Reading: Academics criticise DfE's narrow focus on 'synthetic phonics only'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Research claiming that the government’s main approach to the teaching of reading does not follow the best evidence has reignited the debate over the teaching of phonics.

A paper published this week includes analysis of 55 robust longitudinal experimental trials as well as survey findings from 2,205 teachers in England.

It warns that the teaching of phonics and reading in primary schools in England has changed fundamentally. Specifically, the researchers say that the national curriculum and other guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) has shifted over the last decade from using a more balanced approach to a far narrower focus on synthetic phonics only.

Synthetic or blended phonics teachesreading by first teaching the letter sounds and then building up to blending these together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words.

The researchers say that England’s synthetic phonics approach stipulates a focus first and foremost on the teaching of phonemes (sounds) and how to blend sounds together. The paper adds: “As part of this approach at key moments in the teaching programme, phonics teaching is separate from practicing reading with whole texts.”

The paper has been authored by Professor Dominic Wyse and Professor Alice Bradbury from the Faculty of Education and Society at the UCL Institute of Education. It has been published this week in the Review of Education.

The co-authors are also among more than 250 signatories who have written an open letter to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi calling on the government to change its policy on reading.

They say any reforms should “centre on a wider range of approaches to teaching phonics and reading, enabling teachers to use their own judgement”.

The letter also says that teachers should be encouraged to focus first and foremost on pupils making sense of texts and that phonics teaching should be carefully linked with reading of whole texts. Alongside the teaching of phonics, the paper urges a whole-language approach where the focus is on real texts and the emphasis is on reading for meaning.

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However, the research paper and open letter is unlikely to find much support within the Department for Education (DfE), which maintains its approach has helped England rise to eighth place in the international Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) for reading among 10-year-olds.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit has also concluded that phonics is a low-cost approach that can lead to five months of additional progress across a year.

Prof Wyse acknowledges “some strengths to England’s current approach to teaching reading”, but says the paper “shows that the government’s policy is uninformed because it is not underpinned by the latest robust evidence”.

He states: “For the first time in more than 100 years we see that a balanced instruction approach to the teaching of reading is no longer the norm in England.

“The majority of teachers are now reporting the more frequent use of the narrower synthetic phonics approach. England’s synthetic phonics approach requires a too heavy emphasis on teaching about phonemes (sounds), and so minimises attention to other vital aspects of teaching reading.

“Our view is that the system doesn’t give teachers enough flexibility to do what they think is best for their pupils, nor to encourage pupils to enjoy reading.”

In the research, 66 per cent of 634 teachers from nursery, reception, and year 1 said that synthetic phonics was their main focus compared to one per cent who said that whole texts were seen as the main emphasis and context for teaching reading.

Furthermore, the research finds that the most rigorous experimental trials have tested children’s reading some years after the interventions finished. It cites studies from Canada and Norway which “clearly showed that effective teaching of phonics teaching and reading was delivered by class teachers who combined phonics with teaching of whole texts in phonics/reading lessons. As a result, the gains for children were statistically significant resulting in them making better progress”.

While in theory teachers have a choice for how they teach reading, the study says that the DfE uses a range of ways of enforcing synthetic phonics, including the statutory phonics screening check at age five, which was introduced by former education secretary Michael Gove and former schools minister Nick Gibb. Elsewhere, the DfE vets reading schemes and only approves those which include synthetic phonics, the paper says, while it also uses Ofsted to enforce synthetic phonics.

Figures from the DfE show that since the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012, the percentage of year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard in reading has risen from 58 to 82 per cent. However, in the research paper, all but one of the 936 written comments from the teacher survey about the phonics screening check were negative.

Prof Bradbury said: “Our findings highlight that although there are a range of ways to teach reading, many teachers feel pressured by the phonics screening check to focus on phonics above all.

“Policy changes have led to changes in teaching, including more time being spent on phonics, the separation of phonics from other literacy activities, and a reliance on a small number of phonics schemes. This is an important shift in how children are taught to read, a shift which is not underpinned by the research evidence.”

  • Wyse & Bradbury: Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers' practices for teaching phonics and reading, Review of Education, January 2022:

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