Many educational academics remain vehemently opposed to synthetic phonics.
Even today they campaign to overturn the 2006 Rose Report's recommendations (Wyse/Styles.Editorial),
and every course of action taken by every colour of government
following the Rose Report, each designed to increase the
take-up of teaching synthetic phonics as the only decoding
strategy: a Labour government
commissioned the Rose Report (2006), accepted its
recommendations and said they would ensure they were
implemented. It also commissioned the Letters and Sounds
programme (2007). A Conservative-Liberal Democrat
coalition government piloted and then
implemented (2012) the Phonics Screening Check. It also
embedded synthetic phonics in the National Curriculum (2014).
Conservative government has continued
to support synthetic phonics since 2015.
The Whole Language Backlash:
After the Rose Report's
publication, Dominic Wyse (a professor of
Early Childhood and Primary Education) wrote that those opposed to synthetic
phonics should ''Work politically
and professionally to change this direction in policy'' (Wyse. Rose Tinted Spectacles ppt.
underline in original)
In their book 'Thinking Reading', James and
Dianne Murphy describe how ''The political tenets of whole language were
inextricably grafted into its methodology... emotive arguments
about freedom from authority, autonomy of the individual and
subjective construction of reality'' (p34)
''The idea that different teaching methods are
political is faintly absurd. And yet it is an idea that has
taken quite a hold within education itself'' (Greg
The educational academics opposed to synthetic phonics,
concede that phonics ''can be extremely effective'' when used
as the sole method for decoding words in transparent languages (Wyse/Goswami p693)
but, in their view, there is still ''not enough evidence''
that teaching and using phonics ''discretely''
(synthetic phonics) is superior to
''contextualised phonics'' for decoding words in English texts.
For a description of contextualised phonics teaching see 'The
Early Literacy Handbook: Making sense of language and literacy
with children birth to seven - a practical guide to the
context approach' 2012. by Wyse and Parker. Ch.12.
Teaching letters and phonemes. Available to preview on Google
''However, while important, authentic literature
and rich contexts are not a suitable replacement for explicit
teaching of phonics decoding skills''
(Ofsted 'Education inspection framework: overview of research'
p20 Jan. 2019)
ideological preference for using contextualised / analytic...phonics, over
many decades ''(T)hey have failed to demonstrate
that their preferred method yields as good or better results
than a synthetic phonics programme. Their method seems to be
to merely attack the Clackmannanshire study and thereby imply that the
approach that they advocate is as good or better, without
collecting any supportive data'' (Prof
Johnston & Dr.Watson)
''Those who have an opposing view [of
synthetic phonics] have yet to produce any data
showing that their favoured approach produces greater long-term
(Prof. Rhona Johnston)
Synthetic, Analytic, or Rime and Analogy Phonics?:
The academics opposed to synthetic phonics cherry-picked two
particular publications from the extensive range of evidence
that the Rose Report team considered, to back their view. They
singled out the American National Reading Panel (NRP) report and
England's DCSF commissioned 2006 Torgerson, Brooks and Hall phonics meta-analysis (Wyse/Goswami p693)
because these publications tied in with their ideology, having
as their conclusion that there was no strong evidence, ''that
any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than
''The term “synthetic phonics” lacks what, in
scientific terminology, is known as an “operational
The Torgerson et al meta-analysis carried little weight with the Rose
Report team. The reasons for this are explained in a report by Parliament's
all-party Committee on Science & Technology, produced after they had examined the evidence base of the Rose
Report -see paras.22,23,24:
Professor Diane McGuinness, a cognitive scientist trained in statistical analysis, also examined both publications closely. See
http://dyslexics.org.uk/comment.pdf for her comments on
the Torgerson et al (2006) and the NRP (2000) phonics
''(T)here are enormous difficulties with
meta-analysis research. Without great care researchers can
combine apples and oranges, in which the variables are too
dissimilar to be combined''
For an additional critique of the American NRP report,
written by Prof. Kenneth Anderson (2000), see
''(O)ne phonics method endorsed by the [NRP] report—is
teaching “analogies” or “word families” or, more technically,
“rimes''- see Prof. Shanahan's 2018 blog post below where he
equates rime and analogy phonics with analytic phonics.
Prof.Shanahan was a member of the NRP's 'alphabetics'
sub-group. Recently (July 2018) he wrote a blog post with the title
'Synthetic or systematic phonics? What does research really
Shanahan wrote ''(A)nalytic approaches focus attention on
larger spelling generalizations (like rimes: ab, ad, ag, ack,
am, an) and word analogies''. He went on to say that the NRP
came to the conclusion that ''synthetic and analytic phonics
are equally good''. He made no mention of the later (2004)
Clackmannanshire research which found synthetic phonics to be
Recent studies, ''have shown conclusively that children do
not use rhyming endings to decode words; hardly ever decode by
analogy to other words; and that ability to dissect words into
onsets and rimes has no impact whatsoever on learning to read
and spell'' (D.McGuinness WCCR p148)
Dr.Macmillan also reviewed the rhyme/rime and
analogy phonics research. She showed that not
one of the three major research claims 1) rhyme awareness is
related to reading ability, 2) rhyme awareness affects reading
achievement, and 3) rhyme awareness leads to the development
of phoneme awareness, was sufficiently supported.
and reading: A critical review of the research methodology'
The Clackmannanshire Research:
As part of their mission to overturn the synthetic phonics
initiative, the educational academics attempted to
subvert the Clackmannanshire research because, unlike the
2006 Torgerson et al meta-analysis and NRP report,
it concluded that, ''(S)ynthetic phonics was a more effective approach to teaching reading, spelling and phonemic awareness than analytic phonics'' (Johnston and Watson, 2004 p351) .
disseminated myths and misinformation about the
Clackmannanshire research -see the RRF newsletter article,
'Fact and Fiction about the Clackmannanshire study', which
also includes comment on the Torgerson et al meta-analysis:
The Clackmannanshire research played a large part in persuading the then DCSF to
introduce synthetic phonics as the primary method to teach
''Johnston and Watson (2004) carried out two
experiments, one controlled trial and one randomised
controlled trial (the gold standard of scientific research) to understand the effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment. The research is known as the ‘Clackmannanshire study’. Clackmannanshire is a very deprived area of Scotland. Many of the pupils came from extremely deprived homes and/or had significant educational difficulties – and yet pupils tracked from pre-school to age 11 achieved results in reading and spelling far beyond that expected for their age'' (italics added. DfE. evidence paper p3)
Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and
phonemic awareness skills in initial readers'.
Johnston & Dr. Joyce Watson (2004)
Prof. Johnston and Dr. Watson described the differences
between the analytic and synthetic phonics used in their
''As analytic phonics as well
as synthetic phonics can involve sounding and blending, how
can these two methods be distinguished? According to the
National Reading Panel (2000, 2-89), in analytic phonics
children analyse letters sounds after the word has been
identified, whereas in synthetic phonics the pronunciation of
the word is discovered through sounding and blending. Another
critical difference is that synthetic phonics teaches children
to sound and blend right at the start of reading tuition,
after the first few letter sounds have been taught. In
analytic phonics children learn words at first largely by
sight, having their attention drawn only to the initial letter
sounds. Only after all of the letter sounds have been taught
in this way is sounding and blending introduced. It can be
seen therefore that the phonics approach advocated in the
National Literacy Strategy is of the analytic type''
(Johnston&Watson. Accelerating Reading
and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics)
In 2004, 6 years after the introduction of the NLS with its
''medley of decoding strategies'', which included analytic
and rime and analogy phonics,
only 60% of children achieved Level 4 or above in reading in
the Key Stage 2 SATs.
Tymms &Merrell (2007) Standards and Quality in English Primary
Schools Over Time: the national evidence. ''£500m was spent on
the National Literacy Strategy with almost no impact on
An examination of the 2006 Torgerson et al meta-analysis:
The government-funded Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was set up to collect
and create hard evidence. A school governor said that she was
''frequently directed to the EEF as the "last-word" on
In 2016 the EEF produced guidance for
'Improving Literacy in Key Stage One'
p15. ''Only a few studies have compared synthetic and analytic
phonics, and there is not yet enough evidence to make a
confident recommendation to use one approach rather than the
other'' The only reference given for the second half this statement is the 2006
Torgerson et al phonics meta-analysis.
Similarly, in a recent paper (2018 'Ending the Reading Wars:
Reading acquisition from novice to expert'
Profs. Castles, Rastle and Nation came
to the view (p13) that there was insufficient evidence as yet to determine
whether the synthetic phonics approach was superior to the
analytic phonics approach, citing, yet again, the NRP and Torgerson et al
Prof. Rhona Johnston
responded to the Castles et al paper with the following
Examining the evidence on the effectiveness of synthetic
phonics teaching: the Ehri et al (2001) and C.Torgerson et al
''It cannot be concluded that these two meta-analyses showed
evidence against the superiority of the synthetic over the
analytic phonics method.''
Also, see Chapter 9 in Wiley Handbook of Developmental
Psychology in Practice: Implementation and Impact.
'The trials & tribulations of changing how reading is taught
in schools: synthetic phonics & the educational backlash'
Prof. Rhona Johnston & Dr. Joyce Watson
This book chapter is available for preview on Google
It appears that the absence of research by others to replicate
the Clackmannanshire findings is, in effect, being taken as
justification for doubts about the Clackmannanshire research.
The absence of corroborating research may be partly down to
the fact that UK-style SSP is fairly distinctive and not well
understood outside quite a small circle of people.
Prof. Daniel Muijs (Ofsted's Head of Research) is more positive about the Clackmannanshire
''There is also evidence that synthetic phonics instruction is
particularly effective. In a widely cited study in Scotland,
Johnston & Watson (2004) compared the reading skills of
children taught using synthetic phonics with those of a group
taught using analytic phonics, and found the former to be more
A subsequent study of 10-year-olds whose early
literacy programmes had involved either analytic or synthetic
phonics methods found that the pupils taught using synthetic
phonics had better word reading, spelling, and
comprehension (Johnston et al., 2012)''
(Prof. Daniel Muijs)
''More recently, a teaching method called systematic
synthetic phonics (SSP) has garnered strong evidence in its
favour'' (Dr. Jennifer Buckingham.
In January 2018, another phonics meta-analysis
was produced by
Torgerson, Brooks, Gascoine and Higgins.
It includes the 2016
Machin et al. study which Brooks cited as showing that
synthetic phonics produced an across-the-board improvement at
5 and 7 but ''strong initial effects tended to fade out on
average''. Jenny Chew pointed
out that ''The children in that study, however, had been
taught by the Early Reading Development Pilot approach (ERDP), which
fell far short of good synthetic phonics''
Chew wrote an
article about the problems with the ERDP, back in 2006.
When asked about the phonics meta-analysis above, Prof.
Dylan Wiliam tweeted ''They conclude "the evidence is not
clear enough to decide which phonics approach is best" and
seem to conclude that therefore "anything goes". I would
conclude, rather, from the available research, that synthetic
phonics should be the foundation of all early reading
''When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a
scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean-
neither more nor less''
Describing phonics purely as 'systematic' helps those who wish to keep genuine synthetic phonics out of the classroom.
The 'Balance of Decoding Strategies' advocates have misappropriated the word 'systematic' and regularly use it to describe their type of teaching using contextualised / cumulative
/ embedded phonics, with the justification that, ''the phonics concepts to be learned can still be presented systematically''.
Phonics Backlash Continues:
Jenny Chew scrutinised chapters in the following books, both edited by
Margaret Clark, for accuracy.
'Reading the Evidence:
Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning' 2017.
'Teaching Initial Literacy: Policies, Evidence and Ideology'
'Spelfabet' reviews Reading the Evidence: Synthetic
Phonics and Literacy Learning' 2017
Karen Wespieser works for a dyslexia charity, the Driver Youth
Trust. In August 2018 she looked closely at a report: 'An
independent enquiry into the views of teachers and parents
about the phonics screening check' produced by Margaret Clark
and Jonathan Glazzard:
Wespieser commented: ''It made the bold claims in the research
press release that the PSC is “pointless”. It cited
parents, teacher and school leader’s views on the PCS as fact.
Yet when you look at the methodology behind the research, you
find that it is based on a self-selecting sample. While they
have gathered data from a large number of people, these are
only the views of those that felt they had something to say on
the topic. A more representative sample might have provided a
very different perspective and researchers should be aware of
how different methodologies can introduce bias to their work.
This is more akin to a trip advisor rating – where only those
most irate take the time to feedback – than research which is
both robust and significant, which furthers our understanding
of this important debate''
So hands up, who hates phonics? Some very influential
'Old Andrew' explores phonics denialism -also see parts 2 and
http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/main_method_2.htm for detailed
information on contextualised / embedded / incidental /
analytic / rime and analogy...phonics.
As a matter of fact, evidence of the superiority of direct and systematic
synthetic phonics teaching was already available in the 1960s. In her book Learning to Read: the great debate, Prof. Jeanne Chall noted that, ''The current research also suggests that some advantage may accrue to direct as compared to indirect phonics. It would seem that many of the characteristics of direct phonics, such as teaching letter-sounds directly, separating the letter-sounds from the words, giving practice in blending the sounds, and so forth are more effective than the less direct procedures used in current analytic phonics programmes'' (Chall. Learning to Read: the great debate.1967)
Marilyn Jager Adams wrote the foreword for the last book (The Academic Achievement Challenge) written by the late Jeanne
Chall, Professor of Education at Harvard University, outstanding academic researcher
and a staunch advocate for synthetic phonics. Marilyn Jager Adams wrote, ''Many years later,
when I was given the task of reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me
that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She
warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues''. Adams continues, ''as
the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners
increased so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became
one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of
those who had conducted it.'' (Chall p.vi)