Learning to be literate – more than phonics

Professor Margaret Clark is a recognised expert on early literacy. She was awarded an OBE for her contribution to early years education. Her book Learning to be Literate: insights from research for policy and practice won the UKLA Academic Book Award 2015.

Learning To Be Literate FRONT

In Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning: an evidence-based critique her focus is on current government policy in England which claims that synthetic phonics “first fast and only” is the best method of teaching children to read. (Recent updates in Education Journal 228, 239 and 241.)

We are pleased to publish her comments here, and to recommend her books.

Margaret Clark photo

The synthetic phonics check and children’s reading

Synthetic phonics is the required method of teaching reading in primary schools in England, by the government and Ofsted, and also required to be the focus in any course for training primary teachers.

Is Synthetic phonics the one best method?

Phonics instruction refers to literacy teaching approaches with a focus on the relationship between letters and sounds. The questions here are whether phonics should be the only method of teaching reading for all children; whether the books to which children have access should be confined to simple texts; whether pseudo-words should have a role in teaching reading; and whether synthetic phonics instruction is superior to analytic phonics. Furthermore, should this same method still be advocated for children who fail the phonics check?

Drawing on a wide range of research from 1960s onwards I found little evidence for one best method of teaching reading for all children, and certainly not for the superiority of synthetic phonics as the method as opposed to analytic phonics.

The phonics check

The phonics check is administered to all children in England at the end of year 1 and again at the end of year 2 to any child who fails to reach the pass mark of 32. Children must read 40 words aloud to the teacher – 20 pseudo words (i.e. nonsense words) and 20 real words.

1)Many common words in English are not written as they sound. In fact, many of the 100 key words that account for half the total words in written texts are not phonically regular (eg was, the, who)

2)  The pronunciation of many words can only be determined from the context (eg read, wind or bow).

3) The first twelve words each year in the test have been pseudo words. Some children who can read try to make sense of these words, while other children refuse to try these words. NFER research, commissioned by the government, reports variations between teachers in when they discontinue the test; thus some children`s competence with real words may not be recorded.

4) The pass mark each year has been 32 out of 40, with children scoring under 32 failing the test. A spike in the percentage scoring exactly 32 in the first two years is claimed by NFER to raise questions on the validity of the check, as teachers were informed in advance of the pass mark. In the following two years although the pass mark was not revealed in advance, it remained as 32.

5) Schools are required to inform parents of the results in terms of pass or fail. DfE has failed to draw attention to the wide discrepancy in percentage pass between the oldest and youngest children (a year different in age): 36% of the youngest boys and 29% of the youngest girls fail and are required to resit in year 2, in contrast to the high percentage who pass in the oldest age group. Such children are therefore faced with a failure label early in their school career, as are other children with speech and language disorders.

The check has become a high stakes test, with the percentage in each school who pass, even within sub categories, available to Ofsted online. The NFER research revealed that many children now spend time practising pseudo words! The check is probably influencing parents’ views on how to assist their young children in learning to read, though little evidence is available on parent’ views and none on the views of the children.


The final report of the NFER three year research, commissioned by DfE, should give government ministers and Ofsted cause to stop and think. NFER found no clear evidence that children’s improvement in reading attainment could be attributed to the phonics check. Fewer than 30 per cent of school literacy coordinators thought the check provided information that teachers didn’t already know.

Yet, Schools Minister Nick Gibb remains obsessive about synthetic phonics, and still cites improved percentage pass year on year on the phonics check as proof that literacy is improving, as does the Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, and as the cause of any improvement. They should reflect on whether teachers are simply getting better at preparing children for this flawed test. The focus on synthetic phonics and the check may actually be reducing the time spent on other aspects of reading.

The cost of this initiative has been vast, with £46 million spent on match-funding for commercial synthetic phonics material over an eighteen month period; a further £80,000 recently allocated for partnership schools (head teachers have expressed concern about this); a new pilot study planned next year in 300 schools to explore the use of the check in year 3. Only some of the expenditure can so far be estimated.

Endnote: The phonics check is mandatory and costly: in contrast school libraries are not mandatory, not inspected and lack funding (see Education Journal Issue 228)

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