A Very Short Summary of the Phonics Debate

April 7, 2013

I have a couple of contributions from primary school teachers about how phonics is being taught at the moment, which I will be sharing in two blogposts later today. However, it is probably worth giving a bit of background to phonics first. This is meant to be a quick summary, not a researched article, and I have neither tried to make it neutral, nor tried to include arguments for my opinions here. If this means the comments section turns into an argument about phonics, then so be it.

Although I think this is my first blogpost about phonics, I often end up sidetracked into discussions of phonics. This is not because of any direct professional involvement in early literacy but because of my interest in education research. In a discipline where there is hardly any good evidence of anything, this area stands out as having overwhelming evidence of a simple proposition: beginning readers learn best by learning phonics (i.e. through being taught the relationship between letter combinations and sounds). Additionally, the evidence that this should be taught systematically and deliberately is also overwhelming. The argument that the best way to do this is through what is known as “synthetic phonics” (a way of blending sounds together in order to form words) is also remarkably strong for education research (although it helps that once you have accepted that the systematic learning of phonics is the first priority there are not really any attractive alternatives).

Because the evidence in this area stands out in educational research (and, as far as I can tell, research in any area of social science) and yet phonics denialism is incredibly common among educationalists and teachers, it is hard to avoid discussing this area when discussing evidence-based practice. Anyone who opposes phonics will, if consistent, refuse to accept the validity of empirical education research in general. Anyone who claims to support evidence-based practice, but gives credence to phonics denialism, can be ignored as a charlatan. If you want to see how education as a field ignores inconvenient evidence, this is your best starting point.

If ignoring evidence wasn’t enough, this is also a field where you can study how pseudo-science works. Because the evidence is so clear the priority is always to muddy the water.  Phonics denialists will argue over definitions (even words such as “reading”) . They will claim that they hold some middle position which accepts the research but looks to combine it with other positions (phrases like “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy” are used). Methods that stand in contradiction to the evidence will be presented as a useful supplement to phonics (in much the same way as magical methods of healing were rebranded as “complementary medicine”). Conspiracy theories are presented as facts, the most common one at the moment is that companies that provide phonics resources are somehow behind the government’s support for phonics. Quotations are cherry-picked from research (and from sources that sound like research but aren’t) with even the slightest qualification being interpreted as grounds for rejecting the evidence. Even the theoretical possibility of phonics not working immediately with even one child will be given as a reason for using other methods. Denialists will always be bringing up their qualifications or their positions. Anyone who sticks with the evidence will be accused of being “ideological”. Anything that raises any doubt will be treated as firm evidence against the effectiveness of phonics. Really blatant lies are told, and they will even get printed in sympathetic academic journals. One day I will try to blog about this in detail but the sheer amount of research to be done to cover both the scale of the evidence for phonics and the extent and influence of denialism is astounding.

If you are interested in the battles over phonics, veterans of the battle, along with lots of good practice, can be found on the Reading Reform Foundation website. It is also worth looking at the information on http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/

These battles have raged on in the US since at least the 50s and here since at least the 80s. They can easily be found elsewhere in the English-speaking world. As far as I can tell the usual pattern is a strong, ideologically-driven attempt to eliminate phonics completely, followed by a backlash, followed by a government report endorsing phonics, followed by attempts to rehabilitate denialism by stealth or by pushing for “mixed methods”. In this country, the government discovered the evidence for phonics around 2006. There then followed attempts to sneak in non-phonic methods through schemes such as “Reading Recovery”. Since 2010 the government have been advocating phonics very explicitly and have funded phonics-based schemes and introduced the phonics-screening check, a pass/fail test of phonetic decoding ability.

I would hope that this is enough background information for understanding the next two blogposts which will be appearing shortly.


  1. This is so true, so familiar and so clearly put! I shall use it when I need new words to explain the controversy about how to teach reading.

    Thank you Old Andrew.

  2. You point out Old Andrew:

    “Since 2010 the government have been advocating phonics very explicitly and have funded phonics-based schemes and introduced the phonics-screening check, a pass/fail test of phonetic awareness.”

    They have also been funding (and will continue this up to 2014) Reading Recovery, the multi-cuing strategies employed (as you know) are in direct contradiction to a phonic based approach. As a result of this policy, schools employ a Reading Recovery Teacher who is often in charge of monitoring reading across the school. Typically these schools’ reading books are ‘banded’ according to the Reading Recovery books (ie number of words on a page rather than level of complexity of the alphabet code). Children are being sent home with non-phonic books (if they receive any at all). How are schools supposed to cope with all these mixed messages?

    I look forward to reading your next two blog spots.

  3. I’ve been involved in this debate since the 1990’s and your article is exactly how it is.

  4. I find this blog incredibly dated. The mention of a ‘phonics battelground’ seems to refer to a time long past when there was indeed an ideological debate about the merits of ‘phonics’ as opposed to a ‘whole word’ strategy for the teaching of reading. Those with this over-simplified view could perceive only of either a ‘phonics’ box or a ‘whole word’ box and any debaters had to belong in one box or the other.

    It is self-evident that the letter-sound correspondences have to be learned before reading is possible in any alphabet-based orthography. That is beyond any doubt. Reading competence is itself proof positive of mastery of the letter-sound correspondences; poor reading skills are proof positive that the letter-sound correspondences have not been mastered. It seems to me that there is simply no sensible debate be had here and these two ‘boxes’ should be discarded.

    What could be legitimately debated is not whether or not these correspondences have to be learned but HOW they are best learned. I have previously cited the case of the 2% of childen who arrive at school already able to read. These were long regarded as being exceptionally bright children who had somehow just ‘picked up’ reading skills because of their intellectual superiority. This is certainly not the case. When mothers read to their children, the children can often be seen to be tracking the text as it is being read and where reading to the child in this way is a daily occurrence, it seems inevitable that the child will come to recognise some of the text words on the page and in time, internalise a small sight vocabulary. Even quite a small sight vocabulary contains a great many of the more frequently occurring letters and letter groupings and this inevitably confers the ability to read other less familiar words. Children who have for example, internalised the simple, frequently occurring words ‘bad’, ’tell’, ’mud’, ‘sick’, ‘fog’ and ‘step’ could probably also successfully read words containing the same letter-sound correspondences such as ‘bell’, ‘tom’. ‘stop’, ‘fat’ and ‘leg’ and in this way, exponentially increase the extent of their sight vocabularies. These words would have been learned perceptually and not as a consequence of a specific, formal phonics lessons. This is of course, supposition rather than fact but how else are we to explain how 2% of children routinely arrive at school able to read if not by this perceptual route?

    I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the best way to teach the letter-sound correspondences to the majority of children is by rigorous and well planned teaching. The originators of synthetic phonics in Clackmannanshire, Dunbartonshire and Strathclyde University who monitor their efforts take the view that the best initial teaching strategy should have synthetic phonics as it core but also have additional teaching strands to ensure that the needs of all children are met and not just those of the majority and I share this view. Those who climbed belatedly onto the synthetic phonics bandwagon take a different view; they recognise synthetic phonics as the only legitimate and exclusive means of teaching reading.

    As a former head teacher with a couple of decades of research experience in this field, I have proposed and pursued a perceptual learning strand for children who have failed to acquire age-appropriate literacy skills. I have been encouraged in my work not only by the incredible success that I am able to quote for a PL approach but also by the strength and above all, the questionable quality of the opposition my work in perceptual learning has generated.

    To see something of its success, I would recommend some of the schools reporting on the Senco-forum and in a video produced by a Scottish school at http://youtu.be/d-wlbCFVzto Another school in Wales achieving incredible success with PL will be producing a video in July and several school cluster PL projects will be reporting online around the same time.

    To see the nature and quality of the opposition to my ideas I would recommend anyone to visit http://rrf.org.uk/messageforum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=5642

    To better appreciate the quality of this opposition to anything that is not ritually taught phonics lessons, it should be known that those voicing opposition are a private tutor, a retired secondary school teacher, two teaching assistants and a would-be school helper. I think this goes some way to explain why what was on the verge of becoming the best advocate in the world for good phonics teaching has descended so completely into the academic irrelevance it has become.

    • Far from convincing me that my post was outdated, this seems to be a convoluted presentation of some of the denialist arguments I mentioned in my post, in particular the “middle position” in which at least some phonics teaching is replaced with less effective strategies.

  5. While the author of this post doesn’t use the labels “whole language” or “whole word” instruction, I think it is a safe assumption that the phonics wars referenced have been waged between these two sides. Let me start by saying that I have no argument with this statement, “In a discipline where there is hardly any good evidence of anything, this area stands out as having overwhelming evidence of a simple proposition: beginning readers learn best by learning phonics (i.e. through being taught the relationship between letter combinations and sounds).” as long as it includes something like the following — compared to instruction which deemphasizes sub-lexical ‘sound-letter correspondences’ and emphasized lexical or “whole word” level instruction. I make this point because I it is clear that the mountains of evidence cited by the author is based on research evidence comparing these two types of instruction.

    So I agree that if we restrict the debate between A and B, the evidence is clear that A is better than B. But if there is a proposal of a C, I think the scientific community would agree that C needs to be judged on its own merits. If C is not just a small reworking of B, we can’t use the arguments about B against C.

    I would propose that one possible interpretation of the mountains of evidence described in this post is that we know that instruction which targets one type of sub-lexical feature of how words work — how phonological structures like phonemes map on to the written structures called graphemes — results in better literacy results than instruction which targets text at the lexical level.

    Thus, for researchers interested in whether we can help design an “instruction C” that is even more effective than “instruction A”, one potentially productive line of inquiry is to look to other sub-lexical features of language that might help learners of any age and ability make better sense of their writing system. To quote from a source that presents a case in total agreement with this post, becoming literate means… “learning how to use the conventional forms of printed language to obtain meaning from words.” It logically follows that… “the child learning how to read needs to learn how his or her writing system works” (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001, p. 34).

    In 1967 Richard Venezky made an assertion about how the English writing system works that I do not think is in debate today, “The simple fact is that the present orthography is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections, but instead, a more complex and more regular relationship wherein phoneme and morpheme share leading roles” (Venezky, 1967, p. 77). This brings me (finally) to the key point in my response:

    1) If I decide to take the recommendations of the research (that is in line with your argument) and,

    2) I accept the view that children deserve accurate instruction about how his or her writing system works, then…

    We need to look at the effect of instruction which targets not just sub-lexical features of written words that relate to phonology — but also sub-lexical features that relate to morphology, and how those features interrelate.

    I argue that the proposal to teach about the interrelation of morphology and phonology and how these features of oral language are marked by the orthography system represents a form of instruction which is in no way counters the mountains of evidence cited in this post. In fact it can be argued that this proposed “C” grows from a key finding from that research: Children who receive sub-lexical instruction that relates to features of how the written word works are more likely to succeed in literacy tasks than those that receive instruction that emphasizes text at the lexical level and above.

    Clearly this proposed “approach C” is not a small reworking of the discredited “approach B”. In fact, because morphology an phonology interrelate, understanding morphology brings clarity to the role of phonology — an obvious goal of “approach A”.

    Consider the base word “please” and its relatives, please/ + ure → pleasure; please/ + ing → pleasing; please/ → pleasant. By investigating these words which share an underlying written base, we can investigate the ‘ea’ digraph to see how it help us link these words with different pronunciations of the vowel phoneme — with the same spelling structure. We can also use this small set of morphologically related words to start an investigation of the phonemes the ‘s’ grapheme can represent. This type of morphophonemic instruction of words is in line with the recommendations for instruction that Carol Chomsky put forward in her seminal 1970 paper that Joanne Carlisle recently emphasized in her 2010 review of morphological instruction. A basic uncontroversial fact about English orthography is that consistent written morphological representations can have varied phonological representations, and that this convention evolved as means to represent meaning to those who already speak the language. As Pinker points out in “Words and Rules” (2000, p.45), “Clearly the perception of an embedded word comes from its spelling: become contains c-o-m-e; succumb doesn’t.…[S]pellings of English words notoriously do not always reflect their sounds; often they reflect morphological structure instead.”

    I would add that this feature of language is not reserved to “advanced” words. Consider the written morphological revealed by the following word sums:

    do + ing → doing; do + es → does
    go + ing → going; go + es → goes

    Does it make sense to tell children that “does” is an irregular word when it is complete coherence of the principles of English orthography? Might it help young children to investigate these underlying written structures and how they map on to both meaning and pronunciation so that they understand how the spelling-meaning connection works? Is it really better to ask children to memorize it since it is “irregular?” Why not use a word like this, the differing pronunciation of the “-s” suffix in the words cats and dogs, or relatives of a base like “sign” (signal, design, resign, assign) as a means to understand how their writing system works from the start of formal schooling?

    Let me describe this “approach C” as instruction which accurately represents the basic facts about how the writing system works from the beginning of schooling. While it seems a straightforward premise that was suggested in the quote by Rayner et. al above, we can still ask whether there is research evidence on this question. I have not yet seen such an intervention study, but we do have a growing literature of the effects of morphological instruction. I know of four systematic reviews or meta-analyses on this topic (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010; Carlisle, 2010; Goodwin & Ahn, 2010; Reed, 2008), and of at least one other in press. From these studies I argue that it is fair to conclude that to follow the recommendations of most current research, not only should children be taught about the role of phonology in the written word, but morphology also needs to be addressed explicitly. These lexical and sub-lexical features of words are fundamentally interrelated. Although I don’t know of research that has teased apart these features, I would argue that it is logical to assert that instruction which accurately represents how the English writings system works must teach about the interrelation of morphology and phonology.

    I suspect that the purpose of your post was to set up an argument that was limited to the phonics – whole language debate. My response here isn’t suggesting that we ignore that debate. However, I do suggest that we don’t remain mired in it.

    It has been my experience that if I bring up a flaw in assumptions that are present phonics instruction which are more accurately understood by investigating the full picture of how spelling works – I am often dismissed as someone who “denies the clear scientific evidence of phonics”. I have a teacher friend who does an amazing work at teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences and the role of morphology in his Grade 1 class. It has been argued to him by administrators that the research says that morphology should not be taught until Grade 3. That is a common recommendation from researchers, but not one based on evidence that compared the effects of instruction which did and did not teach morphology before Grade 3. The existing research on morphological instruction, however, suggests that morphological instruction brings particular benefits to younger, and especially less able readers.

    I’ve already gone on too long for a response. If anyone would like links to the research I cited or videos of the kind of instruction I describe in action. I’m happy to share. Full disclosure, I’m the Bowers of the Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon 2010 paper cited above.


    Peter Bowers

    • Okay, you lost me at “sub-lexical”. If you do have some position that is nether phonics nor similar enough to existing alternatives to have been considered by all the studies, then you might want to come back when you can explain it more clearly & succinctly, or failing that just provide a link rather than an essay.

      • Yes. I too found your answer a little esoteric but thank you for the depth and detail of your perspective, if not the clarity. On the contrary, rather than to set up an argument limited to the phonics-whole word debate, the purpose of my post was the presentation of the proposal that such a debate is necessarily an irrelevance in any alphabet-based orthography. I suggest that internalising the letter-sound correspondences is an absolutely fundamental requirement of the reading process. I simply propose that this essential end can be achieved in more than one way and that this is fortunate because it does seem likely that the ritual phonics route which I favour because it works for the vast majority – does not in fact work for all.
        The alternative route which I have been examining for many years is the route called perceptual learning – by which I mean the opposite of ritual phonics teaching. It can and indeed has been shown that reading competence can be achieved by both routes by most children but a minority appear to respond best to a route which does not include ritual phonics teaching and for these children, I see no harm in using a proven alternative strategy.. There are those who regard this as heresy while I take the view that in this case, the end really does justify the means because the means conforms to good education practice and principles and the end is greatly improved literacy standards in virtually every case.

      • Sorry if I was unclear. By “sub-lexical” I simply mean features about the internal structures of words. Thus “lexical level instruction” is instruction at the word level. Teaching about “sub-lexical” features of words simply means teaching about underlying features of words. Phonics instruction has a sub-lexical focus because it targets the mappings between “letters and sounds” (more properly graphemes and phonemes) which are obviously about parts of oral and written words (sub-lexical).

        I am mearly drawing attention to the fact that morphology — how the meaningful building blocks of words (e.g. bases, prefxes and suffixes) combine to form words — are also sub-lexical features of words. But typical Phonics instruction fails to address this aspect of words.

        The written representations of morphemes (e.g. the suffix ‘-ed’ or the base ‘heal’) provide the reader information about the meaning of words, and help to make sense of “letter-sound correspondences”. Note that the ‘-ed’ suffix is spelled the same despite three different pronunciations (e.g. played, jumped, painted) and the base ‘heal’ is pronounced differently in the words ‘healed’ and ‘health’. If a student uses a final letter ‘t’ when they want to write the word ‘helped’ they are likely following what they’ve been taught. Literacy instruction that included explicit instruction about morphology and phonology from the start would address ‘-ed’ suffix and its possible pronunciations. Such instruction offers clarity that is not possible if instruction ignores morphology until later years.

        Anyone who would like to see examples of this instruction in classrooms from kindergarten and up can explore the videos at my YouTube page here: http://www.youtube.com/user/WordWorksKingston?feature=mhee

        My website for teachers at http://www.wordworkskingston.com has tons of free resources illustrating this work.

        I didn’t want my post to be an advertisement for my work, but introducing a new idea takes more explaining than agreeing or disagreeing with the perameters of the argument posed. I’m not skilled enough to do it briefly.

        Perhaps the best link I can provide to outline the argument in my admittedly too-long post is this article I co-authored for the International Dyslexia Association Journal. http://files.realspellers.org/PetesFolder/Articles/Bowers_Cooke_Morphology.pdf

        That article is only 4 pages, targets a practitioner audience. It addresses the research and describes linguistic tools children and teachers around the world are using to make sense of how the written word works.

        My appologies if I misread the target audience of the blog. I was sent here by a researcher and it seemed like a discussion focusing on drawing on the research evidence for instruction. If the reader explores the links above, however, I think they will find much clearer examples of this work in classrooms than I’m able to communiate in a response in a blog post.

  6. For me Eddie Carron discredits all his arguments in that last paragraph. The way he scornfully describes some individuals who actually have enormous experience means I end up wondering if he is as selective in the way he has argued against Pbonics as he is in his description of the experience of members of the RRF.

    • Perceptual Learning as a means of internalising key information and skills has a very respectable pedigree in the quality and quantity of ongoing theoretical and practical research. It is a perfectly valid debating tactic to cite the strength and quality of the opposition to such an important and well-established learning strategy. If you think it would help, I am happy to concede that the retired English teacher also helped out in a primary school for a time and that the teaching assistants had lots of experience as teaching assistants but I fail to see how that adds to the debate. I assume that those opposing perceptual learning are happy to stand by the quality and integrity of the comments they made on an open forum on this topic. Certainly I am happy to answer for and to any comments I have ever made on any forum.

      It is quite untrue to claim that I have ever argued against the teaching of phonics. I have always been and still am still actively involved in the teaching of phonics albeit by a perceptual rather than a ritual means although I know that some people find the distinction difficult to grasp because in their world, everyone has to fit into either a ‘phonics’ or ‘whole word’ box because there are no other possibilities. In addition to my extensive range of currently on-going literacy projects in a large number of individual as well as in cluster groups of schools, I operate a private register of Skype pupils in which the teaching of the letter-sound correspondences in my primary aim and occupation – again perceptually rather than ritually.
      I believe that personalising any debate demonstrates intellectual poverty. The fact is that there members of the same group with great integrity who decline to become involved in such personal attacks.
      I am happy to defend the logic and honesty of any claim I make and to point to verifiable outcomes on the use of PL where ritual phonics has failed to deliver the ability to read and write confidently. I would welcome the opportunity to respond to any challenge to the logic or outcomes of my claims vis a vis the use PL to teach the letter-sound correspondences.
      I do indeed recognise the key importance of morphology and the sub-lexical structure of words. I also agree that typical phonics instruction fails to address this particular perspective. I would however argue that it is in the nature of perceptual learning that these issues are inevitably and fully taken into account and the proof of this can be found in the levels of reading competence that are being routinely and quite quickly achieved.

      I will certainly look at the references sometime tomorrow but for the time-being, good night!

  7. At this point I am going to call a moratorium on long comments trying to promote obscure methods of teaching reading. This really isn’t the place to advertise, and these lengthy comments seem to be only tangentially related to the blogpost.

  8. If by ‘advertising’ you are referring to Pete’s case for emphasising the fundamental role that morphology plays in making sense of print, his personal references cite many respectable sources and significant logic to support his thesis. I think those who invest time and energy in reading this thread are sufficiently aware that all contributors here are grinding their own personal axe.

    My own contributions are based on extensive and easily verifiable practical research. My own venture in the theoretical basis of reading skills is confined to seeking an explanation of how 2% of children manage to arrive at school able read – surely a valid query. I fully accept that my theories in this respect are eminently challengeable but I would hope that is the logic in my theory and not myself that is challenged.

    Stephen Fry on QI recently mentioned a professor who spent three years in Australia studying the how one minor frog species communicates with its kind and ultimately only identified three discrete calls therefore any challenge based on ‘obscurity’ is not really a valid one. It would be a pity if what could develop into an interesting thread were to simply become another ‘nice’ place where ‘nice’ people could while away their surplus time telling each other how ‘nice’ they are!

    The thread is about ‘phonics’ so let each contribute what they will and leave it to those following thread to read, ignore or offer comment. There is after all, the remote possibility that it could be a learning experience.

    • I’m being careful not to ban any opinion no matter how obscure.

      My issue has been with the length of some of the comments going into more obscure areas. It’s one thing to have a long comment very directly on the topic at hand. It’s quite another to have essays on a pet theory whose only relevance is that it might justify losing interest in the topic at hand.

  9. The comment that Peter’s comments are obscure or tangental to the topic at hand is hard to support. In fact, he is making such a simple point: The fact that phonics is better than nonsense is not a good reason to support phonics. It is not a pet theory that English spelling is organised by morphological principles, and he cites published data that indicate that teaching morphology works. It also makes intuitive sense to claim that it is useful to teach kids the system of English spelling.

    I may be Peter’s brother, but I also study language for a living: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/expsych/people/jeffrey-s-bowers/index.html

    • I think the point was that he was taking a rather long drawn-out route to explain what is indeed a very simple point – so drawn out in fact that a good deal of concentration would have been required to remain focused on the core idea. There is certainly value in the ‘word sum’ concept but not enough I think, to seriously challenge the value of learning the letter-sound correspondences which is supported by a much greater quantity of hard evidence.
      I have frequently proposed that these correspondences can be learned perceptually where they have not been internalised by formal instruction. When reading confidence has been restored by the PL route, I still recommend that pupils should learn about the structure of written language including the ‘word- sum’ concept because this is clearly something that would cause a positive reaction in any learning system driven by a pattern-seeking imperative.

  10. For experienced and fluent readers, morphology enriches understanding of language –of course it’s important. Beginner readers, on the other hand, need focused, simple, incremental instruction in the Alphabetic Code and Synthetic Phonics has proved by far the most effective means of delivering it. By mixing, adding, and over-explaining concepts/rules, generations of children have fallen at the first hurdle, unable to grasp these multi-layered, mixed strategy approaches. At a fundamental level, many children do not have sufficient grasp, nor sufficient practice of basic decoding.

    Thank you, Old Andrew, for describing the position so clearly.

  11. I don’t mean to be difficult, but in under 1500 words Peter outlined a logical problem with the defense of phonics as best practice, and introduces an alternative teaching method based on a linguistic analysis of English spelling. The original comment highlights the poor science that characterizes “phonics denialism”, but then a detailed comment based on a linguistic analysis and empirical evidence is dismissed because it is too long and uses technical terms like “sub-lexical”? uhmmmm.

    • I have neither seen not heard any evidence to support the idea that beginners actually NEED focused, simple incremental instruction in the alphabetic code although I fully agree that this is desirable in a situation where large numbers of children have to be taught in a particular time-frame by teachers who are enormously varied in their personalities, attitudes and convictions. As a head teacher, I often encountered children who had acquired reading competence without any formal instruction in the alphabetic code and all experienced teachers will also have encountered this phenomenon quite frequently – reportedly around 2%
      The teacher’s role in formal teaching is not merely to present facts but critically also to motivate learners in such a way that the facts are internalised and it is here rather than in the detail of what it taught, that failure generally occurs. Teacher training has a key role to play in this but the perversity and diversity of human nature is such that it is unlikely to be resolved as long as we believe that a single formal teaching route could secure 100% literacy. This belief is confined to those who climbed belatedly on the synthetic phonics bandwagon. The originators of SP harbour no such illusion.

      The perceptual learning route unashamedly requires the teacher to be manager, organiser and facilitator and relieves them of the responsibility to individually motivate a very diverse and frequently challenging group of failing learners. The responsibility for motivating such learners falls to the intellectual content in the perceptual learning modules – they will stand or fall in this respect on the skill of their author.

  12. I’m dyslexic with sounds, so I can only assume that phonics help a great deal of students? But no one can deny that phonics can only go so far in helping a student go so far. Unfortunately for me I relied too much on phonics-missing out on a childhood education.

    However teaching methods were very different in the sixties and seventies and dyslexia was not knowing. I’m not a teacher, but I feel different methods should be researched and given to different pupils! Phonics did help me to a point and still do. But they are not the be and end all. I try to use visual aids.

  13. Sorry that’s known, not knowing (I will always suffer, to a degree with learning difficulties). I have to learn to accept that they are a part of me. Some teachers forget we all need help and were only human. I came across this sight looking for aids to help me.

  14. Phonics correspondences must be thoroughly taught in the early school years but an alternative teaching strategy should be available for the significant minority who learn organically rather than linearly or mechanically before repeated failure destroys their self-esteem. Reading competence is only possible when phonics correspondences have been learned but how they are learned is not what is important. Ritual teaching strategies are linear and designed for people to fit into and not vice versa. Curiosity is the engine of organic learning and completing routine algorythms does not excite a child’s curiosity and encourage learning. Education is not what you pour into children; its what you plant in them.

  15. […] to phonics assumed a familiarity with the phonics debate which I have previously described here. It assumed that the reader would know that, nowadays, phonics denialists (even ones who have in […]

  16. Anyone keen on an exclusive Synthetic Phonics approach should check out “To Read or not to Read: decoding synthetic phonics”, available as a free download at

    Details of the launch of this publication at


    • Your links seem to indicate that this is all the usual denialist stuff that’s been refuted hundreds (perhaps thousands) of times before.

      • Read it before you comment. It’s certainly not ‘denialist’, and to my mind, offers arguments against pure synthetic phonics that have not been offered before. Jackie

        • I did read most of it. I suppose there’s something original in that he seems to be denying we could ever had any empirical evidence of the effectiveness of any teaching method. Is that what you meant?

          • When the teaching method is built into a computer programme and the teacher’s involvement is limited to arranging that the pupil completes an exercise every day, the effectiveness of the methodology is perfectly verifiable.
            When this methodology is applied to a credible sample of children over an extended period of time, the impact is very precisely measurable – not perhaps in terms of the effect on the individual child but very definitely in terms of its effect on the group.
            At the start of next term,precisely that situation is being tested. A local authority as adopted the perceptual learning strategy resources for use with children in all year groups who have significant deficits in literacy skills. In excess of 2000 children will be using these resources every day for about 30 minutes.

            I suggest that no serious observer would question that this experiment will have an impact on these children’s literacy skills in spite of the fact that no ritual phonics teaching is involved.
            Based on the outcomes of the results of the pilot project in a valid sample of the authorities schools on which this experiment is predicated, the impact should be very substantial and indeed life changing for many of these children.

  17. I’ve just come across this post as I’m trying to find an alternative to teaching reading via synthetic phonics for my 7 year old, who is bright but just doesn’t get the current approach and is suffering a massive loss of self confidence as a result. The cold hard fact is that whilst phonics may work brilliantly for the majority of children and overall produce the best results it is still necessary to find a way to teach the small percentage of children for whom it doesn’t work. Arguing that phonics is the only credible system is completely missing the point. It is essential to have more than one approach. The result of not and of pushing ahead with a one size fits all approach is damaging the children who get left behind as a result. Aren’t teachers taught that children have a variety of different learning styles? So why be so bullish on this point? Our brain vary in the way they are wired up. Teaching needs to acknowledge and accommodate this.

  18. Whoever the learner is, it is the same alphabetic code and phonics skills that are required for decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling). It may well be that instead of turning away from phonics, you consider searching around for different material to teach phonics. Long-term reading requires a knowledge of the alphabetic code – but so many adults, even teachers, often don’t realise how they use phonics for their own reading and spelling activities.

  19. First, define ‘proficiency’. Second, define ‘proficiency in reading’.

    Third, consider the effect of IQ. Does a child who at the age of nine has the same measured IQ in standardised tests as a typical 18-year-old, so would once have been said to have an IQ of 200 (18/9 x 100), develop reading proficiency more quickly than most other 9-year-olds? Does a person with an IQ of 70 develop ‘proficiency in reading’ more slowly than does a person with an IQ of 100?

    Next, what are the effects of cultural background? For example, do children whose backgrounds are Jamaican English or Irish English, Pakistani English or Indian English, Han Chinese English or Japanese English all acquire reading proficiency in English at the same rate?

    Further, as well as cultural background, what are the effects of social class, parental occupation, wealth, housing quality, location, parental IQs, grandparents’ IQs, older siblings’ IQs, proficiency of reading proficiency among other family members?

    Last, how does pre-existing reading proficiency in other languages that use a variant of the standard modern Latin alphabet, eg Danish, German, French, Spanish or Italian, or don’t such as Modern Standard Arabic or simplified-character Mandarin Chinese, affect the subsequent acquisition of reading proficiency in English?

    • All these questions have been considered in depth and it is because of converging evidence from many areas all supporting phonics that it is viewed as having such a strong evidence base. The research of Keith Stanovich is a good starting point to answer your questions.

  20. The requjrement for the acquisition of good literacy skill is nto just good phonics teaching – it is good phonics teaching ‘withing a literacy rich environment. Take a look at these Australian kids in a reception class at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCV1Ql-x8xs

    This teacher used this approach with her reception class in the fourth term.

    • Hi all, I am a simple man with a simple question(s) that you maybe able to answer.

      What is the literacy trend over the the last 5 decades in the UK?

      What is the literacy trend over the last 5 decades in the UK?

      • I apologise. In the above comment the second question should read as.

        What is the literacy trend over the last decade in the USA?

  21. […] A Very Short Summary of the Phonics Debate […]

  22. This is an old post, but my child has been negatively affected by phonics. I am now searching for remedial techniques which is why I stumbled upon this post. And I do wonder if any of that research included spelling skills down the line, evaluating them in a phonics group and in a comparable non-phonics group.

    The problem with phonics is that it intentionally teaches a lie, a letter-sound correspondence that is not actually a part of the English language but a mere statistical occurrence in the language. It does enable rapid reading at an early age, that is beyond doubt. The question is the cost in later spelling skills.

    I am not a teacher nor a linguist. I have ensured he reads more but it does not help, because, after his phonics in primary school, he is not used to looking at the word as a whole. This is even affecting learning other languages where spelling also becomes a problem. An entire cognitive pattern, where the word is a unit, has been lost, because of a false letter-sound connection.

    A logical alternative would be to counter the lie with the truth, the way English spelling is *actually* constructed. But it is an extremely convoluted truth; the best I could find was “Spell it out” by David Crystal, a fine work but not really child fare. Whole-word learning. while admittedly slower in providing initial reading skills, bypasses complicated real analysis *and* does not rely on deceptive false analysis.

    • You are right. The true phonetic rules are way to complicated to be explained systematically to anyone let alone a child.

      Regardless how they are taught, children learn to read the same way they learn to speak – through experience.

      Most children will learn to read through phonetic training eventually because they practice reading in the process of doing ‘phonetic’ exercises. But about 15% of children will not learn by doing these exercises – they require a higher quality reading experience.

      The way to get this higher quality experience is either by very expertly executed ‘reading with an adult’ or via a tool which provides a good reading experience without any special skills. This link explains how you should manage a reading session with your child – http://perceptualliteracy.com/Parents/Articles.aspx?id=19

      This link leads to a free online resource at the same site which provides a perfect reading experience and is used by lots of schools.

      Hope this helps.

  23. Thank you! This looks very interesting – however, it still concentrates on helping one to read. I do not see an immediate way to apply it with a child who is fluent at reading, but totally not fluent at spelling.

    The problem appears to be that, probably as a side effect of phonetic reading, he does not see the word as a visual unit. And so when phonetic spelling does not work (and that’s a lot of the time in English), his idea of the spoken word does not conjure its image.

    I worked out this understanding of problem when I found that he also completely fails at “word search” exercises.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: