Where next for phonics?


The progress, practice and problems of synthetic phonics teaching in schools

Three different, but inter-related, reports on synthetic phonics were published in May 2014. All three reports are interesting and informative but, in some ways, they leave us with more questions than answers. They certainly raise serious questions regarding early literacy provision for children generally and for widely recognised vulnerable groups:

  • do teachers embrace in full the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles described in government guidance and in the core phonics programmes that they purport to follow?
  • what does the widespread objection to the 40-word Year 1 phonics screening check actually reflect?
  • what approach and programmes really serve children best, particularly those who are slower to learn or with special needs?

Phonics screening check

The report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), Phonics screening check evaluation, Research report (May 2014), was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) to set out the latest findings from an evaluation of the statutory Year 1 phonics screening check. This report draws on teachers’ own views and endeavours to ascertain teachers’ phonics and early literacy provision with data collected from case-studies in 19 primary schools and midpoint surveys of 583 literacy coordinators and 625 Year 1 teachers. As part of the report, the researchers identify three types of schools:

  • type 1: supporters of synthetic phonics and of the check (34 per cent of the sample)
  • type 2: supporters of synthetic phonics but not of the check (36 per cent)
  • type 3: supporters of mixed methods (30 per cent).

How phonics influences reading, writing and spelling

The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programme on Reading, Writing and Spelling, a paper by Dr M. Grant (May 2014), describes two longitudinal studies in great detail. Dr Grant comments at the outset on some of the findings described in the NFER report. She writes:

In spite of the Government initiatives to raise literacy standards through synthetic phonics, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), on behalf of the DfE, reported the following evaluation findings in 2013 and in 2014 about the teaching of phonics and the attitudes towards phonics in schools. There is “wide misunderstanding of the term ‘systematic synthetic phonics’”. About 90% of literacy coordinators “feel that a variety of different methods should be used to teach children to decode words”. “Many schools believe that a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods”. “Teachers in general have not yet fully adopted” DfE recommended phonics practices.

Whereas the NFER report identifies only type 3 schools (30 per cent of the sample) as “Supporters of mixed methods”, it is possible that in reality many, if not most, of the other 70 per cent of schools in England are also providing systematic phonics instruction with a “mixed methods” experience for children. Despite the attempt to discover teachers’ views and identify their teaching principles and practices, the NFER report fails to provide clarity by its authors’ own admission. So, what looks clear from the NFER report is that the picture of phonics provision in schools in England is, in fact, far from clear.

This explains why Dr Grant suggests in her paper that:

despite government initiatives for schools in England, the situation has still not been achieved in which all children are receiving the best start in their literacy. Nor are all struggling learners receiving the most effective teaching for intervention. The implications are that literacy standards may not be raised as expected and that some vulnerable children may continue to struggle to learn to read.

Dr Grant can draw such a conclusion because international research on reading instruction warns against reading strategies associated with “mixed methods” or “other strategies” when these amount to teaching children to lift unknown words from the page by guessing from various cues such as picture clues, context clues and initial letter clues. Such multi-cueing reading strategies are particularly dangerous for vulnerable groups of children, which is precisely why the Government’s “core criteria” and the guidance in Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) specifically state that these strategies should not be taught as they detract from phonics teaching and phonics application for beginner readers. It is also why the Government has urged “fidelity” to systematic synthetic phonics programmes and match-funded them, alongside training based on the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles. In addition, the Government has strongly promoted the need for cumulative, decodable reading books to enable children to apply their alphabetic code knowledge and blending skill so that they can experience success and build up their reading fluency, thus precluding the need to habitually guess the unknown words.

Implications for practice

Published in the Journal of Research in Reading (UKLA, May 2014), Validity and sensitivity of the phonics screening check: implications for practice, by Duff, Mengoni, Bailey and Snowling, investigates “whether the check is a valid measure of phonic skill and is sensitive in identifying children at risk of reading difficulties”. In this study, teacher assessments of phonics skills were obtained for 292 six-year-old children along with additional psychometric data for 160 of these children. The results showed that “The check was strongly correlated with other literacy skills and was sensitive in identifying at-risk readers. So too were teacher judgements of phonics”. The authors concluded that, although the check fulfils its aims, “resources might be better focused on training and supporting teachers in their ongoing monitoring of phonics”.

In this third report, there seems to be a broad assumption that:

…research findings are reflected in the current practice of most schools in England, following the Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (Rose, 2006). Amongst the review’s key recommendations was that phonics should be taught as the primary approach to learning to read and write and that such teaching should be embedded within a broad language and literacy curriculum.

We know from the NFER report that this presumes too much. Rose promoted the Simple View of Reading, considered to be a useful conceptual framework, as it distinguishes the need to teach the mechanics of lifting the words off the page (word decoding) from the language comprehension required to understand the words that have been decoded, as two main processes to becoming a reader in the full sense. Some teachers when they refer to “other strategies” might conceivably be referring to their provision of the wider language and literacy curriculum (providing wide experience of books, enriching vocabulary and developing language comprehension through various means), rather than applying the multi-cueing reading strategies which amount to teaching word-guessing when children read books. We do not discover the realities in the classroom, however, from these reports. We do not gain a clear picture of teachers’ knowledge of, or commitment to, the research findings and government guidance. Teachers nationally share no commonality in their professional understanding or their views about phonics teaching, early reading instruction and the Year 1 phonics screening check.

Whilst this third report perhaps assumes that teachers are generally following the guidance described in the Rose Report and subsequent guidance in the Government’s core criteria and in Letters and Sounds, the authors state that: “a number of UK studies have shown that teachers well versed in phonic strategies and monitoring procedures can provide reliable estimates of children’s reading abilities as measured by objective tests”. They also note that:

Despite the focus of government policy on the implementation of systematic phonics in recent years, the proportion of pupils leaving primary schools with the expected level in English had stalled at around 80% (Department for Education, 2010). In response to this, in 2012, the UK coalition government introduced a statutory check on early reading progress – the phonics screening check.

It is looking highly likely, however, that the teachers from 2007 onwards were not necessarily delivering a systematic synthetic phonics experience to children as a consequence of government acceptance of Rose’s recommendations and the subsequent publication of Letters and Sounds. In other words, did the 80 per cent of pupils leaving primary schools at the “expected level in English” in 2010 continue to reflect, in reality, a mixed methods experience – that is, multi-cueing reading strategies with some phonics thrown into the mix to various degrees? This sets the scene for the Government’s quest to further promote the profile of systematic synthetic phonics teaching with the introduction of the phonics match-funded initiative and the Year 1 phonics screening check.

Phonics in action

At this point, we should refocus on the second report. Dr Grant describes the practice pre-dating the Government’s emphasis on systematic synthetic phonics as she was a pioneer in the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles long before official recommendations. This report provides us with information about two longitudinal studies to compare with general national figures drawn to our attention in report three. Dr Grant reports these results from systematic synthetic phonics practice:

The 1997 – 2004 research followed children who received first-time and catch-up synthetic phonics teaching through to Key Stage 1 English SATs and Key Stage 2 English SATs. The KS2 SATs results in 2004 showed that there were no severe literacy difficulties. Hence virtually all the children in this large cohort (94%) transferred to secondary school having met nationally expected standards for English.

Dr Grant provides the actual results for 2004 from systematic synthetic phonics practice: Level 4+ (94 per cent) and Level 5 (65 per cent). This is a far cry from the national 80 per cent Level 4 results reported for 2010, six years later.

In contrast to the possible ambiguity about teachers’ practices in report one and report three, Dr Grant leaves no doubt about the teaching approach. The children in the two studies started from a low baseline on school entry. Dr Grant identified groupings of children by DfE classification, and identified two further vulnerable groups. There was no especially gifted or advantaged intake of children achieving such solid results in the two studies, and Dr Grant concludes confidently that “These studies with Reception and Year 1 children demonstrate that teaching with a government-approved systematic synthetic phonics programme can be a brilliant opportunity to drive up reading standards”.

The well-publicised controversial issue raised in report three is the objection to the Year 1 phonics screening check. It is mystifying that a group of academics fails to note the confusion of teachers’ professional understanding and practice raised in the NFER report on the one hand and yet, in effect, adds its voice to the detractors of the phonics screening check on the other. In report three it states:

Educators have questioned its necessity, voicing concerns about whether the check will add any valuable information to what teachers already know about their pupils’ progress (e.g., National Union of Teachers, 2012). There have also been objections to the statutory nature of the check, with concerns about the resource implications of mandatory testing and the negative consequences when such tests become ‘high-stakes’ (e.g., Association of Teachers and Lecturers, 2011; Brooks, 2010). Indeed, a survey of nearly 3000 teachers – conducted after the administration of the check but before its results – reported that 87% of respondents did not agree with the statutory implementation of the check and thought it should be discontinued (ATL/NAHT/NUT, 2012).

The authors of report three go on to state that they “also consider whether, given our findings, it [the check] is necessary”.

It is extraordinary that our teaching and research professions should protest so vociferously about the Year 1 phonics screening check despite its simplicity and suitability for checking phonics knowledge and decoding nationally and despite the findings that it is “strongly correlated with other literacy skills and…sensitive in identifying at-risk readers”. Further, there appears to be a failure to acknowledge its importance for every aspect of information and accountability considering the history of notoriously weak literacy and the plethora of flawed teaching methods in English-speaking countries. It is obvious that already the very existence of the phonics check has made teachers across the country far more mindful of teaching effectiveness. Results have risen notably across three years if you include the 2011 pilot check of 32 per cent of children reaching or exceeding the benchmark, rising to national figures of 58 per cent in 2012, then 69 per cent in 2013. The NFER report also found that “most children” who met the standard went on to achieve level 2 in reading and writing at the end of Year 1.

What do teachers think?

Conversations via online forums have also shown that teachers have differing attitudes about the phonics check, with no agreement across the profession that multi-cueing can be potentially damaging for children. And yet, only a small proportion of the match-funding was spent on phonics training. In the NFER report it states that 96 per cent of literacy coordinators considered that teachers were “adequately (‘very well’ or ‘well’) prepared to provide effective phonics teaching”. Do the diverse views and phonics results reflect this assertion?

There are schools in various contexts, for example, including schools in disadvantaged circumstances, reporting results of more than 90 per cent of children achieving the threshold mark in the phonics check – seriously raising questions about the practice in some leafy suburb local authorities with much lower results – often attributed to the “better readers” having “outgrown” the check. This is a bizarre explanation. It is extraordinary that people think that better readers should not need to read accurately words like “drap”, “jorb” and “splot”.

Finally, whilst there is large-scale uptake of Letters and Sounds by the majority of teachers across the country, this publication is more aptly described as a detailed framework (it has no teaching or learning resources) despite being entitled a “high-quality programme”. Teachers themselves must equip and translate Letters and Sounds into a programme for sustained phonics provision for around three years. This is a tall ask of busy teachers, and an expectation that does not guarantee provision, quality control or results for every child.

Should the foundational literacy our children receive in schools be left to chance – the chance of the practices, programme content and beliefs of the teachers? If you asked parents which school they would prefer their children to attend, would it be a school where children achieve 94 per cent Level 4+ and 65 per cent Level 5 in Year 6? Would it be schools achieving more than 90 per cent in the Year 1 phonics screening check regardless of intake? Would parents appreciate teachers with the professional curiosity to discover how their teaching effectiveness compares to others, and the determination to hone their practices year on year and welcome the opportunity afforded by the Year 1 phonics screening check to inform them objectively on a national scale?

Further information

Debbie Hepplewhite MBE FRSA is a phonics consultant and teacher-trainer. She is phonics consultant of Oxford Reading Tree’s Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters, and author of Phonics International:


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  1. In addition:
    Ms Hepplewhite has outlined some of the findings of the NFER report but has not mentioned that one of the findings was:
    “In contrast to the phonics scores, there were no significant associations with school typology on the results for children at the end of key stage 1. Thus attainment in reading and writing more broadly appears unaffected by the school’s enthusiasm, or not, for systematic synthetic phonics and the check, and by their approach to the teaching of phonics.”

  2. In response to the issue raised above, teacher assessments of higher-order literacy skills at the end of Year 2 are not the same kind of assessment as a snapshot objective assessment such as the Year One phonics screening check – they are checking for different things.

    It is possible to do relatively well in Year 2 without advanced alphabetic code knowledge and embedded and accurate decoding and spelling skills – and this will undermine the longer term education of at least some children.

    When the level of vocabulary in literature becomes more challenging, and beyond the spoken vocabulary of the pupil, and when the pictures disappear and context is not so obvious, some children will stall out. Our colleagues in secondary schools provide us with plenty of examples of children with weak basic literacy skills who have slipped through the primary net.

  3. By ‘higher order literacy skills’ do you, or do you not, mean reading? Or are these skills somehow not reading skills and the reading assessment not a reading assessment? There seems to be a lack of logic here.
    It is true that the phonics screening check checks something different, as there is not a hint of any reading for meaning being assessed, quite the opposite.
    Should we be pursuing alphabet code knowledge for its own sake, or in order to support reading for meaning? Some children may indeed stall as they go through school but as phonics had been a major strand of teaching since 1998 it seems unlikely to be lack emphasis on phonics in teaching which should be blamed.

  4. No one suggests that teachers’ approach to the teaching of reading should be ‘left to chance’ (final paragraph above). Ms Hepplewhite, in a number of places has sought to equate ‘professional autonomy’ with ‘leaving to chance’ . Those defending professional autonomy certainly want teachers properly informed about approaches to reading including good quality SP and a proper understanding of English orthography. So not ‘chance’!

    But this is where we come to a parting of the ways.

    Recently I asked an eminent (and pretty hard-nosed – viz, not in the Blob!!) empirical researcher whether, if we had overwhelming evidence of the efficacy of a particular approach to the teaching of reading, this would justify requiring that method of all teachers for all children. “Of course not”, he responded. Particular contexts and particular children demand (as far as practicable) suitably tailored responses from teachers.


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