There is an on-going battle over the prominence of synthetic phonics in teaching reading

And the new phonics screening test


Professor Dominic Wyse has co-authored The Early Literacy Handbook with primary head teacher Christine Parker. It makes a significant contribution to the on-going debate on phonics.

The Government, and in particular Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister are keen advocates of synthetic phonics. This Handbook claims to put forward a practical alternative to the government’s emphasis on synthetic phonics, underpinned by research evidence.

There are two main types of phonics – analytic and synthetic. In analytic phonics, children are taught whole words and later analyse their constituent parts, such as c-at or str-eet. In synthetic phonics, the key is to teach them sounds of letters and letter combinations first, then combine those to form words: c-a-t or s-t-r-ee-t.

Schools differ in their approaches .There is evidence that teachers  use both synthetic and analytic phonics  but  alongside several other approaches to reading, and the debate is, in a certain sense at least,  an academic one.

Synthetic phonics, claim its advocates, is the most efficient way of delivering the “alphabetic principle” to children, that’s to say, the abstract principle by which children learn that letters correspond to sounds and sounds correspond to letters. They learn this abstract principle through the specifics of “getting” (a) the examples where these correspondences are regular (“cat”, “chop”, “sit” and the like) and (b) from learning by heart “tricky words” – often the commonest in English – which are not regular, like “is” and “was”. By the end of year 1, children should have got hold of this “alphabetic principle” and to prove it, they will all sit down and do a “phonics screening test”.  Wyse and Parker argue that children learn the mechanics of language best within the context of classroom talk and high quality children’s books.  “Contextualised teaching begins with whole texts that engage children’s interest and motivation,” they write. “The most important features of texts, such as the way narrative connects with children’s sense of wonder and with their everyday lives, is emphasised first and foremost. Work on the sentences, words, letters and phonemes then follows naturally because these linguistic building blocks are made naturally meaningful when children experience them in the context of whole texts.  Teaching about letters and phonemes is an important component in learning to read, but there are serious risks if it is magnified above all others, especially as the focus of high stakes national testing.”  The book sets out to guide teachers in finding creative ways to develop their pupils’ enthusiasm for and engagement with reading and writing.  While it describes teaching techniques and strategies which bring together research and practice, the book emphasises that teachers should “avoid the idea of ‘recipes’” and release their own creativity.

Each chapter opens with an account of theory and research that relates to topics such as “multilingualism” or “grammar and punctuation”. This is then exemplified and expanded by guidance and insights into the practice of teaching.   The book encourages teachers to use technical terms such as “phonemes” (individual sounds) and shows ways to teach letters and sounds using rhymes and songs. Spelling patterns can be reinforced through games such as a treasure hunt for words ending in “ing”.  Writing on the IOE London blog Wyse, professor of early childhood and primary education at the Institute of Education, London, says the Government’s draft programmes of study for English should be completely rewritten: “Pleasure, love and an emphasis on meaning all appear to be secondary to the mechanics of phonics, spelling and grammar,” he warns.

Critics of the phonics method, such as children’s author Michael Rosen, are rarely against the use  phonics per se . They see, instead, Phonics as one tool, from a set of tools, that can  help  children  to learn to read.   Rosen argues that Phonics is only, and always only, part of the system by which we make correspondences between sounds and letters (or combinations of letters). We also do this through recognising whole words (as with what the synthetic phonics materials call ‘tricky words’ and the like. We also do it through such processes as prediction, part recognition by phonic methods (eg initial letter or letters), part by sense and meaning and so on. Many words in English cannot be entirely decoded using synthetic phonic methods. One example: the two meanings and sounds of ‘wound’. Producing both correct sounds will not of itself produce the right word. This can only be arrived at through context and meaning.  Rosen also objects to the screening test saying that it is an expensive waste of time, labels very young children failures and goes against the grain of government policy which is to end top down prescription in education, and to give autonomy to schools to make these kind of decisions themselves.

Ministers, though,  point to poor progress in young   pupils reading over a sustained period, which is unacceptable,  with too many pupils not  reaching the required standard  and who are then  ill- prepared for the transition to  secondary school . They cite  research that shows impressive results  from synthetic phonics teaching. ( eg The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching  on Reading and Spelling Attainment-A Seven Year Longitudinal Study-  Rhona Johnston   and Joyce Watson-2005)

The Early Literacy Handbook by Dominic Wyse and Christine Parker. Published by Practical Preschool Books, a division of MA Education Ltd. ISBN 978-1-907241-26-0.



Joe Nutt tells me ‘Anyone interested in this issue should start with Mariah Evans huge research project, “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,” published in the “Research in Social Stratification and Mobility” about two years ago to get an idea of just how important the family’s (not the school’s) role in literacy development is.’



  1. Rarely have I heard a stable bolt get so resoundingly slammed home! The issue I have with participants from both sides in this debate is that they assume some kind of Utopian, pre-school parental world exists in which “Pleasure, love and an emphasis on meaning” is the normal way of regarding books in the UK. It isn’t. I can’t recall the last time I saw a pre-school child reading a book in public but week after week I see them playing with phones and tablets, and as they do so, developing an entirely new, unknown and I fear impoverished relationship with the written word.

    And worse, for the past thirty years, the book publishing industry for children has been so busy politicising them, it has marginalised boys to the point where they don’t exist as readers. It’s only recently that writers like Robert Muchamore and Frank Cottrell Boyce have started to fight back.

    Anyone interested in this issue should start with Mariah Evans huge research project, “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,” published in the “Research in Social Stratification and Mobility” about two years ago to get an idea of just how important the family’s (not the school’s) role in literacy development is.

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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