Study re-ignites debate about use of phonics

Monday, May 1, 2017

New research suggests phonics is the best way to teach children to read and understand words.

The study assessed whether learning to read by ‘sounding out’ words is more effective than focusing on whole-word meanings. It was carried out by researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London and the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, which is funded by the Medical Research Council.

It showed that learning to read by sounding out words – known as phonics – had a dramatic impact on the accuracy of reading aloud and comprehension.

The study of 24 adults revealed that those who were taught the meaning of whole novel words (i.e. made-up words) did not have any better reading comprehension skills than those who were primarily taught the words using phonics. Those using phonics were just as good at comprehension and significantly better at reading aloud (see box).

Professor Kathy Rastle from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, who carried out the research, said the findings support the use of phonics alone in teaching children to read.

She told Nursery World, ‘Though a balanced approach using multiple methods always sounds like a good thing, our research suggests that time spent using other methods may have no benefit, and may actually hinder learning of the relationship between letters and sounds.

‘Of course, becoming a good reader requires more than phonics. But research is clear that secure oral language and phonics knowledge is the best preparation for learning the many other skills necessary to be a fluent reader.

‘Many practitioners worry that the repeated practice needed to learn the relationship between letters and sounds can be boring, and may dampen children’s enthusiasm for reading. Instead, they argue that good reading should arise if a child is immersed in a literacy-rich environment. But reading is not the same as spoken language; it does not emerge naturally. Instead, reading is a learned skill that requires years of instruction, dedication and practice. Phonics instruction gives children the tools to practise and enjoy their reading, as they move on through harder texts in the first years of schooling.’

However, the study has re-ignited debate about the effectiveness of phonics for all children, rather than multiple teaching methods.

Dr Andrew Davis, honorary research fellow at the School of Education at Durham University and a former primary school teacher, said the methods of the study were ‘flawed’ (see box).


Dr Davis said, ‘As a primary teacher I used phonics, although I’m against imposing it on all children first and fast. Even if all children need phonics knowledge in order to read, why should they only be able to acquire this via direct first and fast phonics teaching? A few children arrive at school already able to read, and even if they “know” phonics, they might never have been taught it explicitly.

‘It is also true, though often disputed, that there are pupils who do not do very well with intensive phonics and need to be offered other reading approaches.

‘Teachers shouldn’t be forced into one method of teaching reading. They should, of course, be well-informed about phonics and then given space to make professional decisions about how and when to teach with phonics. It is irritating to be told that if you don’t support rigid delivery of phonics and nothing else for a while for all Year 1 pupils, you are therefore against phonics.’

Catherine Hayward, lead adviser for primary at Oxfordshire County Council – which was cited by Ofsted in its Education and Skills annual report this year as an example of good practice in narrowing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children – said it advised schools to use a mixed teaching approach.

She said, ‘We advise schools that, for children to become confident readers, they need both decoding and comprehension skills. There needs to be direct teaching of phonics to give the tools for decoding words, but also children need to develop a love of books and an understanding of how stories work.

‘Reading is about meaning-making, and so phonics and comprehension need to go hand in hand. Where this partnership is taught effectively, children can use their word-reading skills to engage with a text, use their developing understanding of a text to help them read new or unfamiliar words, and explore the meaning of words in closer detail to fine-tune their comprehension. Confident use of phonics and good comprehension are essential if children are going to read at greater depth and for pleasure.’

NAHT Edge, an arm of the teaching union, acknowledged that phonics programmes form part of teaching children to read, and welcomed the research.

James Bowen, director of NAHT Edge and an early years specialist, said, ‘Teaching children to read and encouraging a love of reading will always be seen as one of the main priorities of any primary school. There is now a very strong body of evidence to show that high-quality phonics teaching is a vital part of this.

‘It is fair to say that the vast majority of schools now have phonics programmes in place, but any research which helps us to understand in greater depth what works when teaching children to read should be welcomed.’


The aim of the study was to assess whether learning to read by ‘sounding out’ words is more effective than focusing on whole-word meanings.

Researchers trained 24 English-speaking adults to read two sets of 24 novel words – e.g. ‘buv’, ‘sig’ – written in two unfamiliar languages. One lot of training was biased towards print-to-sound mappings; the other was biased towards print-to-meaning mappings.

The researchers measured participants’ learning with reading tests and MRI brain scans. They found that 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. MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading.

Professor Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway, University of London

‘There is already a great deal of evidence that knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds is essential for good reading comprehension in children.

‘However, our study used skilled adult readers, who had already developed the neural pathways responsible for rapid access to meaning. We thought that if anyone could benefit from training focused on the meanings of words, it would be those individuals. But we observed no such benefit. Instead, like children learning to read for the first time, these adults showed dramatic benefits of the phonics-based training.

‘While surprising, this strengthens the evidence that phonics instruction is a critical component of learning to read and understand.’

Dr Andrew Davis, School of Education, Durham University

‘The researchers compared the efficiency of phonics-informed reading with accessing whole words “directly” to get at meaning. However, “meaning” in this study is simply the 24 things that 24 labels identify. These labels include “axe” and “camel”.

‘This is a peculiar and restricted idea of meaning. For a start, these words aren’t just nouns. And one word might, for instance, be a noun, verb or adjective, depending on the context. “Coat” fits this bill. Understanding word meaning is a matter of degree. As it deepens, it includes recognising what work a word does in an increasingly large range of speech contexts.

‘This often requires knowledge of the world. Consider “Sam cut the grass”, “Sam cut the cake”, “Bill cut the cloth” and “I just cut my skin”. Our knowledge of the meanings of other words in these sentences, and, crucially, our grasp of the real world, help us to understand the various meanings of “cut”. The grass may be cut in various ways, but almost certainly not with a knife, while the cake will not be sliced with a lawnmower.’

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2021. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved