What is phonics?
Phonics is the system we use to ‘sound out’ or decode words using the speech sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet. In English, the 26 letters can represent around 44 different speech sounds, depending on dialect. Associating letters and letter combinations with their sounds – cracking the alphabetic code – is the foundation for becoming a skilled reader. While I am convinced by the evidence, a phonics-based approach continues to be controversial among many critics. Intrigued by the ongoing debate in the media, I wanted to know how strong the evidence really is, and why phonics remains unpopular with some caregivers and professionals.
“Reading is the most researched aspect of education.”
Jennifer Buckingham works with education systems and teachers to improve reading instruction and assessment, and has spent time researching effective instruction for struggling readers. Buckingham tells me that reading is the most researched aspect of education. “Reading has an extensive evidence base from scientific research”, Buckingham says. “The evidence supporting explicit and systematic instruction in phonics, especially an approach that involves cumulatively teaching letters and sounds and how to decode words, has the strongest and most consistent evidence base. This evidence is derived from education, cognitive science, neuroscience, linguistics and speech pathology research.”
In the Education Endowment Foundation’s teaching and learning toolkit, phonics is the only approach with the highest possible score of 5/5 for robustness of evidence, based on 121 studies. The foundation calls this “very extensive evidence”. What’s more, it appears that targeted phonics instruction helps disadvantaged pupils the most, perhaps because they have less access to books and therefore less exposure to letter combinations and their sounds. Explicit phonics instruction may therefore help to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.
What are the concerns around phonics?
Despite this seemingly clear evidence, some researchers, educators, and parents are critical of phonics. The heated debate around phonics – the ‘reading wars’ – centres around the worry that children are learning to ‘bark at print’, to read aloud without understanding the text. Elsje van Bergen, a psychological scientist who researches reading and other aspects of child development, tells me that other languages haven’t experienced similar reading wars. In van Bergen’s first language, Dutch, for example, there is a more consistent link between letters and speech sounds than in English. Teaching children to read with phonics is therefore seen as an obvious choice, whereas English includes more unusual words – like yacht or island – that can’t be sounded out.
Jennifer Buckingham believes that concerns around phonics are mainly due to a misunderstanding of what phonics teaching looks like in the classroom. Some people worry that children are being taught phonics to the exclusion of other elements of reading. “Phonics is essential but not sufficient”, she says. “It must be taught early and well, but always alongside vocabulary and comprehension” – and, she points out, it is. I’ve also noticed that phonics is often portrayed by the media as boring and likely to put children off reading, but phonics programmes can be enjoyable and engaging, and they are likely to make children more eager to read because of their positive impact on reading ability.
“Choosing teaching approaches that are supported by scientific evidence is crucial, given the importance of reading in a child’s life.”
Reading opens many doors, Buckingham says. “Beyond its enormous impact on education and employment, reading provides leisure and relaxation, information and empowerment, even comfort.” There is clearly a strong evidence base behind phonics as an approach to reading English, taught alongside the other elements of reading. Despite the concerns, phonics is an important step towards becoming a skilled reader. This is increasingly recognised in English speaking countries including the US, Australia, and the UK, although it is only in England that schools are explicitly required to provide phonics instruction. Choosing teaching approaches that are supported by scientific evidence is crucial, given the importance of reading in a child’s life. As Buckingham says, “Once children can read, nothing can take that away from them – reading is a skill and joy for life”.