COMMONS

Education Committee web forum: Phonics

The Education Committee invites views on the strength of the evidence in relation to the current policy on Phonics and other methods of learning to read.

Thank you for all comments submitted to the ‘Evidence Check’ forum. The forum is now closed. Comments received will help the Committee evaluate the evidence received from the Department for Education.

The Committee will use the comments to select topics for one-off oral evidence sessions in early 2015.

Evidence

Please read the Department's evidence on Phonics policy:

Image: iStockphoto

90 Responses to Phonics

John Walker, Sounds Write Ltd says:
December 15, 2014 at 02:31 PM
As the Committee is well aware, the research base on phonics has been firmly established for well over thirty years and the evidence in favour of a code emphasis (phonics) approach to the teaching of reading and spelling is overwhelming. In itself, this is more than good reason for the government’s continued support for the teaching of explicit and structured phonics to all children in schools across the country.
There are three important research areas that lend considerable support to the teaching of phonics: research on writing systems, our knowledge about human cognition, and the importance of practice.
Experts on the subject of the world’s writing systems, such as Daniels and Bright, contend that all alphabetic languages represent the sounds in the languages for which they were written. Even though for reasons of its history it is more complex than other alphabetic scripts, English is no exception: letters (spellings) represent the sounds of the language. Every single word in English, however complex, is comprised of sounds and all of those sounds have, at one time or another, been assigned spellings.
The second area of research on the way humans learn most effectively is being investigated by Geary, Sweller and Kirschner, all of whom have gathered compelling evidence based on properly collected data tested using randomised control tests. The data tells us that we should be teaching domain-specific knowledge and that novices or beginners embarking on learning new information should be taught explicitly and directly. In addition, all of these researchers are united in their understanding that learning materials need to be structured in a way that takes into account human cognitive architecture. In particular, when designing instructional approaches, teachers need carefully to consider the limits of the capacity of working memory when assimilating new information and its relation to long-term memory.
On the subject of practice, all the literature reviews report that the development of expertise at an individual level is slow and progresses step-by-step even though long periods of time are devoted. As one of the foremost experts on the subject Paul Feltovich acknowledges, ‘[E]xpertise is a long-term developmental process, resulting from rich instrumental experiences in the world and extensive practice. These cannot simply be handed to someone’. Furthermore, in the field of domain-related expertise, it is assumed that the basic capacities with which each individual is endowed are more or less the same. What makes the difference is the quality of the teaching and the amount of practice invested.
Finally, it is my contention that, given the complexity of the domain, the amount of time needed for each and every individual learning to read and write in English is three years. Thereafter, knowledge can be extended both implicitly - based on the individual’s prior knowledge of how the alphabet code is structured - and explicitly from teachers.
For all of this to happen, the furtherance of phonics teaching necessitates the continued and enthusiastic support of the government at all levels. Every single aspect of education depends on how literate children are.
The government’s active role is now required to: commission academic studies on which phonics programmes are most effective; ensure that all teacher trainers in the area of phonics have a very high level of expertise; and, ensure that all teachers have a good understanding of the English writing system and how to teach it, especially in the early years.
References
Daniels, P.T. and Bright, W., (1996), The World’s Writing Systems, OUP.
Feltovich, P.J., Prietula, M.J. & Anders Ericsson, K., Studies of Expertise from Psychological Perspectives, in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, CUP, p.46.
Geary, D., ‘Educating the Evolved Mind: Conceptual Foundations for an Evolutionary Educational Psychology’, Psychological Perspectives on Contemporary Educational Issues, edited by J.S. Carlson and J.R.Levin. Information Age Publishing.
Paul A. Kirschner, P.A, Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E., (2006), ‘Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist,
Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching’, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Sweller, J., (2008), ‘Human Cognitive Architecture’ PDF: http://www.csuchico.edu/~nschwartz/Sweller_2008.pdf
Debbie Hepplewhite says:
December 15, 2014 at 10:21 AM
There are multiple issues of concern around phonics and reading instruction in England resulting in 'chance' as to what children receive with regard to phonics experience and reading instruction in their schools.

There is no need for this 'chance' state of affairs – and it is certainly not accountable at any level.

We know from an international and well-established body of research and leading-edge classroom practice (not just 'Clackmannanshire') that it is very beneficial to teach the complex English alphabetic code and the phonic skills of decoding for reading, and encoding for spelling, explicitly and systematically from the infant years, for all children and for intervention (special needs) as required. The arguments about differences between 'systematic' and 'synthetic' are detracting from ensuring a deep professional understanding of the differences between types of phonics and actual phonics practice in classrooms. We need to keep moving towards a much deeper level of professional understanding of the potential of synthetic phonics teaching largely at the level of the phoneme and why and how this is more beneficial than multiple types of phonics which complicate the teaching of our spelling system especially for younger learners.

We also know from international research and classroom experience that at least some children can be seriously harmed in their short-term and long-term reading progress by multi-cueing reading strategies which amount to guessing words from various clues such as pictures, initial letters, word shape and context – and yet these strategies still persist in teachers' practice and they are embedded in well-known intervention programmes such as Reading Recovery which has sustained an international stranglehold on education for many years. What happens in the reading process when pictures disappear and new words are not in sentences (context) and/or in the readers' spoken language? There is ONLY a phonics strategy left to lift the words off the page:

https://www.senmagazine.co.uk/articles/articles/senarticles/where-next-for-phonics

Finally, I endeavour to point out that even when teachers say that they are 'doing' systematic synthetic phonics, knowledgeable observation of their practice reveals phonics teaching is often weak and lacking in application and embeddedness because of practical matters such as 'insufficient time', activities largely based on 'entertainment' and dominated by mini-whiteboard work (which does not provide a balance of decoding and encoding activities) and failure to provide a full 'Teaching and Learning Cycle' to include 'apply and extend' to embed the phonics learning for reading, spelling and writing, including vocabulary enrichment and language comprehension. This suggests a lack of deep professional knowledge and understanding about phonics and reading instruction including how to address differentiation well enough.

It was arguably a grave error to promote the 'Letters and Sounds' publication (DfES 2007) as a "high-quality six phase phonics programme" as opposed to a 'detailed framework' as this has misled the teaching and teacher-training professions and caused many teachers, and children, subsequent hardship. We now have a situation in England whereby 'phonics provision' can look very, very different school to school and yet this is not understood well enough. We do not even understand that schools describing themselves as 'Letters and Sounds schools' can be providing phonics teaching and learning which looks very different between schools. The NFER report on phonics (May 2014) demonstrates this fact to some extent - raising the point very clearly that even when schools state they provide 'Systematic Synthetic Phonics', this phonics provision may still be within a multi-cueing reading strategies approach and therefore this is NOT systematic synthetic phonics provision according to the body of international research which highlights the dangers of multi-cueing reading habits which can be damaging for children in the short and long term.

It is applauded by many internationally that the UK Government has promoted Systematic Synthetic Phonics teaching in schools in England - we need to build on developments to date transparently, objectively and with good heart to build on work to date - not undermine it. The advances in England have implications for world-wide literacy as much of the world chooses to teach English as an additional language.
Elizabeth Nonweiler says:
December 15, 2014 at 10:00 AM
I am certain that systematic synthetic phonics is the best way to teach children to read, because of a combination of my own experience, anecdotal evidence, logic and published research.

Below is a link to my own report comparing synthetic phonics research with the following Reading Recovery research in England: “Comparison of Literacy Progress of Young Children in London Schools: a Reading Recovery Follow up Study” (Burroughs-Lange, 2007). Reading Recovery is not synthetic phonics. My report shows that this piece of Reading Recovery research, apparently supporting the use of Reading Recovery with its mixed methods, is flawed. It shows that children, who have difficulty learning to read, can succeed with synthetic phonics. Reading Recovery or Synthetic Phonics?, A review of two studies about helping young children who struggle to learn to read.
http://www.nonweiler.demon.co.uk/RR%20or%20SP%20for%20Intervention.pdf

In addition, below is a link to a memorandum I submitted to “Evidence Check 1: Early Literacy Interventions - Science and Technology Committee”. Since evidence in favour of teaching phonics has become overwhelming, Reading Recovery has included some phonics. Reading Recovery has claimed that this is synthetic phonics, but it is not, because children read words or their teacher tells them words, before analysing the letter-sound correspondences in them. With synthetic phonics, children learn letter-sound correspondences in the words they are going to read first, and then read the words independently.
Memorandum submitted by Elizabeth Nonweiler (LI 12)
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/44/44we14.htm

I have copied details of other research and reports supporting the use of synthetic phonics. I have included much that has already been mentioned, but with quotes I use when I am training teachers.

The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programme on Reading, Writing and Spelling
“Crucially, these studies have demonstrated how an early grounding in synthetic phonics can make it possible for all children to leave primary school better able to access the secondary-school curriculum.”
http://rrf.org.uk/pdf/Grant%20Follow-Up%20Studies%20-%20May%202014.pdf

Sound~Write's longitudinal study of literacy development from 2003-2009, following 1607 pupils through Key Stage 1
“We can see that for nearly 10% of those who didn't make enough of a start to score on the test at the end of their Reception Year, within only two years they are scoring more than a year ahead of their chronological ages”
http://www.sounds-write.co.uk/documents/sounds_write_research_report_2009.pdf

Synthetic Phonics: The Scientific Research Evidence
“It was found that only two activities, both of which comprised explicit letter-sound instruction, were significantly related to subsequent reading and spelling success.”
www.rrf.org.uk/messageforum/viewtopic.php?t=1306

A synthesis of research on reading from the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) USA
“Research quite clearly shows that overemphasizing prediction from context for word recognition can be counterproductive, possibly delaying reading acquisition.”
http://www.nrrf.org/synthesis_research.htm

The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment
“One child with severe learning difficulties was able, with support for his learning, to read well above the level expected for his age and level of verbal ability.” (Chapter 8).
file:///C:/Users/EAN/Documents/Reading%20Reform/Research/Rhona%20Johnston%20Clack/Clackmannanshire/Seven%20Year%20Study%20Clackmannanshire.pdf
This research also showed that children who learn to read with synthetic phonics are better than average at reading comprehension by the time they finish primary school.

Teaching Reading, Report and Recommendations (Australia)
“The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency.”
http://syntheticphonicscpd.com/aus_enq.pdf

National Reading Panel (USA)
“... the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates:
• ... Systematic phonics instruction – the knowledge that letters of the alphabet represent phonemes, and that these sounds are blended together to form written words ...
http://www.nichd.nih.gov/research/supported/Pages/nrp.aspx/

Longitudinal Study of the Effects on Reading and Spelling of a Synthetic Phonics and Systematic Spelling and Grammar Program
“This study demonstrates that the program of synthetic phonics ... known to predict reading and spelling achievement at school entry”
http://www.speld-sa.org.au/images/Articles/speld%20sa%20longitudinal%20study%20interim%20report%20june%202012.pd
Julia Douetil says:
December 15, 2014 at 09:59 AM
Julia Douetil
Director International Literacy Centre at UCL Institute of Education, and national lead for Reading Recovery.

In response to Susan Godsland’s posts about Reading Recovery (below) I refer to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education – Report of the Inquiry into Overcoming the Barriers to Literacy, July 2011

‘Teachers must be able to choose their own resources for literacy to suit individual literacy needs. There should be no government prescription of resources, and funding should be given directly to professionals to deal with their school’s literacy issues, for example, targeted support for a wide range of programmes that have been proven to work such as Reading Recovery. ‘ (page 4)
and
‘Many schools have found one-to-one methods such as Reading Recovery (Every Child a Reader) very effective in teaching children to read. There was a funding stream for this but schools now must pay for this themselves if they wish to continue. They felt that the choice to be able to adopt approaches for a consistent period of time was being removed from them with a change of focus to systematic synthetic phonics only. This can only be to the detriment of the learners and so presents another barrier to improving literacy.’ (Page 7)
And
‘The focus of the Department for Children, Schools and Families was on funded one-to-one interventions. Intensive programmes such as Every Child A Reader (Reading Recovery) have been shown to work over the short and long term, and research by KPMG shows the financial savings of using Reading Recovery. The programme teaches pupils strategies to use in both reading and writing. The initial one-to-one support means that pupils are brought into line with their age-related expectations so that they can then go back into class and access the rest of the curriculum. Evidence shows that very few of these children need further support.’ (page 14)
Sion Humphreys NAHT says:
December 15, 2014 at 09:11 AM
1.1 NAHT accepts that there is strong research evidence supporting the use of systematic phonics in the process of developing decoding skills in young children and hence their ability to read independently.
1.2 This is accepted by the vast majority of teachers and systematic phonics has always played its part in the repertoire of pedagogical approaches used in this key area of learning. NAHT believes that the application of the professional experience, judgement and skills of teachers in deciding how to employ systematic phonics teaching is the key to effective teaching.
1.3 This view is supported by the evidence cited by the government in justifying its policy. It is seen in its emphasis on systematic phonics teaching’s effectiveness being enhanced by being taught within a ‘language-rich’ curriculum’. NAHT believes that it would have been useful for its documentation to have elaborated upon what this means in practice.
1.4 The government placed great store on evidence emerging from the US National Reading Panel research findings. This work stressed the importance of systematic phonics including systematic synthetic phonics teaching. The significant point is that a balanced and effective programme draws upon a range of systematic approaches.
1.5 However, the government’s prior policy of providing matched funding for systematic synthetic phonics resources incurred the risk of undermining the importance of the balanced approach.
1.6 NAHT’s main objection to current government policy relates to the imposition of national testing in the course of Year 1. The Association does not believe that this serves to raise standards.
Jennifer Chew says:
December 15, 2014 at 08:50 AM
In the early stages of learning to read, children encounter many words that are unfamiliar in their written form but familiar in their spoken form. Early independence in converting the unfamiliar written forms into the more familiar spoken forms is clearly very useful. Synthetic phonics teaches this: children learn the letter-sound correspondences which are the basis of English orthography, starting with the simplest, and are taught to read words by saying sounds for the letters and then blending (synthesising) the sounds into whole words. Once words have been read this way a few times, most children start reading them without overt sounding and blending.

Official reports, however, as well as comments from teachers and others, show that many people still believe that it is better for children to be taught to use a range of strategies to identify words. These strategies include the memorisation of words without attention to detail and guessing from pictures or context. Mixed methods are therefore still common, but there seems little doubt that the amount of synthetic phonics in the mix has increased in recent years. Obvious influences have been the recommendations of the Rose review (2006) and the introduction of the Year 1 phonics screening check (2012). The cohorts of children affected by these changes have apparently done better in the national end-of-key-stage assessments than previous cohorts have done. This suggests that the increased emphasis on synthetic phonics has had a beneficial effect in practice, not least on reading for meaning, as this is what is assessed at the end of Key Stages 1 and 2.

It is clear that there are disagreements about the quality of the research behind synthetic phonics. The end-of-Key-Stage assessments are a large-scale official yardstick, however, and it is hard to see how the government can ignore the evidence they provide unless there is strong counter-evidence.
Malene Greenwood says:
December 15, 2014 at 07:28 AM
Synthetic phonics is flawed because it's basic premise is wrong. Human language is not learned by listening to isolated sounds blended together into words. It is learned by working out the meanings of whole words and phrases spoken to us personally.
Babies and young children learn language by attending to the unique meaning of phrases and words spoken to them by their human carers.
Communication between humans relies on people attending to the meanings of words and phrases not their smallest units of sound. Human speech is too fast for people to attend to any "separate" sounds because there are no separate sounds in speech. It is a continuous stream of meaningful communication and word boundaries are learnt as word meanings become known.

It is only later, when we are learning to read and write that we become aware of the sounds abstracted from speech, because we have to learn how to extract these from a continuous spoken medium to use them in a discrete written medium. We have to learn how to segment speech into units and associate these with symbols. Then the symbols have to be written in separate blocks for each word in a text.

This would not be too difficult if each sound unit corresponded to each symbol, but English has multiple sounds for each symbol. E.g. the symbol 'a' in cat is pronounced differently in the words baby, father, was, sausage.
It is because English is so complicated in this respect that the proponents of synthetic and linguistic phonics have proposed that we learn to read and write by a sound-to-symbol system rather than a symbol-to-sound system. They have organised the written symbols to correspond to the smallest sounds of speech in alphabetic charts, rather than the dictionary way of the spellings of words.

The sound-to-symbol system has just 44 sounds of speech. Children are taught these sounds and all the symbols which represent them. E.g /ee/ as in sheep, we, leaf, chief, monkey, pony, radio, theme, protein, chlorine.

However, there is no way to decide which symbol/s or spellings to use for each word when writing it without learning the whole word visually and remembering it, e.g. walk, stork, hawk. In this respect there is no advantage in learning to read and write using this system as opposed to any other phonic system.

In fact, these sounds and symbols, in themselves, are meaningless. Children have to learn to rediscover the meaning of the language in written words. Once they have recognised a written unit of meaning, a word, there is no need for them to resort to attending to the separate symbols and sounds, in a left to right order all through a word, (synthetic and linguistic phonics) for pronunciation. The visual/meaning connection is strong enough to bypass the symbol/ sound process. When reading a text people learn to instantly recognise words visually, and 'recognising' the word includes its meaning.

The method of teaching children to read by synthetic phonics is based on the Simple View of Reading. It has two factors represented by 'decoding' and 'language comprehension'. It deliberately separates reading skill into two strands only, pronunciation (decoding) and meaning (language comprehension). It subsumes syntax, grammar, and understanding words within the language comprehension strand. Phonics, synthetic or analytic, does not deal with these aspects of language comprehension.

Yet children need to learn the correspondences between symbols and sounds if they are to learn how to read and write their own language. They need to pronounce what they see on the page and to link this to words in their known vocabulary.
However, they do not need to learn how to pronounce meaningless letter strings which do nothing to grow their knowledge of language and vocabulary. (As in the Phonic Check)
Neither do they need to be restricted to one method of working out the relationship between written symbols and the meaning of language.
The principle that the only unit taught is the phoneme, denies children access to other aspects of phonology which help them learn to read, e.g. rhymes, syllables, consonant clusters.
The principle that no words are taught 'by sight' is nonsense when it is realised that it is just as easy to remember a two letter word as a two letter grapheme.... and it means something!

Molly de Lemos says:
December 14, 2014 at 11:21 PM
The response of the UK government to the recommendations of the Rose Report (2006) in mandating the systematic teaching of phonics and introducing a statutory phonics screening check at the end of Year 1 has been followed with interest by those of us in Australia who have long advocated for the introduction of more effective approaches to the teaching of reading in Australia.

In Australia, following an open letter to the then Minister of Education from a group of leading reading researchers and academics expressing concerns about the way in which reading was typically being taught in Australian schools, the Minister commissioned a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in Australia, which submitted its report to the Minister in December 2005. This Report made 20 recommendations, including the recommendation that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency. But none of the Report’s 20 recommendations was ever acted upon. The teaching of reading in Australia is still dominated by the whole language approach, where there is no systematic teaching of phonics and children are encouraged to guess words based on pictures and context.

From this perspective, what the UK has achieved in the same period of time since the publication of the Rose report has been remarkable. Clearly without government leadership and appropriate legislation, the dominance of ineffective teaching approaches based on ideology rather than on scientific evidence will persist, as it has in the case of Australia and other English-speaking countries such as NZ, the US and Canada where whole language approaches to the teaching of reading have become entrenched.

I see the phonics screening check at the end of Year 1 as an essential part of the strategy to ensure that schools provide effective teaching of phonics in the first year of school. Without this, there would be no means of monitoring the effectiveness of the program, and no consistent means of identifying children who need extra help in acquiring the basic skills of reading. Assumptions that teachers do not need the phonics check to identify children who are having difficulties is not supported by the evidence that teacher judgments are less reliable than objective tests in identifying children who may be at risk.

In the case of Australia, I would see the introduction of a phonics screening test at the end of the first year of school (now called the Foundation year) as the best way to focus attention on the importance of phonics instruction and to bring about change in teaching methods.

I commend the achievements of the UK government in legislating to ensure that the teaching of reading in the UK is based on scientific evidence as opposed to ideological assumptions as to how best to teach reading. It is an example which other countries would do well to emulate.
Helen Watson says:
December 14, 2014 at 05:33 PM
The message of the Phonics Policy Memorandum is that word reading skills are the foundation of effective and enjoyable reading, and that the most effective way to learn word reading is via systematic phonics teaching. I disagree with both these claims because they are not borne out by my experience, either as a class teacher or more recently as a reading coach.

Since 2010 I have been working as an independent reading coach in Cambridgeshire with children aged 7-11 who are struggling to read.

I have 30 years teaching experience, mostly as a Key Stage 1 teacher and I then trained and worked as a Dyslexia specialist for 4 years until 2010.

My comments are based on my observations and experience over 30 years.

My experience is that children who read well do not rely heavily on decoding words. Reading is gathering up lots of information to make sense of the print. Phonic knowledge plays only a small part in this. The over emphasis on ’reading accuracy’ at the word level holds children back and knocks their confidence.

I see many children who are trying to read by decoding word by word. They are switched off from reading and have a reading age below their chronological age. Yet they have had between 3 and 7 years of phonics teaching. Any extra help they’ve received in school has been more phonics. Their progress has been slow and tortuous. These children, once they have been shown other strategies, quickly discover that they are good at reading and they enjoy it too.

I work with many children who go from being non- readers to readers in a few weeks, sometimes hours.



Professor Margaret M Clark says:
December 14, 2014 at 11:38 AM
The phonics check was cited by Sir Michael Wilshaw HMCI in his speech launching his Annual Report released on 10 December 2014.
To quote:
`Just as importantly, primary schools are making great efforts to get learning right early on. The introduction of the phonics screening check has helped.....Primary headteachers understand that the sooner they can shape a child`s education, particularly when the child is from a disadvantaged background the greater the chances of later school success.`
1. It is no surprise that there has been an increase each year in the percentage of children passing the check in year 1 and those in year 2 who have been required to re-sit it.This is not evidence that there is benefit beyond achievement in what has become a high stakes pass/fail test, not only for all children aged five and a half to six and a half years of age who are required to take the check but also for their schools and individual teachers. The pass mark has been the same each year, and for the first two years was known in advance to the teachers. There is evidence of practice for the check (including of the pseudo words that form half the test). Furthermore, concerns have been expressed at the validity of the check (see Clark 2014 chapters 4 and 5).
2. There has each year been a large gap in percentage pass between the oldest and youngest children sitting the check, not noted in government reports, with 36% of the youngest boys and 29% of the youngest girls required to re-sit the check in 2015. Schools are expected to inform the parents of the results; thus a failure is recorded for many young children early in their school career, including not only many of the youngest children but also some children already reading with understanding who it has been reported may also fail the check. The check may be `shaping young children`s education` in literacy but in limiting ways, particularly for those children who fail and are required to re-sit the test.
3. NFER has been commissioned to undertake a three year research on the government phonics policy and two interim reports have been published. These identify concerns of many teachers about aspects of the phonics check, but do not provide evidence on the effect of the check on standards of literacy (see Clark 2014, chapter 7).
4. If Sir Michael`s comments are based only on inspections by Ofsted such assessments of some schools may have been influenced by the percentage pass on the phonics check which for each school is 201available online to inspectors, or their judgement as to the extent to which the school has accepted the government policy on synthetic phonics.
It is to be hoped that the final NFER report in May 2015 will provide evidence on the effect of the phonics check on standards of literacy, on the wider literacy experiences of young children during their early years in primary school and these children`s understanding of the key features of written English.
Reference: Clark, M.M. (2014) Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning: an evidence-based critique. Birmingham: Glendale Education.