Phonics can help the disadvantaged but has no long-term benefits for the average child, major study finds

Teaching reading through ‘synthetic phonics’ helps children from poorer backgrounds or those who do not have English as a first language, according to a large-scale study from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics.

But on average, a government policy that requires all primary schools to use the method has had no measurable effect on pupils’ reading scores at age 11. Having tracked the progress of more than 270,000 pupils, the researchers find that those taught to read using other methods lagged behind at age 7 but caught up later.

The synthetic phonics programme was introduced as a pilot in 18 local authorities in 2005, after a small-scale study in Clackmannanshire, in Scotland, showed that the method – which teaches children to say the sounds made by letters or groups of letters and then blend them to make words – could bring very significant benefits.

The following year, after an independent review under former schools inspector Jim Rose, teachers in a further 32 local authorities were given intensive training in the method. The CEP research paper, published today (Monday 25th April 2016) compares the progress of children in those 50 local authorities with those in 100 others that introduced the change in the 2008/09 and 2009/10 academic years.

The study provides the first large-scale analysis of the effects of the policy change, and differs from earlier research in that it evaluates children’s progress at age 11, using national test scores, rather than immediately after the completion of the phonics programme. The research team evaluates the impact of intensive teacher training in phonics on pupils’ attainment in teacher assessments and tests at age 5, 7 and 11, using census information from the National Pupil Database.

They find large average effects at the age of 5 and 7, but these had disappeared by age 11, probably because most children learned to read eventually, regardless of teaching method. But those who were at risk of struggling with their reading – those who came from poor family backgrounds or who did not speak English as a first language – received significant long-term benefits from synthetic phonics.

This result justifies the policy, the researchers conclude, particularly as it was relatively inexpensive compared with other initiatives such as cutting class sizes. It helped to reduce inequality and in the longer term, it should improve social mobility.

But the researchers note that local authorities were responsible for implementation of the programme and will not be able to play a similar role after all schools are converted into academies, as is planned by the end of 2022.

Co-author Professor Sandra McNally, who is director of the education and skills research programme at CEP, said:

“Local authorities were the drivers of this policy as it was rolled out nationally. When all schools become academies, it will not be possible to implement a policy in this way because the role of local authorities in education will either be greatly diminished or non-existent.”



‘Teaching to Teach’ Literacy, by Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally and Martina Viarengo,  published as a Centre for Economic Performance Discussion Paper:

Stephen Machin is Professor of Economics at University College London and Research Director at the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), London School of Economics.

Sandra McNally is Professor of Economics at the University of Surrey and Director of the Education and Skills Programme at CEP.

Martina Viarengo is Associate Professor in the Department of International Economics at

The Graduate Institute, Geneva and Faculty Associate at the Harvard University Center for International Development.

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