synthetic phonics

Teaching of synthetic phonics in Australia based on flawed evidence

What is phonics for? Where does it fit into an overall pedagogy of literacy? Without clear answers to these questions, the contestants in the phonics debate will continue to circle each other like blindfolded prizefighters.

The aim of literacy teaching is to produce readers who tackle texts on paper or screen with confidence and understanding, so that they can learn, enjoy their reading and, when appropriate, read aloud with fluency and expression. But to beginners the marks on the page are arbitrary, meaningless squiggles. Even those which correspond to words they understand when spoken to them cannot yet be related to meaning. Therefore the overriding aim of phonics is the efficient identification of unfamiliar printed words.

So who needs to be taught phonics and when?

Some children are enabled to bridge that gulf by being read to copiously, and joining in the reciting of the texts they have heard so often they have them off by heart, until they twig the essential insight that what they are saying is represented by what they can see. For them, phonics is not only unnecessary, but may be a hindrance. Therefore phonics has no place in the teaching of reading to young fluent readers, and testing their ‘phonic knowledge’ is irrelevant and risks causing them to regress in their learning.

What of the children who arrive at school not yet reading? Their most important immediate task is to learn to read, so for them the purpose of phonics is to provide a quick start on the identification of regularly-spelt words, alongside the essential (for English, with its complex orthography) learning of some basic high-frequency but irregularly-spelt words as sight words.

The experimental evidence shows clearly that phonics in this context works for both normally-developing children and those who are falling behind. But the same body of evidence also shows that (a) the teaching must be systematic and not incidental; (b) it must be embedded in a broad and rich language and literacy curriculum, because there is much more to reading than just word identification, and therefore phonics alone does not constitute teaching children to read.

The flawed case for teaching only synthetic phonics

The message about embedding phonics in a rich curriculum is there loud and clear in the Rose Report (2006), which was published in England and used as evidence to impose a national phonics test in England. Advocates of the phonics test, and the associated teaching of “synthetic phonics”, in Australia regularly cite this report, especially to argue that Australia should impose the teaching of synthetic phonics on all school beginners.

I was present during the presentation of evidence for the Rose enquiry and I believe Jim Rose overstated his case for synthetic phonics in the subsequent report. Nevertheless, Rose’s message about embedding phonics in a rich curriculum, which is a very basic message, got lost in the controversy his report stirred up around whole-word versus phonics.

Jim Rose mostly stuck to saying phonics teaching must be systematic, but in places elided that into saying that systematic phonics is synthetic phonics, which the experimental evidence did not justify, and still doesn’t. There is as yet no evidence that any one form of phonics teaching produces better progress than any other form of phonics.

Following the Rose Report there was a noticeable increase in the number of phonics-based intervention schemes for struggling readers in England, but it was only after the change of government in 2010 that strong official pressure was put behind synthetic phonics, often using a flawed and partial interpretation of the research evidence, and Rose’s conflation of systematic phonics with synthetic phonics. This was expressed in the misleading slogan-like mantra that ‘Synthetic phonics is the best way to teach children to read’, ignoring all the caveats about embedding phonics in the broader curriculum and the dearth of supporting evidence.

It is ironic that that line is actually at odds with the latest (2013, p.13) version of the national curriculum for English in England, which has this to say:

Skilled word reading involves both the speedy working out of the pronunciation of unfamiliar printed words (decoding) and the speedy recognition of familiar printed words. Underpinning both is the understanding that the letters on the page represent the sounds in spoken words. This is why phonics should be emphasised in the early teaching of reading to beginners (i.e. unskilled readers) when they start school.

This is much more balanced than many public pronouncements. Moreover, it implies that phonics teaching is essentially time-limited. As soon as children ‘get it’ or are seen to have ‘cracked the code’, only occasional reinforcement of sounding-out and blending for unfamiliar words is needed. As Jeanne Chall put it 50 years ago in Learning to Read: the great debate, once children have developed the ability to identify written words, teaching further phonics ‘is sheer madness’.

Teachers don’t need a national test to tell them about their own students

What of those children who don’t ‘get it’ the first or second time? There are a few for whom phonics simply doesn’t work, but they are rare and exceptional. An Australian friend who taught in an Infants school (Years 1-2) in England for over 30 years says that she was unable to unlock the door of initial literacy for just one child in all that time. There are others who struggle and fail to progress well. Observant teachers know perfectly well who they are, and need deep professional knowledge to understand them and work round their difficulties. Teachers don’t need a test to identify children who are struggling. When teachers in England were asked about the phonics test a great many said it didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.

What teachers of initial literacy do need is better support for helping the strugglers, which was supposed to be part of the follow-up to the phonics test, but is notable by its absence. Money put into that would be well spent, which the money spent on the phonics test is not.

In the first three years of national operation, the phonics test in England cost £44,000,000 – what a waste! Spend your Australian dollars on good professional development instead!


Greg Brooks is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, UK. He was a member of the Rose Committee (2005-06). Greg was the chairperson of Federation of European Literacy Associations (2013-16) and has researched and written widely on the initial teaching of reading and spelling, especially through phonics. Find more about Greg Brooks here.

Greg is a contributor to the book Reading the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning edited by distinguished researcher Margaret Clark (OBE) that will be launched at the AARE 2017 conference in Canberra on Wednesday 29th November. Other contributors to the book are Misty Adoniou, Terry Wrigley, and Henrietta Dombey.

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