Does Phonics Help With Reading Comprehension?

Could learning phonics make it harder for your child to understand texts?  Some people think so.  Find out if there’s any truth to this claim…

Some people argue that although phonics instruction is useful for identifying words, it doesn’t help with children’s reading comprehension.  Others have gone further, suggesting that early phonics instruction could even hinder a child’s ability to understand a text. 

In this article, we’ll look at some of the arguments and evidence about the effect of phonics instruction on comprehension.

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  • Critics of phonics say that real reading is about getting meaning from print and that figuring out words using phonics does nothing to help children understand what they are reading.
  • However, although phonics is primarily about identifying words rather than understanding them, it does seem to have a positive effect on language comprehension.
  • There is a good deal of evidence to show that children who are given early phonics instruction do better in reading comprehension tests than children who aren’t given phonics instruction.
  • Children who are taught phonics become more skilled at identifying words and this frees up their minds to concentrate on the meaning of the text.
  • Phonics isn’t enough on its own. Children also need a good comprehension of spoken language and there are some other strategies that can help children develop their reading comprehension. 

The Main Arguments

Critics of phonics say there is far more to reading than figuring out letter sounds and accurately decoding words. 

Some claim that phonics teaches kids to ‘bark at print’, which means they robotically ‘sound out’ individual words without thinking about their meaning.  Real reading, they argue, is about getting meaning from print. 

Many phonics enthusiasts would agree that the whole point of reading is to make sense of written words.  However, they point out that it’s impossible to comprehend text unless the words can be identified quickly and accurately in the first place. 

In their defence, critics of phonics argue that children can identify words using other methods, such as picture cues, sentence structure and context.  These are often described as multi-cueing strategies’ or ‘contextual clues’.

But supporters of phonics say that multi-cueing strategies can give a misleading impression of a child’s true reading ability.  Bruce Price illustrated this point strikingly with the following example:

‘Imagine you are in Japan and see a poster advertising noodles.  You guess the ad is saying, “Our noodles are tasty.”  Even though you can’t read a word of Japanese, a teacher can declare that you got the correct meaning from print, therefore you are a good reader!’ 1

Phonics proponents concede that children can have some success using picture cues and context to identify words, but only when they are reading repetitive and predictable texts with plenty of pictures. 

When youngsters move on to books without pictures, which might also have more complex and less predictable passages, multi-cueing strategies are less reliable. 

For a more detailed discussion of this point see our article Phonics vs Whole Language and this article by Louise Spear-Swerling: The Use of Context Cues in Reading”.

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What Does the Research Show?

A variety of educational studies have shown that phonics instruction can actually improve children’s reading comprehension… 

As long ago as 1985, a study involving children from 20 classrooms (who were carefully matched in terms of intelligence, socioeconomic background and other relevant variables) showed that groups given phonics instruction did better in comprehension tests than control groups who didn’t receive phonics instruction. 2

Another study in 1990 analysed the effect of phonics instruction on reading comprehension and vocabulary on over 2000 students.  Researchers made the following conclusion:

“..phonics knowledge has a causal impact on both reading comprehension and vocabulary gains.” 3

In the year 2000, the US National Reading Panel (NRP) published a report on reading instruction; it was the most comprehensive survey of this topic ever produced at the time. 

The report made the following comments about phonics and reading comprehension:

“Systematic phonics instruction produced significantly greater growth than non-phonics instruction in younger children’s reading comprehension ability. .. These findings should dispel any belief that teaching phonics systematically to young children interferes with their ability to read and comprehend text. Quite the opposite is the case”. 4

Some years after the NRP report in the US, a large study involving 300 primary school children in Scotland showed that reading comprehension was significantly above age level for those children taught using a synthetic phonics approach. 

The phonics group in the Scottish study had a well-below average socio-economic status profile. 5, 6

This makes the results of the study all the more impressive because children from areas of deprivation normally struggle with reading compared to children from better-off areas.

More recently, analysis of phonics screening checks carried out in UK schools has shown strong correlations between phonics ability and performance in reading comprehension tests. 7 

For example, in 2013 99% of pupils who met the expected standard of phonic decoding in year 1 went on to achieve level 2 or above in reading at the end of key stage 1, with 43% achieving the highest level (level 3).

Only 34% of pupils who failed to meet the expected standard for phonics achieved level 2 in reading and none achieved the highest level.

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Why Does Phonics Instruction Help With Comprehension?

According to a widely accepted model, called ‘the simple view of reading’, there are two key factors that are essential for reading comprehension – word identification skills and good comprehension of spoken language. We discuss this model in some detail in our article ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’.

Most children start school with a reasonable comprehension of spoken language, but they can’t read because they can’t decode the written text that represents the spoken words.  Phonics instruction makes them more skilful and efficient at identifying words. 

Children need to be able to decode print quickly and accurately in order to comprehend more challenging texts.  Speed is almost as important as accuracy – most of the words need to be decoded almost instantly for a child to get the gist of a sentence. 

“Processing speed is critical. Analysis of the Eye Movements of good readers reveals that, on average, the brain must process letters into sounds in less than a tenth of a second.” 8

When a child is struggling to decode words, the conscious effort they exert doing this overloads their working memory and reduces their ability to focus on meaning. 

Phonics instruction and practice leads to accurate and automatic word recognition, thus freeing a child’s mind to concentrate on the meaning of the text. 

We discuss how reading can tax the brain in another article.

Phonics instruction may also encourage children to read more widely because reading doesn’t take as much effort once they get proficient at decoding words. 

Children who struggle to decode words can become frustrated and are less likely to read for pleasure.

Those children who read more are likely to develop a wider vocabulary and a broader knowledge base and both of these things can improve reading comprehension.

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We’ve found no evidence to support the claim that phonics instruction can hinder reading comprehension. 

In fact, several large studies and reviews have shown that phonics instruction is beneficial for reading comprehension. 

Theories about the cognitive processes involved in reading can help to explain why phonics is helpful.

However, although phonics instruction is beneficial, it isn’t enough on its own. 

Good comprehension of spoken language is also essential and there are other strategies that can help children to understand more complex texts.  We discuss these in some detail in our articles on reading comprehension.  See the links in the further information section below.

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Further Information…

If you would like to know more about helping your child with their reading comprehension then click on this link: ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’.

We also have another article on Reading Comprehension Strategies.

Click on the following link If you would like more information about teaching phonics.

We also have an article about teaching children to spell using phonics.

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  1. Is Reading about ‘Getting Meaning from Print’?
  2. Evans, M.A., & Carr, T.H. (1985). Cognitive abilities, conditions of learning, and the early development of reading skill. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 327–350.
  3. Eldrege, J. Quinn, B.  Butterfield, D.  (1990) Causal Relationships between Phonics, Reading Comprehension, and Vocabulary Achievement in the Second Grade  The Journal of Educational Research 83, No. 4 (Mar. – Apr., 1990), pp. 201-214:
  4. NRP report 2-94: National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
  5. The Clackmannashire study’, Johnson, R and Watson, J. (2005). A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment.
  6. RRF Newsletter 59: Fact and Fiction about the Synthetic Phonics Study in Clackmannanshire, Rhona Johnston & Joyce Watson
  7. Phonics screening check and national curriculum assessments at key stage 1 in England, 2014:
  8. THE BRAINS CHALLENGE, Children of the code:

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