2022 Spring Term 2

The know zone

  • Sounding out phonics
    Tiffnie Harris delves into the highly-debated issue on the use of phonics in teaching early reading. More
  • Is the Bacc back?
    As the government carries out an inquiry into the post-16 education landscape, Kevin Gilmartin examines whether there really is an appetite for a 16-19 baccalaureate. More
  • Resource management
    Hayley Dunn takes a closer look at the DfE's new tools for resource management and procurement More
  • Lifelong ambition
    Anne Murdoch explores what the Skills Bill means for colleges, employers and learners. More
  • Post-16 Bacc
    Should the government introduce a post-16 baccalaureate that allows students to take a variety of subjects, including both academic and vocational options? Here, ASCL members have their say... More
  • Going the distance
    Headteacher Russell Clarke says ASCL Council provides an excellent platform for sharing ideas and influencing policy. Here, he shares his passion for Council, carving and fell running. More
  • Never forget?
    If the human brain is wired for learning, it also appears programmed to forget. We all know how the acquisition of knowledge can enrich a life but forgetfulness can have value too, says Chris Pyle. More
Bookmark and Share

Tiffnie Harris delves into the highly-debated issue on the use of phonics in teaching early reading.

Sounding out phonics

In January, a publication ( see Further Reading) by authors Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury reignited the ongoing debate among many educational professionals on the use of phonics in teaching early reading. It appears everyone has a view, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a valid argument that supports one side. 

As part of Wyse and Bradbury’s research, a survey was conducted, followed by a subsequent report that highlighted synthetic phonics as the main approach used within primary schools. 

Within the publication, some key findings were identified, not only that the “dominant approach to teaching reading in England is synthetic phonics and that assessment policy in the form of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) has contributed to the stronger emphasis on phonics as part of the teaching of reading”, but also a focus on the amount of time taken to teach phonics and “its separation from other literary activities”. 

Controversially, the research “concludes that phonics and reading teaching in primary schools in England has changed significantly for the first time in modern history, and that compared to other English dominant regions England represents an outlier [and] recommend[s] that national curriculum policy is changed and that the locus of political control over curriculum, pedagogy and assessment should be re-evaluated”. 

Is this a fair evaluation? 

The rationale for this study is as follows: Teaching children to read is one of the most important elements of primary education because it is fundamental to children’s educational development. 

This cannot be argued against, and nor should it, but every child has a different level of need and development. Perhaps more autonomy should be given to primary schools and the professionalism and experience of primary leaders be invited to help decide what is the best way to teach reading to children within their own context. Isn’t the most important thing to simply commit to ensuring that all children can read and be taught a love of reading, at a level that enables them to access the secondary curriculum and subsequently, succeed in life? 

Former schools minister Nick Gibb does not agree with Bradbury and Wyse. Renowned for his passion in delivering effective literacy, an article he published in January, groups their research with similar “counterattack[s]” on phonics. In his piece, he puts forward the other side of this debate, that “damaging adherents of ‘progressive’ education believe that learning to read through phonics is a boring abomination”. He goes on to explain: “[O]ur reforms were based on evidence from the Clackmannanshire Study published in 2004 and from the huge US National Reading Panel study published in 2000 which conclusively showed that systematic phonics is the most effective method of teaching children to read… There is ample evidence of the effectiveness of phonics.” 

Levelling up is key 

With only 65% of pupils reaching the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths (combined) as they left primary school in 2019 (when this data was last published, pre-pandemic), and the Levelling Up White Paper pledge that, by 2030, 90% of pupils who leave England’s primary schools will reach expected standards in reading, writing and maths, it is clear and right that this is an area for government support. This cannot be achieved overnight though, and, arguably, this feels as though immediate finger-pointing is at primary teaching – that they are not already doing all that they can possibly do to achieve the very highest standards for their pupils. 

In conclusion, primary school leaders may argue for or against the teaching of synthetic phonics. What is clear, however, is the need for adequate resources and funding and essentially, to demonstrate trust and a high-profile recognition of the importance of the primary sector in doing what is right and best for the children in their school community. 

Further reading 

Reading Wars or Reading Reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education/BERA, Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury (https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rev3.3314

Has synthetic phonics been demolished? Greg Ashman (https://fillingthepail.substack.com/p/has-syntheticphonics-been-demolished

Resist the ‘progressive’ attack on phonics, Nick Gibb MP (www. nickgibb.org.uk/news/resistprogressive-attack-phonics)

Tiffnie Harris
ASCL Primary and Data Specialist