Phonics: The debate continues...

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
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Synthetic phonics is the accepted way of teaching young children to read in the UK. The phonics screening check, backed up by Ofsted, has ensured this. But not all teachers or researchers are convinced. Suzanne O’Connell reports

The ground swell towards an emphasis on the systematic teaching of phonics has been evident since at least 1998 and the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy.

Since then, the 2006 Rose Report – which considered the teaching of reading skills in primary schools – and the Primary National Strategy have seen phonics embedded and consolidated until the national curriculum in 2014 confirmed this as the way that schools in England must teach reading. And of course, children in year one in England now take a statutory phonics screening check which is used to hold schools to account (DfE, 2012).

However, the debate has reared its head again this year. First came the report Reading wars or reading conciliation? (Wyse & Bradbury, 2022a), which presented a challenge to schools using an exclusively phonics to teach pupils to read.

Hot on its heels came a rebuttal from phonics expert Professor Rhona Johnston of the University of Hull (Johnston & Chew, 2022) which challenged some of Wyse and Bradbury’s conclusions.

The phonics debate has reignited at a time when NFER research (Twist et al, 2022) tells us that reading progress for pupils in key stage 1, in particular year 1, has been hardest by the pandemic: “Of particular concern is the impact on the development of early literacy skills by the youngest pupils in primary schools. The proportion of children who struggled to engage with the reading assessment in year 1 more than doubled in summer 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic sample.”

As the NFER report points out, early reading success is a vital part of children’s later achievements and the key to accessing the curriculum in the future.

Phonics: Ofsted-protected

Although many aspects of how we teach and deliver the curriculum have been left open to interpretation, the approach we use when teaching reading is carefully prescribed – as a glimpse at any Ofsted inspection report will tell you. Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook states that inspectors will consider whether: “The school’s phonics programme matches or exceeds the expectations of the national curriculum and the early learning goals.”

The reading books allocated to pupils are also key to this. Inspectors will check that: “The sequence of reading books shows a cumulative progression in phonics knowledge that is matched closely to the school’s phonics programme.”

And that: “Teachers give pupils sufficient practice in reading and re-reading books that match the grapheme-phoneme correspondences they know, both at school and at home.”

During the January 2022 inspection of Monega Primary School in east London, headteacher Elizabeth Harris reported that inspectors were keen to ensure that the band level the children were reading was the correct one for them: “It was very important for inspectors that children knew what band they were on and what their target band was,” she said.

“They wanted to see that the children were accurately matched to the book and listened to the children read with their banded book. They wanted to see that we had banded them correctly.”

Any digression from this and inspectors are on alert, as head Emma Meadus found out when Ofsted visited Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate in October 2021: “In addition to phonics-based reading books, matched to the phases they are on, all children take home a ‘library book’ of their choice to read with their families. This was questioned by Ofsted because the children couldn’t read the books themselves.

“We had to really fight to make them understand it was a book for parents to read to them, a reading for pleasure book that would not set back their progress.”

Of course, the Ofsted framework does not exclude the use of additional methods or the teaching of reading for pleasure, but it is evident that inspectors have a very clear focus on what they consider the building blocks to be and are anxious that schools do not stray too far from this.

Schools are clearly being downgraded for not paying sufficient attention to the current reading level of the pupils spoken to by inspectors, as this quote from one recent primary school report tells us: “For a few pupils who have fallen behind in their reading, books do not match closely enough to the sounds they are learning. This hampers their progress in catching up quickly. Leaders should ensure that books are well matched to the sounds pupils are learning.”

Reading wars or reading conciliation?

This paper was written by Dominic Wyse, professor of early childhood and primary education and the founding director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy at UCL, and Alice Bradbury, a sociologist of education and co-director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre. It provides a critical examination of existing research evidence and looks at implications for policy and practice.

The report considers that the increasing emphasis on phonics represents an unprecedented change in the approach to reading: “Our findings … do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful.”

The authors of the report refer to three “orientations” when it comes to teaching reading:

  1. Teaching synthetic phonics first and foremost using “decodable” books with controlled vocabularies.
  2. Teaching whole language with a focus on whole texts driven by reading for meaning, with phonics taught in a non-systematic way.
  3. Balanced instruction – a balance between teaching based on the use of whole texts and systematic teaching about the alphabet code and also other linguistic features (a combination of real books and reading scheme books).

The report’s survey of 1,271 year 2 teachers, reports that 66% taught reading with “synthetic phonics first and foremost”. Only 1% said that they taught predominantly whole texts, while 27% indicated that phonics teaching is systematically combined with other emphases including reading comprehension. The authors conclude that the phonics screening check is narrowing teaching and argue that the evidence supports a more balanced approach. They suggest that:

  • Phonics teaching is most likely to be effective for children aged five to six. Phonics with children younger than this is not likely to be effective.
  • A focus on whole texts and reading for meaning, to contextualise the teaching of other skills and knowledge, should drive pedagogy.
  • Classroom teachers using their professional judgement to ensure coherence of the approach to teaching phonics and reading with other relevant teaching in their classroom is most likely to be effective.
  • An insistence on particular schemes, scripted lessons, and other inflexible approaches is unlikely to be optimal.

The UCL researchers are among 250 people who signed a letter to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi asking for a wider range of approaches to the teaching of reading and for teachers to be allowed to use their own judgement (Headteacher Update, 2022).

A response to Wyse & Bradbury

In their response to the UCL paper, Rhona S Johnston, a professor of psychology from the University of Hull and co-author of the book Teaching Synthetic Phonics in Primary Schools (2014), and Jennifer Chew, advisor to the UK Reading Reform Foundation and a phonics advocate, challenge a number of the conclusions.

First, they point out that in the studies in the Wyse and Bradbury paper, the children were at the start of their schooling at age five-plus, whereas children tend to enter reception class in England at age four-plus. They state: “Therefore these studies are not relevant for children in England, who start school at four-plus. There is no evidence here that spending a whole year at school without phonics teaching would be beneficial for children in England.”

The authors also refute that England’s approach is focused solely on phonics: “The main focus of Wyse and Bradbury’s article seems to be on showing phonics to be effective when taught alongside reading for meaning tuition. However, this integration of phonics with reading for meaning is not contentious, as this was the aim of the English government’s reading programme, Letters and Sounds (2007), and it is also enshrined in the national curriculum.”

They are also critical that the Wyse and Bradbury paper does not consider research involving children “at risk of reading failure”: “This is curious given that Machin et al (2016) found significant benefits with synthetic phonics teaching for 11-year-old English pupils who were at risk of reading failure when starting school.”

The paper concludes: “The authors are proposing an unbalanced reading programme where children spend a whole year having books to read before being taught about the alphabetical basis of the English spelling system, an approach which is known to disadvantage children at risk of reading failure.

“The English government’s programme is a balanced approach where children are rapidly introduced to reading for meaning alongside learning how to work out for themselves the recognition of the unfamiliar words they encounter; it is a self-teaching approach which is highly motivating for children from both advantaged and disadvantaged homes.”

Back in the classroom

Putting the debate aside, the rather unsurprising conclusion seems to be that a balanced approach is key. Although systematic synthetic phonics might be the main method used by schools for the teaching of reading, it is by no means exclusive.

In a recent Best Practice Focus for Headteacher Update on whole-school reading and literacy strategies (2022), school leader Robbie Burns outlined six principles: phonics, consistent structures for teaching reading outside of phonics lessons, teaching and modelling fluency, teaching new vocabulary, building background knowledge, and reading as much as possible. He added: “Reading for pleasure cannot be left to chance – it needs clear, actionable strategic thinking from leaders.”

And the NFER report pays homage to the way in which teachers aim to keep their pupils engaged: “Teachers endeavour to develop in their pupils the knowledge that we turn to reading and to books for both pleasure and information. They don’t want to see a child at the age of 5 or 6 believing that reading isn’t for them or that it’s something to be avoided: reading engagement and reading performance are mutually reinforcing.”

Back in east London, Ms Harris expresses a similar view at her school: “We think it is very important for children to have a love of reading so they also have their own choice of book. We don’t want them to stop loving reading. This is very important. Only having a banded book could mean that they lose their interest in books.”

It is clear that teachers have embraced the phonics drive but they are also intent on maintaining a commitment to pupils’ enjoyment. For Ms Meadus, this means balancing a range of approaches: “Phonics is a very important skill.

"But I don’t agree, from experience, that it works for all children. I’ve read all the research that says it is the best approach for SEND learners but experience tells me that some kids need a different approach perhaps returning to phonics later on. As with all things, a sensible, balanced approach would be best. The phonics or nothing message at the moment is very disappointing.” 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information & resources

  • Burns: Every child a reader: Whole-school reading strategies, Headteacher Update Best Practice Focus 7, January 22:
  • DfE: Guidance: Preparing to administer the phonics screening check, October 2012:
  • Headteacher Update: Reading: Academics criticise DfE’s narrow focus on ‘synthetic phonics only’, January 2022:
  • Johnston & Chew: Response to Wyse & Bradbury: Reading wars or reading reconciliation?, January 2022:
  • Twist, Jones & Treleaven: The impact of Covid-19 on pupil attainment, NFER, March 2022:
  • Wyse & Bradbury: Reading wars or reading conciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading, Review of Education (10), British Educational Research Association, 2022a:
  • Wyse & Bradbury: Phonics teaching in England needs to change – our new research points to a better approach, IoE Blog, UCL Institute of Education, January 2022b:

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