Able readers damaged by phonics, academic says

Books A minority of children are already beginning to read by the time they start school

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The interests of able readers are being threatened by an insistence primary school pupils are taught to read using phonics, an academic has said.

The Department for Education wants English schools to use the reading system, which requires children to blend common sounds into words.

But Durham University researcher Andrew Davis says those already starting to read are likely to be put off.

The DfE insists synthetic phonics is the best way to teach reading.

The teaching method encourages children to sound out words rather than recognising the whole word and reading it for meaning.

The government strongly encourages schools to use reading schemes based on synthetic phonics, and part-funds a range of books approved as meeting its criteria.

Phonics test

It has also introduced a phonics test for all Year 1 pupils to ensure they are using this method to decode simple words, as well as some made-up words.


Phonics is a way of decoding written letters and spoken sounds. This approach to learning to read encourages children to decode words by sounds, rather than by recognising whole words.

In the early years, teaching focuses on synthetic phonics, where words are broken up into the smallest units of sound (phonemes). Children are taught the letters (graphemes) that represent these phonemes and also learn to blend them into words. At its simplest, pupils are taught to read the letters in a word like d-o-g, and merge them to pronounce the word dog. But, of course, phonemes can be represented by one, two, three or four letters (for example, "ough" in "dough").

Children are systematically taught around 40 phonic sounds and the combination of letters used to represent each sound. A reading test, introduced in England in 2012, checks children's reading skills. Pupils are asked to sound out 40 words, some of which - controversially - are made up, such as "voo" and "spron".

Video for teaching Key Stage 1 Phonics

Key Stage 1 Bitesize phonics game

Teaching adult literacy with phonics

It argues this is the best way to ensure no child falls behind with their reading.

But Dr Davis, a former primary school teacher, says in his pamphlet a small minority begin school able to read and understand sentences, while a larger group are able to recognise some words.

He argues those well on their way to reading could be put off by reading books featuring only words for which they have been taught the phonetic rules in class.

He says: "To subject either the fully fledged readers, or those who are well on their way, to a rigid diet of intensive phonics is an affront to their emerging identities as persons.

"To require this of students who have already gained some maturity in the rich and nourishing human activity of reading is almost a form of abuse."

He agrees that phonics can be very useful for teaching reading, but argues it should not be rigidly imposed on all.

'Mechanical exercise'

"Being forced to move back from reading for meaning to a mechanical exercise of blending and decoding is likely to be off-putting," he said.

He added that a strict approach to synthetic phonics "threatens the interests of a minority of children who arrive at school already able to read".

"The vast majority of early years teachers handle this kind of challenge with their usual professionalism, and will continue to do so if they are not troubled by rigid prescriptions from policy makers," he said.

But there was a defence of the value of phonics from another academic at Durham University, the director of primary PGCE, Dr David Waugh.

"My experience is that the majority of children benefit from such an approach and that children's reading is improving as a result."

He said there were many myths about teaching synthetic phonics and that the Rose Review which had promoted the idea had emphasised "phonics being taught in the context of a broad, rich language curriculum, with lots of experience of good quality literature".

"While I have reservations about the use of pseudo words in tests, I do feel that the emphasis upon developing children's phonic knowledge has brought important benefits.

"After years of many teachers having few ideas about how to teach reading beyond listening to children read, we now have structured strategies in place and teachers are trained to teach reading rather than simply to listen to it," said Dr Waugh.


A spokesman for the National Association for the Teachers of English (NATE) said that it had published a survey of its members last month and had found concerns about an "over-emphasis" on phonics, which it warned "can do more harm than good".

In particular, there were concerns about children being confused by the teaching of made-up phonetic "non-words".

"Our research concluded that the government case for an exclusive focus on 'systematic synthetic phonics' in early years instruction is poorly argued and unsupported by the evidence cited in the government's own documentation," said the NATE spokesman.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Too many children are not reaching the expected levels of reading at a young age, do not catch up, and then struggle in secondary school and beyond.

"Research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities, enabling almost all children to become confident and independent readers.

"Thanks to the phonics check 177,000 six-year-olds will this year get the extra reading help they need to catch up with their peers."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 789.

    Back in the 1960's phonics was used to learn to read. At 5, I could already read, by 6 1/3 i had finished every book in the reading scheme and was given freedom to find books in the libriary. Sensible teachers not forcing me to start with the basics i didn't need. Don't insist that any method IS the method, try what works best for the child.

  • rate this

    Comment number 787.

    Now 18, I learnt to read without phonics and was, for a long time, way ahead in terms of my reading. However, I always struggled to spell and because it was assumed that I could use the phonics system as I could read, nothing was done about it until I went to secondary school. The phonics system should be used for real words but its use in spelling words, as well as reading them, appreciated more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 704.

    Son failed yr 1 phonics test despite being competent reader. His teacher said the nonsense words catch kids out because they're trying to see them as words - i.e. things with sense, not just sounds. Teaching reading by the sounds is obviously a major tactic but sense is the main aim, for which you need guessing by context, by picture and so on. Ditch the nonsense words, if not the whole test.

  • rate this

    Comment number 630.

    One of my clearest memories of primary school (1980s) was being totally baffled by phonics (as well as the frustration and embarrassment felt when I couldn't get the exercises right), even though I knew I could read perfectly well and make all the correct sounds. I'm glad someone has recognised that it's not for everyone!

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    There are some very silly comments here. Good teachers quickly assess a child's reading ability and provide books of the appropriate level. Even if they can read well and have memorized many words, the logic of phonics helps them read new words: it stops them being held back. Parents should support this process with books at home.


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