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:

Image: iStockphoto

90 Responses to Phonics

The Education Endowment Foundation says:
December 12, 2014 at 11:22 AM
The Teaching and Learning Toolkit, produced by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the Sutton Trust and Durham University, has summarised a range of existing studies on phonics, including a number of randomised controlled trials conducted in English schools.

The Toolkit shows that phonics approaches are effective; pupils undergoing a phonics intervention make an average of four months’ additional progress over the course of a year. Phonics is particularly beneficial for younger learners (4-7 year olds) as they begin to read, and is more effective on average than other approaches to early reading (such as whole language or alphabetic approaches). Evidence suggests that effective phonics techniques are usually embedded in a rich literacy environment for early readers and are only one part of a successful literacy strategy.

For older readers (above Year 5) who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches which target reading comprehension or meta-cognition and self-regulation. This difference may indicate that children who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach once they have reached Year 6 or Year 7, or that they have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics approaches do not target. However, it is also possible that older pupils received poor-quality phonics teaching initially. It is therefore important to carry out a careful diagnosis of the reasons why an individual pupil is struggling before deciding on an approach.

The EEF is funding further research into effective phonics approaches. A list of our related projects can be found on the Toolkit entry for phonics (
Alayne Öztürk for UKLA Part 3 says:
December 12, 2014 at 11:05 AM
The policy to enforce the adoption of Systematic Synthetic Phonics as the sole approach to the teaching of reading is not based on sound evidence. It flies in the face of what is known about the schools that are most successful in teaching children to read. It conflicts with what we know about how successful young readers approach texts. Like the US Reading First programme in the US, it will not succeed in raising the standard of reading in England’s schools. The errors of this approach are compounded by the introduction of the Phonics Check, which has distorted the teaching of reading in many schools


Bradley, L. and Bryant, P. (1983) Categorising sounds and learning to read: a causal connection. Nature 301, 419-421. 

Brown, G.D.A. & Deavers, R.P. (1999) Units of analysis in non-word reading: evidence from children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 73, pp. 208-242. 

Bussis, A., Chittenden, E., Amarel, M. and Klausner, E. (1985) Inquiry into Meaning: An investigation of learning to read. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum 

Cunningham, A.E. and Stanovich, K.E. (1998) What reading does for the mind. American Educator 22, 1&2, pp. 8-15
DfE (2010) The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper 2010. London: Department for Education
DfE (2011) Evidence section of DfE “Response to public consultation on the Year 1 phonics screening check”
DfE (2014) ‘Evidence check’ memorandum Phonics policy. Available at: English Programmes of Study: Key stages 1 & 2 London: DFE- 00181-2013
Ellis, S. and Moss, G. (2014) Ethics, education and policy research. British Educational Research Journal 40, 2, 241-260
Goswami, U (1988) Orthographic analogies and reading development. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 40A, 239-268
Goswami, U. (2010) A psycholinguistic grain size view of reading acquisition across languages In N. Brunswick, S. McDougall & P. Mornay-Davies (Eds). The Role of Orthographies in Reading and Spelling. Hove: Psychology Press.
Goswami, U. & Bryant, P. (1990) Phonological Skills and Learning to Read. Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Guthrie, J.T., Van Meter, P., Dacey-McCann, A., Wigfield, A., Bennett, L., Poundstone, C. C., Rice, M.E., Fairbisch, F.M., Hunt, B. and Mitchell, A.M. (1996) Growth in literacy engagement: changes in motivations and strategies during concept-oriented reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly 31, 3, pp. 306-332
Hall, K. (2013) Effective Literacy teaching in the early years of school: A review of the evidence In Larson, J. and Marsh, J. The Sage Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. 2nd edition London: Sage
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Education (HMIE) (2006) Pilot Inspection of the Education Functions of Clackmannanshire Council in October 2005. Edinburgh: SEED.
Johnston, R. and Watson, J. (2005) The effects of synthetic phonics on reading and spelling attainment. A seven year longitudinal study. Edinburgh: The Scottish Executive.
Medwell, J et al., (1998) Effective Teachers of Literacy. Exeter: The Teacher Training Agency
National Reading Panel (2000a) Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature of reading and its implications for reading instruction. Summary report.
Ofsted (2010) Reading by Six: How the best schools do it. Manchester: Office for Standards in Education
Paulson, E. and Goodman, K. (1999) Eye movements and miscue analysis: what do the eyes do when a reader makes a miscue? Southern Arizona Review 1, 55-62
Pressley, M., Wharton-McDonald, R., Allington, R., Block, C.C., Morrow, L., Tracey, D., Baker, K., Brooks, G., Cronin, J. , Nelson E. and Woo, D. (2001) A study of effective first grade literacy instruction. Scientific Studies of Reading 5, 35-58
Rose, J. (2005, 2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. London: Department for Education and Skills
Taylor, B.M. and Pearson, P.D. (2002) (Eds.) Teaching Reading: Effective schools, accomplished teachers. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Torgerson, C., Hall, J., and Brooks, G. (2006) A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling: Department for Education and Skills, Research Report 711. University of York and University of Sheffield
Walker, M., Bartlett, S. Betts, H. Sainsbury, M. and Worth, J. National Foundation for Education Research (2014) Phonics Screening Check Evaluation Research Report, DFE-RR339. London: DfE
Jose Coles says:
December 12, 2014 at 11:03 AM
I object strongly to the use of the Phonic Check.
There is no evidence that phonics first and foremost is the most effective way to teach children to read. Government are quoting research which has been discredited and non-replicable. My experience is that there are many children - including my own who can make no sense of phonics - they don't process information in a way that phonics is useful.
Many children who can read text at an age appropriate level 'failed' the phonic check. What sense does that make?
David Reedy for UKLA Part 2 says:
December 12, 2014 at 11:01 AM
3. The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative Like the Clackmannanshire study, the report for this initiative was written by the project leader, with, like the authors of the Clackmannanshire study, a vested interest in a positive result. There appears to be no clear independent account of the intervention, which may similarly have been accompanied by other approaches to the teaching of reading. What is clear is that the modest criterion of success was reaching a reading age of 9.5 at the end of primary school (which means 12 years old in Scotland).
4. Torgerson et al., 2006 – This paper, confined to a study of RCTs, clearly states “No statistically significant difference in effectiveness was found between synthetic phonics instruction and analytic phonics instruction.” (Torgerson et al., 2006 p.8).
5. Rose 2006. This is a partisan report, which cannot claim to be a systematic research review, and which similarly neglects to take full account of studies of successful reading teaching.
6. Ofsted 2010 Reading By Six Produced after the Rose report, this Ofsted survey set out to find effective teaching of reading. From its database of inspection reports, it identified 12 schools regarded as outstanding, with a wide geographical distribution, varied socio-economic catchment areas and above average results in reading at KS1 and English at KS2. While the authors conclude that skilled teaching of SSP is central to all the schools surveyed, they do not claim that SSP should frame all teaching of reading. Close reading of the report indicates that the children are experiencing much more than phonics teaching “in a language-rich curriculum”. For example, the children in Bourne Abbey Primary School are not restricted to phonically decodable texts and are even encouraged to take homes ‘real books’ (books written for children’s pleasure and information) suitably banded in levels of difficulty.
An earlier attempt by the DfE to provide evidence in support of SSP as the “proven best way to teach early reading” is equally flawed. The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper (2010) cites, at endnote 56, three publications: Camilli et al., (2003); Torgerson and Brooks, (2005); Torgerson et al., (2006). These are unfortunate choices. As shown above, Torgerson at al. (2006) does not provide clear evidence for SSP. The second reference is an even less fortunate choice: Camilli states clearly “phonics, as one aspect of the complex reading process, should not be over-emphasized.” (Camilli et al., 2003 p. 2). Meanwhile Torgerson and Brooks does not exist.

Other approaches to word identification used by successful young readers
As well as being based on evidence about successful schools, UKLA’s concern with the imposition of SSP as the one approved route into reading springs from research into what successful young readers of English actually do. Research with successful young readers of English shows us that to identify new words, they make use of different levels of phonic knowledge – about syllables and rhyme units, as well as individual phonemes (Bradley and Bryant, 1983; Brown and Deavers, 1999; Goswami, 2010). And they make use of analogy (Goswami, 1988). For example, once they are familiar with words such as ‘cold’ and ‘ball’ they can recognise words such as ‘bold’, ‘fold’, ‘tall’ and ‘call’, which do not readily yield to a phoneme-by-phoneme approach.
Other research shows us that when it comes to recognising words in running text, successful young readers draw on other resources too, which they use in conjunction with their multi-level phonic knowledge (Bussis et al, 1985; Paulson and Goodman, 1999). They choose words that fit with the semantic and syntactic patterning of the text and are guided also by the context of the text and any pictures it may have. Only such information will lead to the right pronunciation of words such as ‘read’, ‘sow’ or ‘lead’. Young readers approach printed texts with the same complex intelligence they use to make sense of other phenomena in the world.
Evidence relating to the imposition of the Phonics Check on Year 1 children
The second interim report carried out by NFER, published in May this year, shows that teachers were positive about teaching phonics, but in most schools teachers were also using other approaches (Walker et al., 2014). Only some three in ten of the literacy coordinators consulted saw any value to teachers in the Phonics Check. They make the damning statement “In contrast to the phonics scores, there were no significant associations with school typology on the results for children at the end of key stage 1. Thus attainment in reading and writing more broadly appears unaffected by the school’s enthusiasm, or not, for systematic synthetic phonics and the check, and by their approach to the teaching of phonics.“ (Walker et al., 2014, p. 10). See Part 3 on subsequent UKLA posting
Prof. H.Dombey for UKLA 1 says:
December 12, 2014 at 10:58 AM
UKLA’s response to the DfE statement (2014) ( on the evidence supporting the governmental position on phonics teaching

UKLA is most concerned about the shaky basis in research of the approach to the teaching and testing of reading by the Department for Education. In this short paper we:
• demonstrate that research into effective teaching of reading presents it as much broader process;
• respond in detail to the DfE claims about the superiority of Systematic Synthetic Phonics teaching;
• present research evidence on other approaches to word identification in English used by successful young readers;
• draw attention to the key finding of the most recent official evaluation of the Phonics Check;
• conclude on the dangers of imposing a narrow approach to the teaching and testing of reading, based on incomplete and insubstantial evidence.

Research into effective teaching of reading
The most substantial surveys of successful schools and classrooms in the United States and the UK show that the most successful primary schools:

• use a balance of phonics and meaning-focused approaches to teach children to read (Pressley et al., 2001; Taylor and Pearson, 2002, Hall, 2013);
• give children plenty of experience of putting texts to use “with the consistent message that understanding and effective communication – not just word recognition – are what literacy is about” (Taylor and Pearson, 2002, p. 365);
• attend to individual children’s literacy skills, experiences and interests (Medwell et al., 1998; Pressley et al., 2001; Hall, 2013);
• create high levels of engagement and pleasure in reading (Guthrie et al., 1996; Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998; Hall, 2013).

This adds up to much more than phonics “in a language-rich curriculum “ (DfE, 2014).

Response in detail to the DfE statement (2014)
Paragraphs 6 to 9 open with the statement:
“UK and international research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics teaching, in a language-rich curriculum, is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities and educational backgrounds (DfE, 2011).”

This statement is open to challenge. The DfE paper it cites ignores independent studies of effective teaching, focusing instead largely on evidence from Random Control Trials (RCTs). By their very nature, RCTs exclude any attempt to identify the complex interplay of knowledge, understanding, belief and interpersonal skill used by successful teachers in real classrooms. They can show whether one particular feature is associated with progress, but not the complex array of features associated with the most successful learning.

This 2011 paper invokes:
1. the findings of the US National Reading Panel (NRP). This reported in 2000, but hardly provides a justification for a SSP approach, since it:
a) does not unequivocally support synthetic over analytic phonics;
b) led to the passing of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act in 2001, which included the hugely costly Reading First programme, which mandated a 5 skills approach (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension) in schools with a history of reading failure. After the official evaluation of Reading First subsequently made it clear that its adoption had brought no significant improvement to children’s comprehension, Congress cut short its funding (Gamse et al., 2008). Meanwhile the UK is has used this report to embark on a similarly reductive path.

2. the Clackmannanshire study of Johnson and Watson. This study, in which SSP was used with the whole age cohort of one small Scottish Local Authority, yielded large gains in word recognition, and more modest gains in comprehension tests (Johnston and Watson, 2005). What is not foregrounded in their account of the study is that numerous other initiatives involving the provision of books, improving relations with parents and the introduction of thinking into the curriculum accompanied the adoption of SSP. But in Scotland’s National Tests of Reading, taken at the end of primary school, this experimental cohort did not score significantly better than its predecessors (Ellis and Moss, 2014). Devastatingly, after the conclusion of the study, the Scottish HMI observed that performance in reading in Clackmannanshire was “below the average for comparator authorities” (HMIE, 2006, p. 4). To date Clackmannanshire is scoring in the bottom third of Scottish LAs in terms of reading. Unsurprisingly, Scotland has not recommended this approach to other authorities.
See part 2 in subsequent post
Maggie Downie says:
December 12, 2014 at 10:57 AM
I would just like to add that while contributors are demanding high quality peer reviewed research studies as evidence for the teaching of synthetic phonics I would like to know where are the similar studies which validate the 'alternative' methods of teaching reading which they favour?

Of course, had the recommendations of the Education Select Committee Report on the Initial Teaching of Reading (2005) been implemented and a well designed and run research study comparing methods been carried out we might have had a definitive answer by now.
Linda Dawson says:
December 12, 2014 at 10:30 AM
I would also echo previous comments re the validity of some of the assumptions made using the research referred to as justification for phonics being the only recommended approach to learning to read and write. I agree that it is important, but should be seen as part of a broad and flexible approach to becoming literate- indeed there is evidence that around 10% of children will not succeed in learning to read using a phonic approach.As a Reading Recovery teacher leader I see pupils on a daily basis who are not reading fluently or understanding because of the over emphasis on phonics in the early stages of their education.Children need to see reading as a message getting, enjoyable activity - not just a phonics exercise.
Save Childhood Movement says:
December 12, 2014 at 10:18 AM
Both research and practice show that, in a language such as English, the use of systematic synthetic phonics teaching is a highly valuable component of initial literacy teaching and learning (DFE 2014). There does not, however, appear to be any robust evidence showing that children benefit from formal instruction in phonics (sound-symbol correspondences; blending/segmenting words) before the age of five, or even before the age of seven. On the contrary; research by Suggate et al (2012) shows no significant difference in English-speaking children’s attainment in literacy at the age of 11, whether reading instruction begins at five or seven. Clark (2015) proposes that while the use of phonics is effective within a broad programme of initial literacy teaching and learning, there is no evidence to support the use of phonics as a ‘stand alone’ teaching strategy, or to indicate the superiority of synthetic phonics over analytic phonics.

There is also a wide range of international evidence suggesting that an early start on formal learning, and a highly abstract ‘transmission’ approach to education in general is detrimental in terms of social and emotional development and children’s long-term mental health (e.g.,House, 2011, Jarvis et al 2014) Countries where formal education begins at six or seven tend to have better outcomes than the UK, not only in terms of childhood well-being (UNICEF 2007; 2013) but specifically on international comparisons of literacy achievement (PISA 2009). Children in nations placed at the top of this chart (Shanghai China, Korea and Finland) are not admitted to a formal education system until they have reached the age of 7, while the others placed directly above the UK have a school starting age of 6.

In the European countries with better literacy and well-being scores than the UK, it is usual for children to spend around three years (from age 3 to 6 or 7) in a ‘language-rich’ pre-school environment, with plenty of opportunities to tune into sound through music and singing, and to become familiar with the vocabulary and language patterns of narrative through stories and drama (Palmer, 2015). This also provides them with time for play, which is linked to greater well-being and improved learning dispositions (Jarvis, Newman and Swiniarski 2014). Teachers can of course draw on a range of play-based teacher-directed activities to familiarise children with phonetic and grammatical information, but these are play-based and adapted to children’s individual level of language development and emotional maturity, embedding language within a more organic structure in terms of everyday activities>

The narrow focus on phonics is an increasingly worrying element of a steady reduction of meaningful activity within state education in England, and it is beyond time for this to be discussed by both policy creators and academics within an environment where both sides are genuinely listening to what the others have to say.

This comment can be read in full on our website
Bette Chambers, Institute for Effective Education says:
December 12, 2014 at 09:56 AM
The Department for Education’s ‘Evidence check’ memorandum on phonics policy provides a brief, useful summary of the evidence in this area. This summary is accurate and offers a sensible starting point for the development of policy and practice in relation to the teaching of phonics in schools.
The approach of publishing evidence summaries on particular areas of interest, and then inviting comments, is to be welcomed. It will help to encourage transparency within policymaking, and encourage the further use of research evidence.
The DfE’s publication of the evidence on phonics is to be applauded. However, there is still progress to be made when it comes to applying this evidence. Of the phonics programmes that the DfE provided funding for, very few had any evidence of effectiveness and most had not been evaluated. While using phonics is a good start in making an effective intervention, it is by no means a guarantee, and the DfE should look to raise the bar for approved programmes.
Gilda Possibile says:
December 12, 2014 at 09:10 AM
As a teacher with over 40 years experience of working with children and teachers, I have seen and been part of the pendulum swings that regularly occur in education. Since 2006 the swing towards systematic phonics has caused an imbalance in how children approach texts. I am now working with children in year six who are accurately reading and task driven but without a deep understanding of the text. These children are hard to teach because they see themselves as good readers. As do their parents and their teachers. Indeed they are; as they are doing everything that is asked of them- except think about what they are reading. Is this what we want from citizens of the 21st century?
Phonics is an important part of the reading process but one that is easy when viewed through adult, literate eyes. However how does it look through the eyes of a very young, linguistically inexperienced child, trying to make sense of the world.
The Rose Report states that phonics needs to be part of a rich linguistic programme. This has to always keep in mind why we are learning phonics - as a tool to give and receive messages. In my view the push for Systematic Phonics is not supporting reading development in schools in its fullest sense.