What’s the harm in phonics?…experts differ

Expert reactions on the teaching of phonics, as published in IMPACT*

Following on from today’s media reports, for example on BBC on line,  which raised some criticism about the teaching of synthetic phonics, Dr David Waugh, Director of Primary PGCE, School of Education, Durham University, commented:

“There are probably more myths surrounding the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) than truths, and my considerable experience of working in and observing teaching in primary schools suggests that the practices described in Andrew Davis’ article are unusual.

The Rose Review (2006) placed great emphasis upon phonics being taught in the context of a broad, rich language curriculum, with lots of experience of good quality literature. Without that, why would children want to learn grapheme-phoneme correspondence and acquire the ability to blend sounds to make words? Teachers, and many parents, are highly skilled at making texts appealing and engaging, and at showing children that they will be able to read them independently once they have acquired the basic skills, such as phonemic awareness.

While there are certainly some schools which limit much of children’s early reading to phonically regular texts as they acquire phonemic awareness, I know of no school which does not expose them to a wide range of stories, poems and other texts on a regular basis. And these texts will certainly include irregular words – it would be impossible not to, given that many of our most common words are phonically irregular (the, was, once, one, who etc).

While I have reservations about the use of pseudo words in tests, I do feel that the emphasis upon developing children’s phonic knowledge has brought important benefits. After years of many teachers having few ideas about how to teach reading beyond listening to children read, we now have structured strategies in place and teachers are trained to teach reading rather than simply to listen to it. Teaching reading involves much more than systematic synthetic phonics, but SSP provides a foundation for children’s literacy development. When taught as part of a broad, rich language curriculum it helps equip children to become fluent readers, eager to engage with literature. My experience is that the majority of children benefit from such an approach and that children’s reading is improving as a result.”


Professor Morag Styles, Homerton College, University of Cambridge gives this reaction:

“Andrew Davis has spoken a lot of good sense about the current domination of synthetic phonics in early years teaching. Phonics have their part to play as one of several skills most children have to master in order to learn to read but imposing one way for all is bad practice, especially as it involves tedious drills and takes children away from wonderful books they want to read. Also children come at reading at different paces and in different ways; some prefer bigger chunks of language, others whole word recognition, rather than detailed analysis phoneme by dreary phoneme. It is not only some of the most academic children who may be put off reading through synthetic phonics; it is not necessarily helpful for those who struggle academically. If there was one simple way to teach reading, all teachers would use it. There isn’t! It’s a complex and fascinating process.”


*To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, IMPACT No20, Philosophical Perspectives on Education a pamphlet by Andrew Davis with Editorial Introduction by Michael Hand. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/2048-416X.2013.12000.x/pdf

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