Home Education Focus on phonics to teach reading is ‘failing children’, says landmark study | Literacy

Focus on phonics to teach reading is ‘failing children’, says landmark study | Literacy


A landmark study has described the way primary school pupils are taught to read in England as “uninformed and failing children”, calling on the government to drop its narrow focus on phonics.

Researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education say the current emphasis on synthetic phonics, which teaches children to read by helping them to identify and pronounce sounds which they blend together to make words, is “not underpinned by the latest evidence”.

They claim analysis of multiple systematic reviews, experimental trials and data from international assessment tests such as Pisa suggests that teaching reading in England may have been less successful since the adoption of the synthetic phonics approach rather than more.

The UCL researchers are among 250 signatories to a letter which has been sent to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, calling on the government to allow for a wider range of approaches to teaching reading, which would allow teachers to use their own judgment about which is best for their pupils.

The use of synthetic or blended phonics to teach reading in schools in England has been the subject of ferocious debate since it was backed by former education minister Michael Gove, who introduced a phonics screening check for all children in year one (aged five or six) to check pupil progress.

In synthetic phonics, children begin by pronouncing individual sounds in words and are then encouraged to blend them together to make words. For example “s-t-r-ee-t”. Supporters say it has had a positive impact on literacy, and point to significant long-term benefits for disadvantaged pupils.

Critics say phonics training only helps children to do well in phonics tests – they learn how to pronounce words presented to them in a list rather than understand what they read – and does nothing to encourage a love of reading. England’s Pisa reading scores are virtually unchanged since 2006.

The report outlines three key approaches to the teaching of reading. As well as the government’s preferred approach using systematic synthetic phonics, there is a whole-language approach, where the focus is on real texts, the emphasis is on reading for meaning and any phonics teaching is non-systematic. The third approach is “balanced instruction” which balances the different approaches.

Prof Dominic Wyse, co-author of the UCL study, said: “Teaching children to read and to make sense of texts is crucial to improving their life chances and is one of the most important tasks of primary schools and early-years settings.

“Although there are some strengths to England’s current approach to teaching reading, our new research shows that the government’s policy is uninformed because it is not underpinned by the latest robust evidence.”

Wyse went on: “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.

“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.”

Co-author Prof Alice Bradbury said research had showed that teachers feel pressured by the compulsory screening check. Results from a survey of 2,200 teachers found synthetic phonics was their main focus for teaching reading.

All but one of the 936 comments from the survey were negative about the screening test, while one teacher described having to “live and breathe phonics” and another appealed for “reflection on the mass of skills involved in reading rather than solely focusing on phonics”.

“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,” said Bradbury. “This is an important shift in how children are taught to read, a shift which is not underpinned by the research evidence.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the phonics check should be abolished. “When it comes to detailed questions of teaching children to read, ministers should accept that government does not know best. It would be more responsible for them to trust research evidence rather than to follow their own prejudices and instincts.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said systematic phonics teaching had been proven the world over to be the most effective method of teaching children to read.

“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%, with 92% of children achieving this standard by Year 2.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here