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

Megan Dixon says:
December 12, 2014 at 09:02 AM
I echo the previous comments concerning the robust nature of the evidence used to justify the phonics check. In addition, I am concerned about the use of the Simple View of Reading as the theoretical basis for the national curriculum. The Reading Rope model (Scarborough, 2001) highlights the complexity of the developing reading process and places phonics (both the development of phonological awareness and the alphabetic principle) as one strand within a complex system leading towards fluent automaticity in reading.

ICAN have identified that 50-90% of children starting school may have speech, language and communication delay (ICAN) and there is a well evidenced link between Speech and Language impairment and literacy difficulties(for example,Catts, Fey, Tomblin and Zhang, 2002, 2006). Furthermore, Metsala and Whalley, (1998) theorise that phonological awareness (an essential skills for the effective acquisition of phonics) is linked to the development of oral language in children. Therefore, I suggest the considerable funding spent on the Phonics Screening Check would be more effectively spent on developing teacher knowledge and understanding of the development of children’s speech, language and communication skills.

Catts, H.W., Fey, M.E., Tomblin, J.B. and Zhang, X. (2002) A Longitudinal
Investigation of Reading Outcomes in Children with Language Impairments
Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 45 (6) pp1142-57
Catts, H., Adlof, S. and Ellis-Weismer, S. (2006) Language deficits in poor
comprehenders: A case for the Simple View of Reading. Journal of Speech-
Language-Hearing Research, 49, pp278-293
Metsala, J. and Whalley, A. (1998) Spoken vocabulary growth and the segmental
restructuring of lexical representations: Precursers to phonemic awareness and
early reading ability. In J. Metsala and L. Ehri, (eds) Word recognition in beginning
literacy , pp89-120, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities:
Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early
literacy (pp. 97-110). New York: Guilford.
Diane French says:
December 12, 2014 at 09:00 AM
The teaching of phonics in a systematic way is vital for learning to read. However my observations in schools tells me that this 'all the eggs in one basket' approach is not working for many children and is frustrating for teachers. Only reading books that have vocabulary limited by the phonic knowledge taught thus far seems to be against the fundemental principle of encouraging reading by exposure to language rich and exciting stories that children will want to read. Children learn to read by using a range of strategies in order to access the text. Too often children are using decoding as their first and only strategy when they meet a word they do not recognise. This leads to slow, laboured reading where comprehension suffers. An increasing number of schools are concerned by poor comprehenders in KS2 because of over-reliance on synthetic phonics lower down the school.
Claudia Cavalera says:
December 12, 2014 at 08:36 AM
As a Reading Recovery teacher, I would like to state that an over reliance on phonics for teaching reading means that many of my pupils do not initially have a clear understanding of what reading is about, but see it as list of letter sounds to identify without gaining meaning from the text. Fluency for the more able readers is also affected, as they continue to 'sound out' words, even when they are familiar with them.
Professor Margaret M Clark says:
December 12, 2014 at 08:30 AM
On 27 November and 10 December I submitted brief comments on the current phonics policy in England. Having read the range of comments now online I wish to make a further contribution.
In November 2014 in a book entitled Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning: an evidence-based critique, I evaluated the main aspects of current government policy with regard to phonics, its origins, the claimed evidence base, the development of the phonics check its validity and effects on classroom practice and teacher education and some of the costs.
Here I wish to confine my comments specifically to the phonics check which from a light touch assessment has over three years become a high stakes test. The pass rates for individual schools are now used as a measure to evaluate individual schools. Not only are all children in England in year 1 subjected to this test but should they fail to achieve an arbitrary pass mark of 32 they are required to re-sit the check the following year, even if they are already reading with understanding. There are many concerns about the impact and validity of this check:
no clear evidence has been given for a pass/fail criterion in what was to have been a diagnostic test;
for the selected threshold mark being revealed in advance for the first two years resulting in a `spike` in percentage pass at 32 as compared with 31; then for not revealing it in 2014, but selecting the same pass mark; the assumption that children who failed to reach the pass mark should experience further intensive practice with a similar approach, including a focus on the pseudo words; the assumption that a high percentage pass rate in a school on the check equates to successful teaching of literacy; the effect on children (and their parents)who can already read a wide range of written language but are told they have failed the check and are required to focus on passing it the following year; the perception of written English that is being given to children by the focus on pseudo words, in particular children whose mother tongue is not English.
In view of the fact that there is a year`s difference in age between the youngest and oldest children sitting the check it is a matter of surprise that this aspect has been ignored in government reporting. Having each year requested this information I find that 36% of the youngest boys and 29% of the youngest girls are among those required to re-sit the check in 2015. It is possible that at least some of these children might by then have matured sufficiently to pass the check. Surely this aspect of the results should have been worthy of publicity as there has been a detailed breakdown published for numerous subgroups nationally and online for individual schools.
There is evidence the high stakes phonics check is affecting the curriculum on literacy offered to young children in England, but that it is in some schools leading not only to practice for the test, but in particular to a focus on pseudo words.
Teacher training is in addition being so constrained to a focus on synthetic phonics that new teachers are likely to be lacking in a knowledge of the wide range of research evidence available on literacy learning and in the professional expertise to evaluate new evidence.
Julia Douetil says:
December 12, 2014 at 07:35 AM
Impact on spelling
In a conference supported by the DfE, a phonics advisor to the government offered guidance for schools implementing the synthetic phonics policies, based on the premise that “Phonics is the entire and only basis for our writing system” (Askew, G., (2013), conference presentation, London). Even if English were a phonetically regular language, this statement would be controversial, but given the rich mix of language roots (Crystal, D., (2012) Spell it out; the singular story of English spelling; Bryson, B. (2009) Mother Tongue; Truss, L. (2003) Eats, Shoots and Leaves) it is misleading and unhelpful, especially as children learn to spell. MA students training to be Reading Recovery teacher leaders undertake detailed case studies of nine or 10 year old children with significant literacy difficulties. A common factor in these case studies is very poor spelling, caused by attempts to spell everything phonetically. This accords with research suggesting that a bias towards one knowledge source at the expense of all others in early literacy may have a persistent detrimental impact (Fletcher-Flinn, ibid), suggesting that the tendency of older struggling readers to over-rely on spelling phonetically would be exacerbated by an early over-reliance on phonics as the only knowledge source in reading.

Reading Recovery teachers report a worrying impact on children’s spelling, with an over-reliance on spelling phonetically. This is not confined to children who struggle with reading. Lara, a very advanced young reader, who had been able to write her name correctly since she was two years old, after a few months at school insisted on writing Lar, because in her mind the ‘r’ included the final ‘ah’ of her name. Many common words which she had previously spelled correctly she began to spell phonetically (sno for snow, hav for have, sa for say) and became confused and distressed when corrected.
Final Comment
This submission is not anti-phonics, rather sees phonics as part of a complex process of literacy teaching and learning. Schools need the professional expertise and freedom to be able to adjust their literacy programmes to address the needs of all children.
Julia Douetil says:
December 12, 2014 at 07:33 AM
Prescribed pedagogy
Whist the evidence check memorandum (para 2) denies that schools are told which phonics programmes to teach, in reality the restrictions around eligibility for matched-funding (para 3) and the statutory phonics check (para 4) compel schools to select from a narrowly-defined synthetic phonics programme (Ellis & Moss, 2013; Clark, 2014). Local Authorities were publicly chastised if schools did not sign-up to these schemes ( Evaluations commissioned by the DfE – Walker, M. and Bartlett, S. (2014) Phonics Screening check evaluation – reported that only three in 10 of literacy co-ordinators interviewed ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed somewhat’ that the check was valuable to teachers. Many of the teachers interviewed said that outcomes from the check told them nothing new and that the check would `have minimal, if any impact on the standard of reading and writing in the schools` (page 10). The report found that the greatest change to practice in schools was time being spent teaching pseudo-words.
This accords with reports from teachers: one colleague described a child who was a fluent reader, distressed because ‘I can only think of real words’. Another describes a child reading a story, the reading littered with uncorrected errors rendering the story meaningless. On seeing the adult’s puzzled expression, the child responded ‘Oh ignore those, they are probably nonsense words!’ This experience chimes with research findings suggesting potential long-term detrimental effects of an over emphasis on de-coding at the expense of other knowledge sources in early literacy acquisition: Fletcher-Flinn, C. M. (2014) Learning to read as the formation of a dynamic system: evidence for dynamic stability in phonological recoding. We have received reports from parents about children who were fluent and enthusiastic readers at home, being withdrawn from class (in one case required to stay after school) for additional phonics lessons, because they failed the phonics check by substituting real words for pseudo words. The impact on those children’s attitudes to reading has not been positive.
Impact on fluency
Whilst most research studies support phonics as part of a balanced reading programme, research suggests that an over-emphasis on phonics during a child’s initial experience of literacy learning, to the exclusion of other knowledge sources, has long-term detrimental effects – for example: Thompson, G. B., et al (2007) Do children who acquire word reading without explicit phonics employ compensatory learning? Issues of phonological recoding, lexical orthography, and fluency’: Phillips, L. M., Norris, S. P. and Steffler, D. J. (2007) Potential Risks to Reading Posed by High-Dose Phonics. Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 1(1); Fletcher-Flinn, C. M. (2014) ibid. Thompson et al and Fletcher-Finn found a detrimental impact on fluency, more errors on context-dependent pseudo words and low frequency words, which Fletcher-Finn linked to a tendency to ‘regularise’ unfamiliar words, to try to decode as if phonically regular: ‘It was suggested that the initial years of phonics reading instruction left a cognitive bias in processing associated with non-lexical phonological re-coding that did not attenuate, or become superseded over time’ (para 11).
This research accords with reports from Reading Recovery teachers of young readers persistently sounding-out words they already know, breaking the fluency and flow of meaning. The separation of reading from comprehension appears to be having a detrimental impact on children’s perception of the task they are engaged in when reading, that what is required of them is to say words, and that making meaning is something they do elsewhere, or even that making meaning is the job of a teacher reading stories to them.
Julia Douetil says:
December 12, 2014 at 07:30 AM
Evidence suggests that phonics form an essential part of a child’s early literacy experience, but as 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 knowledge sources, may have a long-term detrimental impact on fluency, ability to decipher new and complex words, spelling and perceptions of reading as an activity. Standards in literacy can be improved by a comprehensive approach which embraces intensive professional development for staff, effective intervention for struggling readers, support for school leaders and engagement with parents.
Systematic and synthetic phonics
The evidence check conflates ‘systematic’ phonics and ‘synthetic’ phonics (e.g. para 1 and para 3) but they are not the same. Research reports, including those used by the DfE to claim support for synthetic phonics, actually support systematic phonics and many specifically state that they do not find any advantage for synthetic phonics (Torgerson, C.J., Brooks, G. and Hall, J. (2006) A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling. The University of Sheffield. Research Report No 711; Wyse, D. and Styles, M. (2007) `Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading: the debate surrounding England`s Rose Report`, Literacy, vol. 41, 35-42; Wyse, D. and Goswami, U. (2008) `Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading`, British Educational Research Journal, vol. 34(6), 691-710.
What constitutes reading
There is a similar conflation of the words ‘phonics’, ‘decoding’ and ‘reading’. This reflects a confusion that can be seen in government statements, e.g. referring to the phonics check as ‘the reading check’ ( This is at odds with current research and thinking, which places phonics as one part of early literacy teaching within a range of strategies: Reedy, D. (2012) ‘Misconceptions about teaching reading: is it only about phonics?’ Education Review, NUT, (EPC) vol. 24(2); Dombey, H. (2010) Teaching reading: What the evidence says, Royston, UKLA; Ellis, S. and Moss, G. (2013) ‘Ethics, education policy and research: the phonics question reconsidered’, British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 40(2), 241-–260; Clark, M. M. (2014) Learning to be Literate: insights from research for policy and practice, chp 21, Birmingham, Glendale Education; Davis A. (2014) ‘To read or not to read: decoding synthetic phonics’, IMPACT No 20, page 14.

The research cited above accords with findings from Reading Recovery national monitoring, that children with complex literacy difficulties struggle to apply their phonic knowledge in text reading. Reading Recovery collects and analyses assessment data from children identified as the lowest attaining in their school at around the age of six, thus providing a snapshot of children who struggle to make a start in literacy. More than 20 years of data collection have shown that, on average, the lowest attaining children in our system now know considerably more about letters and sounds than their counterparts before the national focus on phonics, and can read more words in isolation. However, two out of three are unable to read the simplest texts after a full year in formal literacy teaching (Reading Recovery annual report 2013-2014, page 21, This suggests that children with complex literacy difficulties are struggling to apply the phonics they have learned to text reading. Reports from Reading Recovery teachers across the UK confirm this view.

Para 8 in the memorandum, citing an Ofsted report to imply that phonics was the causal factor in effective schools, is somewhat disingenuous, since one selection criteria for schools in the report was that they had a strong phonics programme. Every school in that report also described a range of other measures to support literacy teaching and learning. The same is true of both the Clackmannanshire and Dumbarton studies cited by DfE in support of synthetic phonics (para 7, bullet 3 in the memorandum). Far from providing evidence for the supremacy of synthetic phonics, these two studies demonstrate what is possible with a comprehensive, well-funded, wide-scale and long-term focus on raising standards – see Ellis, S. (2009) ‘Policy and research: Lessons from the Clackmannanshire synthetic phonics initiative’ in Fletcher-Campbell, F., Soler, J. and Reid, G (eds); Clark, M. M. (2014) Learning to be Literate, p.135. The context of both Clackmannanshire and Dumbarton included considerable additional funding for the provision of a wide range of children’s books, intensive professional development for teachers, interventions for children identified as making slow progress, leadership support for school principals, and engagement with parents.
Dick Schutz says:
December 12, 2014 at 01:25 AM
The evidence base for Phonics is to be found outside “reading research,” in the inquiry of scholars who have had little interest in the messy enterprise of schooling. Although the relevant literature is far-ranging, the gist of the evidential support for “systematic, synthetic phonics” instruction and for the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check can be communicated in brief quotes from two papers:

The first paper: (Port, R. 2005)

“[D]uring historical times, and increasingly for the past 3millenia, some human communities have exploited static, spatial and graphic models for speech. This spectacularly successful set of notational conventions transformed quasicontinuous, overlapping, time-distributed and highly variable speech sounds into conventionalized, discrete, ordered graphic tokens where each word has a single spelling.
. . .The ability to describe and understand human speech in terms of such graphic tokens was first achieved by the Phoenicians and Greeks. It has continued to provide a convenient description of speech and an influence on all literate people in the western cultural tradition up to the present day.

“[O]nce a phonological writing system based on recording the sequence of critical articulatory states is conventionalized, each word acquires a standard form and it becomes possible to write down consistent spellings ignoring all the incidental variations of detail in how they are pronounced.”

The second paper: (Perfetti, C. 2003)

“What does it mean to learn to get meaning? What a child learns is how his or her writing system works—both its basic principles and the details of its orthographic implementation. We know this learning has occurred when the child can identify printed words as words in his or her spoken language in a way consistent with the writing system. For an alphabetic reader, this means being able to read unfamiliar words, and even nonwords, as well as familiar words. . . To be sure, much more is learned than how one’s writing system encodes one’s language. But this is the central learning event to which additional literacy learning, for example, comprehension strategies, must be connected. . .

“[P]honemic awareness is not exactly what needs to be learned for reading to get a start. What needs to be learned is that the printed forms on the page correspond to words in spoken language. In alphabetic writing, the smallest of these printed units correspond roughly to small pieces of meaningless speech. . .

“Instruction in learning to read is right to focus on mappings between letters and phonemes. Getting that part roughly right carries the subtleties of morphology along with it fairly readily. Perhaps a child learning to read will make a stab at jumped and produce /jump’ ed/. But getting to /jumpt/ is not a big move because that is the spoken form the child has. At least, this is not a big move if the child is getting the central idea—that what the child sees in print maps onto his or her spoken language.”

Perfetti, C. “The Universal Grammar of Reading,” 2003. Accessible at

Port, R. “The Graphical Basis of Phones and Phonemes,” 2005. Accessible at:
Maggie Downie says:
December 11, 2014 at 11:34 PM
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.
Maggie Downie says:
December 11, 2014 at 11:24 PM
Objections to the introduction of synthetic phonics (SP) as the required method of teaching reading seem to be narrowly based on Johnston and Watson Clackmannanshire study and critiques of that study. They also allude to the fact that SP does not ‘teach’ comprehension.
On the latter point it has already been noted that the purpose of SP is not to teach ‘comprehension’, its function is to teach children how to identify words, which they must do before they are able to attach meaning to them or to learn their meaning if they do not already know it. Reference to the 2014 National curriculum shows that SP should be taught as part of a language rich environment in which speaking and listening, story telling, and the sharing of text, both prose and poetry, develop children’s vocabularies, appreciation of literature and an interest in books and reading. To assume that this aspect of children’s learning is missing when they are taught SP seems to indicate a lack of understanding of how reading is taught by an SP practitioner or a wilful attempt to demonise the methodology.
On the former point, our knowledge of the most effective method to teach word identification is informed by far more than the Clackmannanshire study.
The Rose report rightly points out that ‘phonics’ is a body of knowledge which children must learn in order to read effectively. This consists of learning how the written word is composed of symbols which represent the discrete sounds in the word, which symbols correspond to which sounds and how to use this knowledge to translate the written word to the spoken word in order to determine the meaning of words in text and understand the idea or message being communicated by a piece if text.
It is the way that this body of knowledge is taught which is at issue here. In order to determine the most effective method of teaching this knowledge we have many decades of research into the reading process to inform us. By drawing together the conclusions of peer reviewed research from fields such as cognitive psychology, eye movement research and brain imaging we can build a model of the optimum method of teaching the necessary skills and knowledge. There is far too much reported research to do this here but a comprehensive review of peer reviewed research to the early 2000s was undertaken by Professor Diane McGuinness and published in book form; Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading (2004). Professor McGuinness puts together a research informed prototype for a programme for the initial teaching of reading. The best UK SP programmes conform closely to this prototype. They should, therefore, be considered to be firmly based on scientific evidence. I would recommend that someone reads Prof. McGuinness' book.

With regard to the Brookes and Torgerson review I would draw your attention to the critiques of Professor McGuinness: Some Comments of a Report by C. Torgerson, G. Brooks, and J. Hall titled “A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling: and Professor Rhona Johnston • Johnston, R.S. An examination of C. Torgerson et al (2006) meta-analysis entitled: A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling.