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.


Please read the Department's evidence on Phonics policy:

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90 Responses to Phonics

Tom Nicholson says:
December 13, 2014 at 10:08 PM
Phonics is a very effective way of teaching and I have long been a supporter of it but in a recent randomized controlled study we found that disadvantaged 6-year-old children in small groups who were read stories with enlarged print (called Big Books) and at the same time taught phonics by singling out words in the stories achieved astonishing results and brought their reading up to an average level within 12 weeks. This suggests that we need a “two-size fits all” approach.
This study was carried out on a group of 6-year-olds at three disadvantaged schools. These were schools where the regular method was Big Book reading. Children who were average and below in reading and spelling were given supplementary half-hour lessons drip fed, once a week, for 12 lessons – including school holidays, the project went for 16 weeks. The children were split into four groups to test each of four methods.
The combined method of being read big books and taught phonics together was compared with just being read big books or just being taught phonics, which are the most common ways of teaching reading and literacy in the classroom. The Big Book group had all reading with some analytic phonics, the phonics group had explicit phonics with no reading. The combined group integrated Big Book reading with explicit phonics. The fourth, a control group, was taught math instead of literacy.
While children's oral reading level remained unchanged for big book reading compared with combining big book reading and phonics, there was notable improvement in their reading comprehension, spelling and basic skills.
The success of the integrated approach was making the learning relevant to the children by using words from the Big Books to teach phonics so that pupils could then apply these skills in reading.
The results were measured by giving the 96 children a range of reading assessments, including oral reading of different passages and asking them questions to test their comprehension, and a spelling test.
It's a breakthrough study really. It raises the achievement level of those children we are most concerned about – in disadvantaged schools. It shows that rather than teaching these things separately, if you put them together you can get just about every child reading and spelling up to their chronological age.
The link to the study is:

Tom Nicholson
Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand

Susan Godsland says:
December 12, 2014 at 08:18 PM
In my previous comment I named a few primary schools which teach reading and spelling using ‘pure’ synthetic phonics within a broad and language-rich curriculum. Here are their 2014 KS2 SAT results:

Curwen PS e London. 55% disadvantaged pupils. 67% ESL
Reading. 98% L4 73% L5. Writing. 97% L4. 57% L5. SPAG 97% L4 83% L5

Elmhurst PS e London 52% disadvantaged pupils. 96% ESL
Reading. 94% L4 59% L5. Writing 94% L4 47% L5. SPAG. 90% L4 64% L5

St George's PS Battersea, London. 71% disadvantaged pupils 50% ESL.
Reading 96% L4 54% L5. Writing 100% L4 63% L5. SPAG. 96% L4 75% L5

Christ Church PS Chelsea London. 21% disadvantage 25% ESL.
Reading 96% L4 79% L5. Writing 93% L4 68% L5. SPAG 82% L4 82% L5.

Whole Language became the dominant approach for teaching reading in the 1980s and lasted until the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) in 1998. Early reading instruction in the NLS was based on multi-cueing decoding strategies (searchlights).

In their Civitas paper 'Ready to Read', Anastasia de Waal and Nicholas Cowen wrote: '(I)n order to accommodate the more established academic orthodoxy (i.e. child centred rather than anything resembling didactic or mechanistic teaching), a medley of reading strategies was included in searchlights. This attempt to keep everyone happy, while also attempting to address reading standards, led to a rather chaotic model which would frequently prove ineffective. Searchlights encouraged children to learn to read using four distinctive methods simultaneously'

Whilst the Phonics Screening Check examines children’s single word decoding, KS2 Reading SATs examine children’s comprehension. When phonics decoding is not taught, or a range of strategies is used for decoding, comprehension suffers. This can be seen in schools’ KS2 SATs results from the Whole Language and NLS periods.

A report by Professor Tymms, Coe and Merrell, at the University of Durham's CEM Centre, looked at the attainments of pupils in England between 1995 and 2004. In 1995, in the KS2 SATs, only 48% of pupils achieved Level 4 or above in reading. According to official figures this shockingly low level of attainment rose to 75% by 2000, but the Massey Report called the reading score rise "illusory" with the real score being just 58%. In 2004, 6 years after the introduction of the NLS with its 'medley of decoding strategies', only 60% of children achieved Level 4 or above in reading in the KS 2 SATs.
Tymms, Coe & Merrell: Standards in English schools.

The Clackmannanshire researchers Johnston and Watson said, 'Much is made of the fact that the synthetic phonics programme in Clackmannanshire led to much greater increases in word reading and spelling skill than in reading comprehension, implying that reading comprehension did not benefit from the intervention. However, it should be noted that at the end of the seventh year at school, reading comprehension in the study was significantly above age level, in a sample that had a below average SES profile’(RRF newsletter 59. p3) Pupils in England from similar backgrounds, but taught by the NLS multi-cueing method, were spelling 4.5 months below age expectations and reading comprehension was about 7 months behind. (

Reading Recovery is 'a multi-cueing, non-systematic approach' (Sir Jim Rose. Presentation to SPELD conference Australia)

Parliament's Science and Technology committee also questioned the use of Reading Recovery. Having checked all the evidence, the committee said: 'Teaching children to read is one of the most important things the State does. The Government has accepted Sir Jim Rose's recommendation that systematic phonics should be at the heart of the Government's strategy for teaching children to read. This is in conflict with the continuing practice of word memorisation and other teaching practices from the 'whole language theory of reading' used particularly in Wave 3 Reading Recovery’

The following paper by Profs Tunmer, Chapman et al at Massey University, New Zealand, explains why NZ’s own NLS has failed and the problems with Reading Recovery.
Andrew Davis Durham University says:
December 12, 2014 at 05:24 PM

Free download of my "To read or not to read: decoding synthetic phonics".. This exposes serious weaknesses in the concept of Synthetic Phonics, the Check, and the research purporting to justify its imposition.
Professor Joe Elliott, Durham University says:
December 12, 2014 at 12:52 PM
POST 4/4


The evidence for the importance of phonics teaching, particularly for children encountering reading difficulty, is clear. However, there continues to be fierce debate amongst practitioners and policymakers as to the relative merits of different forms of phonics teaching. This debate has served as an unhelpful distraction, although it is an issue that needs resolution. To date, there has been a dearth of well-controlled, experimental studies that have examined the extent to which different forms of phonics teaching are most powerful for all, or certain, groups of children. Instead, findings from the Clackmannanshire study have been eagerly and non-critically accepted despite criticisms about the methodology employed. High quality experimental studies able to provide a much clearer picture, are required.


Elliott, J.G. & Grigorenko, E.L. (2014). The Dyslexia Debate. New York: Cambridge University Press
Goddard, R. (1991). Why LINC matters. English in Education, 25, 32-39.
National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Snow, C. E., & Juel, C. (2005). Teaching children to read: What do we know about how to do it? In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 501-520). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Anne Rutherford says:
December 12, 2014 at 12:51 PM
Phonics is just one part of the complex process of literacy teaching and learning and should form part of a broad and flexible approach to reading and writing. There is no evidence to suggest that one teaching method will be effective for all children. Over-emphasis on sounding out, to the exclusion of all other strategies, may have a long-term detrimental impact on fluency, ability to decoder more complex words, spelling and perceptions of reading as an activity rather than an enjoyable experience. Literacy standards should be improved by a comprehensive approach which includes high quality professional development for staff and effective intervention for struggling readers. A good school does not need the Phonics Screening Test to tell them which of their children are struggling with reading rather they will have already have identified them and implemented a suitable intervention for those children. School leaders should have the professional freedom to tailor their literacy curriculum to match the needs of all children.

Professor Joe Elliott, Durham University says:
December 12, 2014 at 12:50 PM
POST 3/4


It is now clear that the use of phonics is essential for children who struggle to acquire decoding skills irrespective of the relative influence of biological or environmental influences. These children are less able than their normally achieving peers to discover letter-sound patterns as a consequence of reading and, for this reason, more explicit teaching is required. Such instruction should not leave essential skills and knowledge to be discovered by the child on their own. In my own opinion, based upon the scientific literature, and my own personal experience working with reading disabled children as a teacher and educational psychologist, over-emphasis on the “real books” approach, with a concomitant failure to teach structured phonics to children with reading difficulties (particularly during the 1980s and 1990s), has severely hindered the reading development of a significant number of struggling readers.

There is some evidence that while “…attention to small units in early reading instruction is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some" (Snow & Juel, 2005, p. 518), there is less need for very highly structured approaches in the case of the most able readers. Such children may benefit from a literature-rich environment with reduced emphasis upon basic decoding. However, the effects of differing approaches to the teaching of reading may be less important for the more able and it appears that the influence of classroom instruction, positive or negative, is greater for those with poor decoding skills and weaker vocabulary.

Irrespective of the child's reading skills, it is now widely accepted that a systematic phonics approach leads to superior reading skills when compared with a non-phonics or non-systematic phonics approach. However, rather than providing phonics teaching in a narrow, de-contextualised fashion, teachers need to root such instruction within a broad-based literacy curriculum that includes reading for meaning and writing and the development of oral and written language comprehension skills.
Professor Joe Elliott, Durham University says:
December 12, 2014 at 12:48 PM
POST 2/4


The fierce debate over the teaching of phonics as opposed to other approaches (sometimes known as the Reading Wars) reflects broader value-laden disputes between traditionalist and progressive approaches to education. Highly structured approaches involving phonics are perceived as reflecting a traditionalist perspective. In contrast, "progressives" are more likely to be associated with whole language approaches in which an emphasis upon textual meaning has primacy.

The debate as to whether children learn better with an initial method that emphasises meaning, or one that stresses learning the code, has a long history stretching back to the nineteenth century, and associated with the rising and waning influence of a diverse range of interest groups. Underpinning the debate were clear differences between these two camps as to the extent to which reading was seen as a natural process. Advocates of the whole language approach have tended to argue that children learn to read naturally even in the absence of explicit or systematic instruction. However, this position does not reflect contemporary scientific understandings which recognise that reading, unlike speech, is not naturally acquired. Language, an evolved behaviour that developed from the origins of humanity, is very different from literacy, a cultural invention that has only featured in the past few millennia.

During the 1990s, the debate became particularly polarised and often heated on both sides of the Atlantic. Proponents of what was called the “real books” approach argued that phonics involved lists and drills that reduced children’s interest and motivation. In contrast, they advocated the use of bright and appealing children’s literature where interest and meaning were sometimes emphasised rather more than how to make children better readers. At about this time, the Department of Education and Science refused to publish its sponsored teacher training package, Language in the National Curriculum, to outrage from many teacher education departments. This decision received criticism because, in part, , “…it didn’t bang on sufficiently about phonics” (Goddard, 1991, p. 32).

Views on the relative efficacy of differing approaches to the teaching of reading were heavily influenced by findings from increasingly popular experimental research approaches involving reliable, replicable research, large samples, random assignment of treatment to teachers/and or schools, and tried and true outcome measures. This trend was clearly evident in the convening of a National Reading Panel in the US in 1997 that was charged to provide a scientific review of reading research.. As many submissions to this Committee’s current enquiry will surely note, the subsequent National Reading Panel Report (2000) indicated that systematic phonics instruction enhanced children’s ability to learn to read and noted that this was more effective than instruction that taught little or no phonics. While the impact of phonics was shown to be strongest in the early years, it also proved beneficial for older students who struggled to learn to read.

The outcome of the Reading Wars was widely perceived to represent a victory for those who emphasised skills instruction (involving phonics) but was an outcome that was generally tempered by agreement that a balance of approaches was necessary. Of course, balance is a rather slippery concept and as some have observed, no-one in this debate has argued for an unbalanced position, with those in both camps having tended to see their opponents as holding extreme views. It would appear that there remain a significant proportion of educationalists in the UK and the US who, primarily on ideological grounds, continue to reject the value of structured phonics in the teaching of reading. Such beliefs, of course, run counter to the DfE’s position whose message about the value of phonics may be significantly weakened by the distraction of the debate over which forms of phonics teaching are most powerful.
Paula Burrell says:
December 12, 2014 at 11:51 AM
I have great concerns with the over-emphasis on phonics for the teaching of reading and writing. As a teacher I am seeing many children who have no desire to read as they see it as decoding only and at secondary level, teachers are shocked that students are reading text accurately but look for no meaning in what they read. This is shutting down many other areas of the curriculum to them and resulting in disaffection with their education. Evidence shows that phonics is one of many other strategies that children should be presented with to support them with their reading and writing. By not teaching these other strategies many children who struggle with phonics are not allowed to progress and discover the amazing opportunities reading allows. We are creating a generation of non-readers and while some blame this on the rise of technology I am confident, from research evidence and experience that it is due to the msi-judged belief that phonics is the main way to teach reading and writing.
Ruth Hayes says:
December 12, 2014 at 11:24 AM
The evidence that phonics is a useful approach in teaching decoding skills to children is unsurprising, as it is clear that the written English language uses letters and letter groups which stand for the sounds which, when blended by the reader, result in spoken words. Being able to decode written letter groups into their corresponding sounds enables readers to correctly pronounce words out loud. So phonics is clearly useful. However, 'synthetic phonics' prescribes the application of phonics in a particular way, which is based on identifying the smallest letter/sound units in words and building the word by sounding these out. Teachers are expected to stick to the programme.
But there are reasons for scepticism. If the sounds are blended confidently though an application of synthetic phonics knowledge so that the word is heard clearly by the reader, and if the word heard is recognised because the reader can match it against a spoken word that is in their vocabulary, phonics can make written words accessible to being understood. However, phonics does not enable children to understand words which they do not recognise through blending attempts or which are not in their vocabulary.
Of course, in the case of the English language, there is the additional problem of the opacity of English orthography. Words may be pronounced incorrectly, even when phonics is applied correctly, because the same letter/s can represent different sounds in different words (bough/though/rough). Learners need a strategy which enables them to choose the correct sound for the specific word they see and it is difficult to see how phonic training alone can provide this, whereas seeking meaning may enable the reader to choose the correct word from the 'phonic possibles'. Therefore, while phonics is useful, correct decoding and correct reading both depend upon understanding, vocabulary, and the intention of finding meaning. Clearly there is a relationship between decoding and understanding which results in reading. The problem with applying phonics alone is that there is a risk that the need for understanding will be neglected. While the government acknowledges the need for a language-rich curriculum its promotion of synthetic phonics programmes and its adoption of a phonic screening check as a high-stakes assessment risks an over-emphasis on phonics at the expense of the other skills essential to effective reading.
Ruth Hayes says:
December 12, 2014 at 11:22 AM
The memorandum claims that the government is committed to 'high quality teaching of phonics'. We must ask, with regard to the current situation, if this is meant as a commitment to phonics in general or to the particular type of phonics known as 'synthetic phonics'. While teachers will see the importance of teaching phonics, and while systematic teaching is clearly generally desirable, the effectiveness of a prescribed synthetics phonics approach may be more difficult to justify.
In fact, a close reading of the memorandum shows that the government is not promoting systematic teaching of phonics as a tool in the teacher's portfolio in the teaching of reading. It is promoting and supporting systematic synthetic phonics taught through the use of programmes, most commercially produced, which prescribe the teaching method to be adopted by the teacher. Using this teaching method teachers will discourage children from using the meaning they find in texts to support their decoding efforts, which it is prescribed should be supported by phonics alone.
'Phonics' is referred to in different ways in the document: In point one, as 'phonics' and 'systematic phonics'; in points two, four and five, again as 'phonics'; in point three, as 'systematic synthetic phonics'; points six and seven refer to evidence for 'systematic phonics' provided by Torgerson et al, 2006, and separate evidence (not accepted as an RCT under the criteria for inclusion in the Torgerson review) for 'systematic synthetic phonics' provided by the Clackmannanshire study and NRP 2000a and 2000b, and mentions 'analytic phonics'; points eight and nine return again to 'systematic phonics'.
It is difficult to navigate these various references to tease out exactly what is supported by research and where government policy lies in relation to this. However, it becomes clear, from the included details of the implementation of government policy on phonics, that it is 'systematic synthetic phonics' which is being implemented: point two notes that schools are encouraged to purchase programmes which conform to the 'core criteria'. Under these criteria the approved programmes are mainly synthetic phonics programmes (I believe one programme is described as linguistic phonics). The phonics screening check is a check on pupils' ability to decode purely though applying phonics knowledge. It checks that teachers have taught their pupils to use synthetic phonics 'first, fast and only'.
While the effectiveness of a phonics approach for decoding is supported by the evidence quoted in the memorandum, synthetic phonics is not: most notably the Torgerson review, which found that the RCT evidence supported systematic phonics for accurate decoding, found the evidence for systematic synthetic phonics was weak. Government policy supports synthetic phonics despite these findings - not because of them. It is possible that a reliance on synthetic phonics may prove unwise.