Many education academics remain vehemently opposed to the
direct and discrete teaching of phonics.
Even today they campaign to overturn the 2006 Rose review's recommendations (Wyse/Styles.Editorial),
and every course of action taken
by every colour of government following the Rose review, each
designed to increase the take-up of teaching high quality
phonics as the only route to decoding words ''within a broad and language-rich curriculum''
(Rose review 2006 p16)
The Whole Language Backlash:
The 2006 Rose review specifically recommended the use of
systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) for teaching beginning readers:
''(S)ynthetic phonics is the form of systematic phonic work
that offers the vast majority of beginners the best route to
becoming skilled readers. Among other strengths, this is
because it teaches children directly what they need to
know...whereas other approaches, such as 'analytic' phonics,
expect children to deduce them''
(Rose review. para 47)
‘'Having considered a wide range of evidence the review
concluded that the case for systematic phonic work is
overwhelming and much strengthened by a synthetic approach’'
(Rose review para 51)
recommendation was accepted by the government, who promised to
addition, the Rose review, the DfES (now DfE) and the
Curriculum all say that rigorous and systematic phonics
instruction, fully compatible with mainstream classroom
practice (wave 1), should be provided in waves 2 and 3 of literacy
intervention for children who struggle to decode and spell. As Gordon Askew points out, ''Phonics is the basic
mechanism of all reading...There are no reliable
After the Rose review's
publication, Dominic Wyse (a professor of
Early Childhood and Primary Education no less) 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)
''If you have built a career and reputation around
downplaying the role of phonics in early reading and advising
teachers to teach three-cuing strategies then it is far easier
to defeat your opponents by dubbing them conservative than by
deploying research evidence''
The academics opposed to the statutory introduction of
synthetic phonics to England's schools, acknowledge that
''teaching reading by synthetic phonics can be extremely
effective'' when countries have transparent alphabetic codes (Wyse/Goswami p693).
But, in their opinion, there is
still ''not enough evidence'' that word reading instruction solely at the phoneme-grapheme level (synthetic
phonics), taught in discrete lessons, is superior
to reading ''instruction at levels other than the phoneme''
(i.e. whole word, onset and rime), with all instruction ''contextualised''
(Wyse/Goswami p701) when it is the opaque English
alphabetic code being taught.
''Phonics taught in context, by definition, cannot
be systematic, as there is little or no opportunity to control
the nature or sequence of the mappings being taught''
(Prof. Anne Castles)
For a description of the contextualised word reading
approach 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.
''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)
Despite decades of whole language followed by
the NLS 'balanced' word reading approach, the
anti-synthetic phonics academics ''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 education academics opposed to synthetic phonics
cherry-picked two particular publications, from the extensive
range of evidence that the Rose review team considered, to back their view. They
singled out the American National Reading Panel (NRP) report and
England's DCSF commissioned, but not peer-reviewed, 2006 Torgerson,**Brooks and Hall phonics meta-analysis (Wyse/Goswami p693)
because both 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
Long-term effects of synthetic v analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 yr old boys and girls
''Overall, the group taught by synthetic phonics had better
word reading, spelling, and reading comprehension''
The Torgerson et al meta-analysis (https://bit.ly/2w1Y14F),
although commissioned by the government, carried little weight
with the Rose review 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 review -see paras.22,23,24:
Professor Diane McGuinness, a cognitive scientist trained in statistical analysis, also examined both publications closely. See
her comments on the Torgerson et al (2006) and the NRP (2000) phonics
An examination of the 2006 Torgerson et al meta-analysis:
**In 2017, in a chapter for Margaret Clark's book 'Reading
the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning',
Prof. Brooks appeared to draw back from the conclusion of the
Torgerson, Brooks and Hall phonics meta-analysis: ''I was
convinced then , and still am, that theory suggests that
synthetic phonics is more coherent than analytic phonics as a
strategy for young learners working out unfamiliar printed
(Prof. Brooks quote in Chew
''(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''
Prof.Shanahan was a member of the NRP's 'alphabetics'
sub-group. In 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
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 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'
All phonics instruction is not the same:
Analytic phonics, ‘'developed out of the inherent flaws of
information on contextualised / embedded / analytic / rime and
analogy...word reading approaches.
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 DfE to
introduce systematic synthetic phonics teaching:
''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-analogy word reading strategies and
memorising lists of common exception words by sight,
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
The state-funded Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was
set up in 2011 to collect and produce hard evidence. A school governor said that she was
''frequently directed to the EEF as the "last-word" on
Over the past decade, the EEF has
thought it appropriate to use vast amounts of public money to research
(sometimes twice) a number of non-systematic phonics programmes
which purport to improve reading such as
the Primary Movement Project (t'ai chi type exercises), Rhythm
for Reading (rhythm-based exercises) the
GraphoGame Rime project (based on Goswami's rhythm and
rhyme theory-see above) and two Reading
Recovery derivatives; Catch Up Literacy (see Room 101) and Switch-on Reading (see below).
In 2020, the EEF updated its guidance for
'Improving Literacy in Key Stage One'
As in the first edition, the EEF say (p21) that ''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 of this statement
is the 2006 Torgerson et al phonics meta-analysis -see
critques of the Torgerson et al meta-analysis on this page.
In this 2020 update, the EEF undermines the DfE
by recommending the use of Reading Recovery (RR) as a KS1 intervention (p47), despite it
being ''a multi-cueing, non-systematic approach''
(Sir Jim Rose), with the
justification that RR,
''is highlighted by the EIF guidebook [https://guidebook.eif.org.uk/programme/reading-recovery] for the positive impacts
found in several high-quality evaluations conducted in
Prof. McGuinness is far from alone in pointing out that,
''Independent research showed that RR had no effect.
It is extremely costly to implement, re. teacher training,
tutoring time, and materials. Not only this, but RR "research"
is notorious for misrepresenting the data''.
For comprehensive info.
on Reading Recovery
including Prof. James Chapman's comments and supporting papers refuting all the RR evaluations
''highlighted by the EIF guidebook'' - see
Not content with recommending the Reading Recovery
non-systematic, multi-cueing approach for KS1
reading intervention, the EEF steers teachers away from using
phonics with older
readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills,
phonics approaches may be less successful than other
approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and
Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may
indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded
using phonics approaches previously require a different
Greg Ashman points out that, ''This seems to assume that older
struggling readers have previously been exposed to a high
quality systematic phonics program. I don’t think we can
assume that at all'' (https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2020/05/16/can-age-tell-us-what-kind-of-reading-instruction-a-child-needs/)
UK-UCL centre just happens to provide GROW training ''for
developing metacognition and self-regulation'' for
''students struggling with literacy in KS3''
Greg Ashman asks ''Is ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ an
Highly regarded teacher-blogger 'Old Andrew' is also concerned
that the EEF gives, ''power and influence to educationalists
to promote their pet theories of learning''. In this blog post
he writes, ''The EEF is now a law unto itself in the agendas
it promotes...And nobody can work out who, other than the
opponents of phonics, wanted the EEF to spend money on the
latest iteration of Reading Recovery [Switch-on Reading]'' See
'Switch-on Reading' info.
David Didau comments on the EEF: ''It’s worth considering
whether decisions about the education of the most
disadvantaged is too important to leave to the prejudices of
an ideologically driven, unaccountable clearinghouse who
decide both what research to fund and what to make available
as part of a toolkit.’' (David Didau
In a recent paper, 2018 'Ending the Reading Wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert'
Profs. Castles, Rastle and Nation came
to the view (p.13) 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
Commenting on this paper in her petition
to the Scottish Education committee, Anne Glennie pointed out
that, ''Analytic phonics is, by its nature, an eclectic
approach and therefore cannot be delivered systematically or
be part of a programme of work...Synthetic phonics,
theoretically speaking, makes more sense –as teachers have
more control over the sequence and speed of letter-sound
learning, ensuring instruction is optimal and ‘can be matched’
to children's needs. Castles et al make reference to this too:
‘'On the face of it, synthetic phonics would seem to have some
clear advantages: By introducing grapheme-phoneme
correspondences individually, it is possible to control the
learning environment more effectively and to ensure that each
correspondence is taught explicitly and in an optimal
(Anne Glennie p50-1
In a chapter (2019
systematic and explicit phonics instruction,
Buckingham, R.Wheldall and Prof. K.Wheldall commented on the
'Torgerson et al' and 'Castles et al' views on systematic
phonics v synthetic
''They are cautious about concluding that
synthetic phonics is more effective than other systematic
approaches; however, it is not clear that alternatives to
synthetic phonics meet the criteria for systematic and
explicit teaching. These are the critical characteristics that
are overwhelmingly supported in scientific research and expert
(J.Buckingham, R.Wheldall and
Prof. Rhona Johnston also
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
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 reading
comprehension (Johnston et al., 2012)''
(Prof. Daniel Muijs)
''More recently, a teaching method called systematic
synthetic phonics (SSP) has garnered strong evidence in its
''An Australian study by
Christensen and Bowey (https://bit.ly/30xedZM
2005) found significant advantages for systematic
synthetic phonics over analytic phonics in reading and
spelling for students in their second year of school''
(J.Buckingham, R.Wheldall K.Wheldall)
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
The Backlash Continues:
'Myths and Deception’, the Australian PSC: a response to Dr
Paul Gardner's article '(S)ynphonpreneurs’ are pushing
synthetic phonics in schools'
''Dr Gardner apparently accepts the need for ‘phonics’. What
he appears to reject however, is the need for the early
systematic teaching of synthetic phonics as the only approach
to teaching decoding''
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'
''Clark’s research is not systematic or objective. It
is a combination of speculation, personal anecdote, and
surveys of the views of teachers, parents and children''
(Dr.J.Buckingham.Putting the record
straight about research on reading)
'Spelfabet' reviews Clark's Reading the Evidence: Synthetic
Phonics and Literacy Learning' 2017
So hands up, who hates phonics? Some very influential
'Old Andrew' explores phonics denialism -also see parts 2 and
As a matter of fact, evidence of the superiority of direct and systematic
(synthetic) phonics over indirect analytic phonics 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, ''(A)s
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)
Phonics advocates have something to sell
Joyce Morris: PhonicsPhobia: fascinating personal history of teaching reading 1940s ->1970s. UK