. What are your thoughts and experiences of learning to read and write? Although it may be an easier way to teach a full class in a measurable way, is phonics truly learning to read?

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


Davis, A. (2013). To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics

Dyslexia Reading Well. ‘The 44 Phonemes in English’.

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

Lyle, S. (2014). The limits of phonics teaching. School Leadership Today 5 (5), 68-74.

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

Rosen, M. (2013) Phonics: a summary of my views. Michael Rosen

‘Geck’, ‘chom’ & ‘thazz’! TIFFANY WOODWARD asks: ‘Are UK five-year-olds being taught to read through meaningless words?’

Since 2006, and the publication of the Rose Review on the teaching of reading and writing, the UK government has promoted the use of a literacy method, known as ‘systematic synthetic phonics. This is where children are taught the 44 sounds of English in a specific order – ‘d’ and ‘g’ before ‘ch’ and ‘th’, for example (Jolly Learning; Rose, 2006). Upon learning the sounds, the youngsters then face the challenge of blending them, to pronounce the words of English (Neaum, 2017, p. 2). The majority of educators seemed to understand the reasoning behind the promotion of this method. After all, the Rose Report (2006) was heavily based upon a multitude of research. In an investigation by Johnston and Watson (2005) in Clackmannanshire, children exposed to ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ had a reading age of more than three years above their actual age (Gibb, 2014). Clearly, teachers everywhere wanted their pupils to excel in this way. If the suggested method was to work best for the children, then this was what they would adhere to.

As we might expect, this ceasefire in the so-called ‘Reading Wars’ was relatively short lived. The introduction of a compulsory Phonics Screening Check (test) in 2012, has been strongly opposed by many, not only those teaching phonics (Gibb, 2014). The check assesses the phonic knowledge of children in Year 1, and requires them to read aloud 40 words (Richardson, 2014), which seems like a somewhat straightforward task. However, the checks have been criticised for a variety of reasons, from their extortionate cost (Clark, 2014, p. 13), to the negative influence that they are found to have on the confidence of young and fluent readers (UKLA, 2012).

For many though, the crux of the matter is that half of the words that children are presented with during these checks, are not real words. What are they, if not real words? They are non-words, or ‘pseudo’ words, such as “voo” and “spron” (Richardson, 2014), that children, age five, are expected to be able to break down into sounds, and then blend, to read the word aloud. Spending even a small amount of time in a Year 1 classroom, allowed me to experience the sheer weight that schools place upon learning these non-words. The Year 1 teacher that I observed, spent a significant amount of time practising these non-words with the children. It is difficult to see how rehearsing these non-words, solely in preparation for the checks, helps the children to become better all-round readers.

The check, described by the Department for Education (DfE) as a “short, light touch assessment” (DfE, 2013), is nothing of the sort, according to 87% of teachers questioned, all of whom disagree with their implementation. Ninety-one per cent of teachers questioned, claimed that the checks did not give them any additional insight into the children’s reading abilities (ATL/NAHT/NUT, 2012), which leads many to question whether the checks are fit for purpose. The teachers surveyed claimed that the non-words were a very confusing element for the majority of children, who, in an attempt to make sense of what they were reading, read words like ‘thend’ as ‘the end’ (UKLA, 2012, p. 4). These errors significantly affected their marks in the tests (UKLA, 2012, p. 4).

Of course, avid supporters of the checks refer to a range of advantages associated with their use. Gibb (2014), who claims that phonics should be used as “the sole method for teaching children to decode and identify words”, is one of a number of individuals, who consistently support the use of the checks. The DfE (2013) claim that one of the main benefits of early testing, is that children who might be struggling with reading can be spotted from their cohort at a young age. Teachers and support staff, therefore, will be able to implement the correct support and guidance, to help the child catch up with their peers, and essentially, “close the gap” (Grant, 2014, pp. 22-23).

It is understandable that the early identification of issues in reading, for children is essential to their successful development throughout the key stages. However, it is also important to recognize that the effects of these checks, on teachers, and more importantly, the pupils sitting them, have been negative. If the aim of teaching children to read using a systematic, synthetic phonics method, is to improve the early reading abilities of children, then why are these reading abilities being tested through the reading of words that are not real? Unless five-year-olds request to read Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ (Davis, 2013, 29) every day, then it seems that the checks will not help them become better readers.

TIFFANY WOODWARD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


ATL/NAHT/NUT (2012, July). Teachers’ and head teachers’ views of the year one phonics screening check.

Clark, M. (2014). Whose knowledge counts in Government literacy policies and at what cost? Education Journal, 186, 13–16.

Davis, A. (2013). To read or not to read; Decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy (No. 20). 

Department for Education. (2013). The phonics screening check.

Gibb, N. (2014, 16 June). Phonics tests show progressive teaching is doomed to failure. Daily Telegraph

Grant, M. (2014). The effects of a systematic synthetic phonics programme on reading, writing and spelling.

Johnston, R., and Watson, J. (2005). The effects of synthetic phonics teaching of reading and spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. The Scottish Executive Central Research Unit.

Jolly Learning Educational Publisher. Teaching literacy with Jolly Phonics.

Neaum, S. (2017). What comes before phonics? London, United Kingdom: Learning Matters.

Richardson, H. (2014, 28 January). Able readers damaged by phonics, academic says. BBC News. 

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (The Rose Report), Nottingham, United Kingdom: DfES.

United Kingdom Literacy Association. (2012). UKLA analysis of schools’ response to the year 1 phonics screening check.

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.