Is Phonics the Best Way to Teach a Child to Read?

Is phonics really the most effective type of reading instruction?  Are some types of phonics better than others?  Find out what the research says…

We looked at the alternative methods for teaching kids to read in a previous article.  You might find it helpful to read this first if you aren’t familiar with the different types of phonics and the alternative approaches to reading instruction. 

If you’re looking for step-by-step instructions for teaching children phonics then click on this link.

Click here for a summary of this article, or browse the contents of the main article below…

Contents:

Summary

  • Various classroom studies carried out over the last few decades have shown phonics to be more effective than other methods of early reading instruction.
  • A number of extensive reviews of the research have concluded that phonics should be a central part of teaching reading.
  • Phonics is more effective when it is taught in a systematic way.
  • Synthetic (explicit) phonics appears to be more effective than analytic (implicit) phonics.
  • It’s not uncommon for teachers to employ a mixture of methods for teaching early reading. However, some people argue that this could be counterproductive.
  • Most teachers agree that once children have mastered the basics of phonics, more time should be spent on developing their comprehension skills.

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Research on Phonics…

Educators, academics and politicians have been arguing about the best ways to teach children to read for decades.  At times, the arguments became so heated that they were described as “the phonics vs whole language reading wars”.1 

For a while, much of the debate was based on philosophical arguments.  However, in recent decades, the question of how to teach kids to read has been more heavily influenced by research in schools and evidence from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience.  We’ll look at some of the research in this article…

‘Project Follow Through’ in the U.S. was one of the first major studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of phonics instruction.  Beginning in 1968, it was the most extensive educational experiment ever conducted with over 200,000 children in 178 communities included in the study. 2

22 different models of instruction were compared over 9 years and the results showed that Professor Siegfried Engelmann’s method of phonics instruction was by far the most effective programme for teaching reading.

There has been a lot more research done on reading instruction since the launch of Project Follow Through.  What’s more, there have been several extensive independent reviews of this research in some of the main English speaking countries. 

Every one of these major reviews has concluded that teaching phonics should be a central part of reading instruction:

  • The US National Reading Panel published its report in the year 2000; it was the most comprehensive survey of reading instruction ever produced at the time. The panel concluded that systematic phonics teaching produces significant benefits for pupils in pre-school all the way until the end of primary school, and for pupils having difficulty learning to read.3  

  • The UK commissioned an independent Review of the teaching of early reading which was published in 2006. The Review recommended systematic, ‘high-quality phonic work’ as the prime means for teaching beginner readers.4 

  • In Australia, a Government report concluded:

    “The evidence is clear, …systematic phonics instruction is critical if children are to be taught to read well, whether or not they experience reading difficulties.” 5

Canada hasn’t produced a nationwide review because each province is responsible for its own education policy.  However, experts in several of the provinces have reviewed the research and they have produced publications that are very supportive of phonics:

  • For example, a 2003 report in Ontario stated:
    “systematic and explicit phonics instruction is the most effective way to develop children’s ability to identify words in print.” 6

  • The province of British Columbia published a discussion guide on reading in 2009. They concluded: “There is an overwhelming body of research to support a phonological approach to reading.” 7
  • And as long ago as 1992, The Reading and Literacy Institute of Alberta published recommendations that stressed the importance of good phonics instruction. 8

More recently, an interesting experiment was carried out where researchers trained adults to read in a new language printed in unfamiliar symbols.  One group was taught using a phonics approach while another group focussed on whole-word meanings.  Subjects were then given reading tests and brain scans.  The phonics approach was shown to be more effective.

One of the lead researchers said:

“The results were striking; people who had focused on the meanings of the new words were much less accurate in reading aloud and comprehension than those who had used phonics, and our MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading.” 9

There has also been a good deal of research indicating that phonics instruction is really important for the development of accurate spelling

See our article, ‘How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles’, for more information about phonics and spelling.

There‘s a useful summary of some of the research into reading and phonics here: http://www.iferi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/IFERI-INFORM-No.4-June-2015-Settled-Science.pdf

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Objections to Phonics

In spite of the conclusions of these major reviews, there are still a number of vocal critics of phonics instruction. 

To avoid making this article too long, we’ve discussed some of the common objections to phonics in a separate article, which you can access via this link.

Are Some Types of Phonics Instruction More Effective Than Others?

As we mentioned in a previous article, there are several different ways of teaching phonics:

  • With synthetic phonics (also known as explicit or blended phonics), children are first taught the sounds represented by letters and then how to combine the letter sounds to read words.
  • With analytic phonics (also known as implicit phonics), children are first taught whole words and they infer the letter-sound relationships by analysing these words.

The teaching can also be delivered in a systematic way, which involves teaching the letter-sound relationships in an organised and sequenced fashion, or in an embedded way, which involves a less structured, incidental approach. 

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Systematic Phonics Instruction Appears to Be More Effective Than an Embedded Approach...

All of the major reviews mentioned above concluded that phonics is more effective when it’s taught in a systematic way. 

This might be because children encounter particular letter-sound relationships more frequently with a systematic approach. 

There is also an effort to introduce the ideas in a pre-determined order with systematic phonics, so children meet the simplest ideas first before gradually moving on to more complex combinations of letters. 

Mastering each component step-by-step before moving on helps to prevent children getting overwhelmed and this increases their confidence and motivation.

There are also likely to be more regular reviews to reinforce long-term learning and more assessments to identify gaps in knowledge when the instruction sequence is organised and planned in advance.

With embedded phonics, opportunities to practise letter-sound relationships are more restricted because they depend on suitable words cropping up in the particular stories that have been chosen at the time.

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Synthetic (Explicit) Phonics Appears to Be More Effective Than Analytic (Implicit) Phonics...

When the US National Reading Panel published its report in the year 2000 they felt there was insufficient evidence to suggest that synthetic (explicit) phonics programmes are significantly better than analytic (implicit) phonics programmes for all groups of children.  However, they did report that synthetic phonics was particularly effective for struggling readers and for those children with a low socioeconomic status. 3

The report of the UK review was much more strongly in favour of synthetic (explicit) phonics4 and the Australian review reached a similar conclusion: 

“The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction …” (page 28) 5 

The Canadian province of Ontario’s report also recommended explicit phonics instruction, 6 as did the British Columbia discussion guide which said:

“(analytic phonics)… has shortcomings in helping students to read longer, more complex words, and it does not give at-risk students the foundation they need to learn to read.” (page 8). 7

In a detailed article published by the American Psychological Society in 2001, researchers considered evidence from a wide range of sources including laboratory and classroom studies.  The evidence led them to make the following conclusion:

…”the empirical data clearly indicate that elementary teachers who make the alphabetic principle explicit are most effective in helping their students become skilled, independent readers.” 10

The authors of this report mention a variety of studies to support their conclusions.  For example, Foorman et al. (1998) examined the reading development of 285 first and second graders in 66 classrooms.  They found that children receiving direct (explicit) instruction made better progress than those receiving implicit (analytic) instruction.

Other comparison studies have been done since the publication of the American Psychological Society article mentioned above.  For example, synthetic and analytic phonics were compared directly in a carefully controlled study of primary children in Scotland.  This is widely known as the Clackmannanshire study.11

After a year of instruction, a synthetic-phonics-taught group was reading words around 7 months ahead of two analytic phonics groups used for comparison.  They were also spelling around 8 to 9 months ahead of the other groups.

Clackmannanshire study synthetic vs analytic phonics
Chart: What are the benefits of synthetic phonics teaching? Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, Department of Psychology, University of Hull

The synthetic-phonics taught group also read irregular words better than the other groups, and was the only group that could read unfamiliar words by analogy. 

It’s also worth noting that pupils in the synthetic phonics group came from deprived homes, and social disadvantage is known to have a negative effect on academic achievement.  Yet, at the end of primary school, children in the synthetic phonics group had word reading 3 years and 6 months ahead of chronological age, and their spelling was 1 year and 9 months ahead. 

The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative was a 10-year research project in the second most deprived area in Scotland.  Like the Clackmannanshire study, this research project demonstrated the superiority of synthetic phonics over a traditional analytic approach.12

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Hull compared the long-term effects of teaching by synthetic or analytical phonics.  It was found that

“overall, the group taught by synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and reading comprehension.” 13

These findings for phonics instruction echo research into other areas of teaching.  It seems that children learn most things faster when they are given clear instructions and examples rather than having to figure ideas out for themselves.  A review of this research concluded:

“Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices, direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance.” 14

The review also stated that the case for explicit instruction of new material is also supported by current theories of how we learn from the field of cognitive psychology.

Perhaps a reason why some types of analytical phonics might be less effective is that children are expected to figure the letter-sound relationships for themselves.  There is evidence that some children can find it difficult to infer the associations between letters and sounds, even when they appear to have been presented in an obvious way.

For example, Byrne (1991) taught children to recognise short words by pairing them up with pictures.  Examples included ‘fat’ and ‘bat’.  However, the children were unable to demonstrate that they had figured out the sounds represented by the first letters.15

Jim Rose, who was commissioned by the UK government to do an extensive review of the teaching of reading, judged synthetic phonics to be  the best system because, amongst other strengths,

“it teaches children directly what they need to know…whereas other approaches, such as ‘analytic’ phonics, expect children to deduce them.”

Rose concluded:

“It is therefore crucial to teach phonic work systematically, regularly and explicitly… It cannot be left to chance, or for children to ferret out, on their own, how the alphabetic code works”.4

There are subtle differences in the way individual reading programmes are taught, so it isn’t possible to categorically say that all synthetic phonics programmes are always more effective than all analytic phonics programmes. 

Some phonics programmes contain a mixture of approaches and some teachers might explain the letter-sound relationships quite explicitly even when they are using a more analytic style of programme.

However, we think the synthetic phonics approach is more direct and probably simpler to teach.  Analytic approaches that encourage children to learn whole words, or chunks of words (rimes) before they have learned the letter-sound relationships are introducing an unnecessary extra step in our opinion. 

Learning rimes puts a greater demand on a child’s memory and the strategy of analysing unknown words to identify memorised rimes seems more cumbersome than simply sounding out each of the letters from left to right.

A recent initiative to improve reading in Bethlehem, a small city in Pennsylvania, provides further evidence of the benefits of synthetic/explicit systematic phonics instruction.

In 2015, before the initiative began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score.  At the end of 2018, after introducing synthetic systematic phonics instruction, 84 percent of kindergarteners met or exceeded the benchmark score.  At three schools, it was 100 percent. 16

We think there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the majority of children are likely to make faster progress with systematic synthetic phonics than they are with other types of instruction.

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Is It Best To Include Other Types of Instruction Alongside Phonics?

It’s not uncommon for teachers to show their pupils a mixture of methods for identifying words. 

So as well as explaining how to decode words phonetically from their constituent letters, they might also encourage children to memorise some whole words and figure out others from the context of a sentence or from clues in pictures. 

In fact, this approach was actually recommended in the English National Literacy Strategy for a number of years and was known as the ‘Searchlights Model’. 

Although phonics is now the recommended method of instruction in schools, many teachers still use these alternative methods alongside phonics because they see it as a more ‘balanced’ approach to literacy.

However, some people argue that introducing children to alternative strategies for word identification when they are just getting to grips with phonics could be counterproductive. 17 And there is some evidence to support this argument…

A large, carefully controlled Canadian study 18 compared the effect of pure synthetic phonics teaching with the effect of using a mixture of methods in 20 first grade classrooms.  After 6 months, the synthetic phonics groups were, on average, 8 months ahead in terms of their relative reading age and 21 months ahead in their relative spelling age compared to the groups using a mixture of methods. 

The study also looked at the specific benefits of each of the different methods.  Some approaches, such as learning to recognise words by sight rather than by their letters, were found to make little difference to reading and spelling success.  The only activities that contributed to reading skill across the early years were phonics-based activities (learning letter sounds and how to read and spell words using the sounds) and practising writing letters and words. 

Susan Godsland discusses the issue of mixed teaching methods for literacy at length in her very well-referenced site ‘dyslexics.org.uk’.

Critics have suggested that focussing exclusively on phonics drills might put some children off reading.  However, others say that it’s possible to use a range of activities and resources within a phonics programme to provide variety, prevent boredom and increase the engagement of children. 

We address these concerns more fully in our article ‘Common Objections to Phonics’.

Even the most ardent phonics supporters recognise that there is more to reading than word recognition, but they insist that decoding skills need to be developed first and foremost. 

Once children have mastered the basics of phonics and can decode a wide variety of words accurately, more time should be spent on developing their comprehension skills.  See our article ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’ for more information about this.

We discuss the pros and cons of alternative reading strategies in some detail in other articles in this section.  

If you’re looking for tips for teaching kids to read, see the further information section below.

Further Information...

If you would like to know more about teaching phonics to your child, see our article: ‘How to Teach Your Child Phonics’.

If you want to know how to improve your child’s reading comprehension, see the following article: ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’.

If you would like to know more about teaching spelling, see the following article: ‘How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles’.

If you want to help your child learn to write, click on this link.

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References

  1. Leman L. The Reading Wars, Atlantic Magazine (Nov. 1997): https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/11/the-reading-wars/376990/
  2. Project Follow Through, National Institute for Direct Instruction: https://www.nifdi.org/what-is-di/project-follow-through
  3. US National Reading Panel, Teaching Children To Read, Phonics Instruction, National Reading Panel: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/documents/ch2-ii.pdf
  4. Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Final Report, Jim Rose, 2006
  5. Teaching Reading (2005), Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training.
  6. Early Reading Strategy – The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario(2003): http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/reading/reading.pdf
  7. Reading: Breaking Through the Barriers: http://bccpac.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/reading_breaking_through_barriers.pdf
  8. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR LITERACY AND GENERAL EDUCATION IMPROVEMENT (1992). Reading and Literacy Institute of Alberta, Volume 4 Number 3/4. 
  9. Phonics works: Sounding out words is best way to teach reading, study suggests, Science Daily (Apr. 2017): https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170420094107.htm
  10. Rayner, K. et al. (2001), HOW PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE INFORMS THE TEACHING OF READING. American Psychological Society. VOL. 2, NO. 2, NOVEMBER 2001
  11. The Clackmannanshire Study A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment. See also: RRF Newsletter 59: Fact and Fiction about the Synthetic Phonics Study in Clackmannanshire, Rhona Johnston & Joyce Watson.  DfE Evidence paper: The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading
  12. MacKay, T. (2007) The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative:  http://www.tommymackay.com/literacy/the-west-dunbartonshire-literacy-initiative/
  13. Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls, Johnston et al.
  14. Clark, R. Kirschner, P. Sweller, J. (2012), ‘Putting Students on the Path to Learning, The Case for Fully Guided Instruction’, American Educator, Spring 2012
  15. Study sourced from Rayner, K. et al. (2001), HOW PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE INFORMS THE TEACHING OF READING. American Psychological Society. VOL. 2, NO. 2, NOVEMBER 2001
  16. Hanford, E. (2018) Hard Words Why aren’t kids being taught to read?https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read

  17. Askew, G. (2014), A litany for failure, ssphonix blog: http://ssphonix.blogspot.com/2014/07/a-litany-for-failure.html

  18. Study sourced from Macmillam, B., Classroom Research Findings and the Nutshell Programme, RRF Newsletter 46: http://www.rrf.org.uk/archive.php?n_ID=34&n_issueNumber=46