Systematic synthetic phonics NOT the best way to teach children to read, evidence suggests

(49 Posts)
incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 20:46:54

See the most recent review of all existing research:

“There is little evidence” in favour of any one approach to the teaching of phonics over another, a major new research study has concluded, in what looks like a direct challenge to recent government policy.
A team of academics from the universities of Durham and Sheffield carried out a “tertiary” review of studies of the teaching of reading. This was a synthesis of all existing research on the subject, with the team evaluating the findings of 12 “systematic reviews” of existing research, which themselves embraced 452 individual studies in total.
The exercise provided what the researchers, Carole Torgerson, Greg Brooks, Louise Gascoine and Steve Higgins, describe as the “most up-to-date overview of the results and quality of the research on phonics,” across a number of countries.

OP’s posts: |
TeenTimesTwo Thu 22-Mar-18 21:14:59

I haven't read the link, but from what you posted it isn't saying 'not phonics' just that 'systematic synthetic phonics' hasn't been proved to be the best?

So still phonics then, now just arguing the very best way to teach it?

user789653241 Thu 22-Mar-18 21:21:40

Don't really get what you are trying to suggest?

incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 21:27:16

"the new study concluded: “It would seem sensible for teaching to include systematic phonics instruction for younger readers – but the evidence is not clear enough to decide which phonics approach is best.
“Also, in our view there remains insufficient evidence to justify a ‘phonics only’ teaching policy; indeed, since many studies have added phonics to whole language approaches, balanced instruction is indicated.”
It is even difficult to be definitive as to whether teaching phonics in general is better than not using it – or not using it as a main focus - in the teaching of reading, the research found, since many studies purporting to investigate such questions contained design flaws.
In addition, some systematic reviews failed to take into account “publication bias”: the fact that those where a positive effect of a particular experimental approach is found are more likely to be published than those where it is not."

OP’s posts: |
incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 21:29:25

TL;DR - no, on balance, it looks as though "balanced instruction is indicated" - so not just which variety of phonics, but phonics only alongside other methods. Or possibly not even phonics at all.

OP’s posts: |
incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 21:31:39

Worth reading the whole link, though you do have to register - but worth it, as Warwick Mansell is fab.

OP’s posts: |
sirfredfredgeorge Thu 22-Mar-18 22:03:24

So here's the paper that it sounds to be based on:
Seems pretty unequivocal that phonics is the way:

Systematic phonics instruction within a broad literacy curriculum appears to have a greater effect on childrens progress in reading than whole language or whole word approaches. The effect size is moderate but still important.

Your quoting though is extremely selective, you quote the paper directly in the "which phonics is good" part but then switch to quoting not the paper but an opinion from an author in an article. One obviously carries the weight of the paper, the other is simply an unreviewed and unsubstatiated comment.

The paper appears (on a superficial level from someone far outside the field) to be a good one, and it pretty much says what the most people say here on primary - teach phonics for learning to take text to words, and read and be read to lots for understanding.

I can't see anything in the paper to support a change in phonics, indeed the main advice for teachers is to do it, and it particularly says:

Moreover, there is no RCT evidence for one common objection to the use of phonics:
There is no justification for withholding phonics from either normally-developing children or those at risk of reading failure both may benefit and it should be used with both


incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 22:06:02

I quoted entirely from the article! Which I had linked to.

OP’s posts: |
Pardalis Thu 22-Mar-18 22:09:01

At the risk of creating an argument, I have always believed that a whole phonics approach is not the best way to teach children how to read the English language. English is not phonetic enough. Phonics introduces too many complications.
For cvc words at the beginning it's quite good to get the kids learning quickly and make them feel like they're progressing quickly. But for more than that, simply tapping into their young brains who want to learn is enough. Word, association, context.....

And for those who don't get it quickly - tailored help should be offered.

JessicaJonesJacket Thu 22-Mar-18 22:09:16

There are some very vocal phonics' supporters on MN so prepare to be inundated by posters defending it as a system regardless of the latest research.

user789653241 Thu 22-Mar-18 22:10:53

Adding to sir, my ds learned to read without phonics, one of the child fortunate enough to learn to decode on his own. But learning phonics at school actually strengthened his decoding/encoding skills even further. So, even for able child who managed to learn to read before school, there's benefit from learning phonics properly.

incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 22:11:25

What the research paper says My emphasis) is not quite what you paint it as, sirfred:

"Since there is evidence that systematic phonics teaching benefits children’s reading accuracy, it should be part of every literacy teacher’s repertoire and a routine part of literacy teaching, in a judicious balance with other elements. "

That bit in bold is quite a break from the current position.

These conclusions are also significant:

"There is currently no strong RCT evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other. • There is also currently no strong RCT evidence on how much systematic phonics is needed. • Two other areas on which the existing research base is insufficient are whether or not phonics teaching boosts comprehension, and whether phonics should be used to teach spelling as well as reading. "

OP’s posts: |
incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 22:15:02

My personal view is that anyone who learns to read entirely by synthetic phonics and without any whole word recognition is always going to struggle with spelling - because English is not a phonetically regular language and so there is no way to know how to spell a particular word (as opposed to merely read it) which does not rely on memorising the particular word.

OP’s posts: |
sirfredfredgeorge Thu 22-Mar-18 22:19:43

in a judicious balance with other elements

That is not a break from the current position - it's talking about teaching comprehension and other reading beyond decoding accuracy - which is all that phonics is about.

The strong evidence parts you quote are also only about which format to use, and if it does anything to help with spelling (only a few trials with a weak effect) and nothing that looked at comprehension, but the current advice on phonics says nothing about phonics aiding with comprehension, so it's not the change you suggest.

RafaIsTheKingOfClay Thu 22-Mar-18 22:22:14

I think that’s the previous paper fredfredgeorge.

The one the OP is on About is stick behind a £30 paywall. And the abstract seems to be somewhat lacking in information.

incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 22:34:43

It's not a £30 paywall - you can register for free and read one article a month, as I just did. The article is a summary, not the actual research paper.

The research paper is here:

OP’s posts: |
Iceweasel Thu 22-Mar-18 22:34:53


DS completed most of primary school overseas where he was taught synthetic phonics alongside sight words and high frequency words, so a balanced approach. He learnt the letters and sounds easily but blending did not click for him. He learnt to read using sight words which he picked up incredibly quickly (in the top reading group). He then taught himself to use phonics analytically to work out unknown words at about age 6.

DS would have surely failed the year one phonics check, but passed it the year later, with no intervention, just a little time. If he was taught only synthetic phonics, he would have likely struggled with reading through all of reception and year one.

RafaIsTheKingOfClay Thu 22-Mar-18 22:39:27

I did register and read the article, but that’s not the paper.

The paper is on the site that you linked to but I can’t read it without a log in or paying £30 to view it for 24hrs.

RafaIsTheKingOfClay Thu 22-Mar-18 22:42:33

Unless I’m missing something on thetandf site

incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 22:48:37

That is the paper. But yes, you need to pay to read the full paper, hence my selective quotes from the (free) article.

As I stated, you do need to register on Warwick Mansell's website to read the article, but well worth it in my opinion - almost worth paying for.

If you're not familiar with him, he is a fantastic investigative journalist on education and assessment.

By the way, his more recent article is intriguing - I can't read the article it links to without paying though!

OP’s posts: |
incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 22:49:15

If anyone can read and give us selected highlights, it sounds like it would be most amusing!

OP’s posts: |
incorrigiblyplural Thu 22-Mar-18 22:50:24

In case you can't guess, this research just confirms my long-held view that systematic synthetic phonics was never the panacea it was claimed to be.

OP’s posts: |
nooka Thu 22-Mar-18 23:14:52

My ds was 'taught' to read using mixed methods and I say 'taught' because it was a failure that left him angry, frustrated and fearful of books because he thought he was stupid. After a year we decided that continuing to let school lead on teaching him to read was not a good idea as he was very unhappy and starting to show behavioural issues. With advice from the phonics advocates here (this was 10+ years ago so possibly not the same people as post today, but thank you from ds and me) we found a systematic synthetic phonics tutor and after I think six hour sessions he discovered that he wasn't stupid, that reading had rules he could learn and after learning them he could read. It is true that it didn't really address spelling, but then given school's approach to spelling has only ever been learning lists of words which he struggled with and never retained I'm not sure what is actually being advocated. Total sample of one of course but having looked at the tertiary review research paper (which is not behind a paywall and can be found here) I'll post the conclusion below so you can see why the OP concluding that schools should stop using phonics is not supported by this paper.

nooka Thu 22-Mar-18 23:17:46

11. Conclusions
This section is organised largely around the four original research questions.
1. How effective are different approaches to phonics teaching in comparison to each other (including the specific area of analytic versus synthetic phonics)?
The current review has confirmed that systematic phonics instruction is associated with an increased improvement in reading accuracy
. The effect size is 0.27, which translates into a 12% absolute improvement in a reading accuracy test that is standardised to have a score with a mean of 50% for children not receiving systematic phonics (see Torgerson, 2003, p.86). In other words, of 100 children
not receiving systematic phonics instruction, in a test 50 would
score 50% or more, compared with 62 children who would score 50% or more if they did receive systematic phonics instruction. The current review has also confirmed that this is true for both normally-developing children and those at risk of failure.

However, there was little RCT evidence on which to compare analytic and synthetic phonics, or on the effect of systematic phonics on reading comprehension or spelling, so that it was not
possible to reach firm conclusions on these issues.

nooka Thu 22-Mar-18 23:20:18

2. How do different approaches impact on the application of phonics in reading and writing, including beyond the early years?

It was not possible to analyse how different approaches impacted on the application of phonics in reading and writing beyond the early years because only three RCTs used follow-
up measures.

3. Is there a need to differentiate by phonics for reading and phonics for spelling?
This question could not be tackled directly because none of the RCTs had addressed it.
However, there was a difference in the findings, in that systematic phonics instruction was found to benefit children's reading accuracy, but there was insufficient evidence to reach firm conclusions about impact on reading comprehension or spelling.

4. What proportion of literacy teaching should be based on the use of phonics?

Again, there was insufficient RCT evidence on which to base a firm conclusion.

Join the discussion

To comment on this thread you need to create a Mumsnet account.

Join Mumsnet

Already have a Mumsnet account? Log in