Phonics fanatics: politicians who think they know best

This post concludes our series on phonics by asking what has been gained by politicians imposing their will on teachers. It draws on research by Professor Dominic Wyse (UCL IoE) among others, as well as official data. 

The issue is not whether to use phonics to teach reading. Phonics has been a central aspect of teaching children to read for centuries. Phonics is about linking sounds to letters, so it is almost impossible not to use phonics when reading an alphabetical language such as English – unlike Chinese with its writing system based on pictures.

The big question is how an obsessive politician, now Minister for Schools, has managed to impose his will and compel teachers to use one particular approach to phonics.

nick gibb image

Before politicians started interfering, school inspectors confirmed that teaching was already good. In 1990, after observing 470 classes in 120 schools, and listening to 2000 children read, they wrote:

Phonic skills were taught almost universally and usually to beneficial effect… Successful teachers of reading and the majority of schools used a mix of methods each reinforcing the other as the children’s reading developed.

There is certainly evidence to say that teaching phonics systematically helps children learn to read, but no proof that the synthetic phonics method demanded by the Government is better than other methods. The academic team commissioned by Government to review existing research concluded that:

There is currently no strong RCT evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other. (2006, page 49)

Reading without understanding is clearly pointless, and even the Department for Education admit they have no evidence that systematic phonics improves comprehension:

The evidence is inconclusive on whether systematic phonics has an impact on pupils’ reading comprehension. (Email, based on National Reading Panel and Torgerson review)

A range of phonics methods

There are various ways of using phonics to teach reading, including:

  • systematic phonics
  • analytic phonics
  • embedded phonics
  • analogy phonics
  • onset-rime phonics
  • phonics through spelling
  • linguistic phonics.

Skilful teachers know how to combine various techniques in connection with reading for pleasure.

Big red bath copy

Children’s picture books make strong use of repetition, rhyme and sounds to create an effect. We can see, even on this opening page, that it is perfectly feasible to connect phonics with real books.

Without wishing to milk the text, this page offers rich opportunities for highlighting phonics:

  • the letter B: Ben, Bella, big, bath, bubbles
  • consonant blends at the start of words: spl… sh…
  • the contrasting vowels in Splish Splash Splosh.

There is fun in the way sounds are repeated and varied for effect (alliteration, onomatopoiea).

Getting children to identify letters that correspond with sounds within words is part of analytic phonics, but this can lead into synthetic phonics: children can make up different words using the letters of B-e-n, b-i-g, r-e-d. There is absolutely no reason to restrict teaching to one version of phonics.

Crucially, this is not divorced from the young readers’ pleasure in characters they can identify with – real kids, a fun-loving dad, bubbles all over the place… and the anticipation of turning the page to find out which animal is scratching at the door?

Synthetic phonics, on the other hand, tends to be artificial and often meaningless.


This is not surprising since the method is restricted to regular words, and many schemes require teachers to avoid  some of the most common words in our language for months on end. You can hardly write a sentence in English without the, is, was, here, where. 

Pod tops Sid? Who cares!

Synthetic phonics in other languages

In many European countries, children learn to read quickly using mainly phonics-based methods. This is fine in languages which are phonetic – i.e. one letter = one sound. English is different. Around half of our most frequent words are irregular. In some words, you need to get to the sixth or seventh letter before you know how they are pronounced. Because of this, teachers generally combine recognizing some words by sight with sounding out others.


In fact, teaching by synthetic phonics alone leads some children to try to sound out every word, slowing them down (look-and-say). Without relying on words we remember on sight, decoding is slow and laborious.

What has been gained?

Major reviews of research have failed to establish that synthetic phonics is superior to other methods, yet it has been imposed dogmatically on teachers and children. This was a massive leap of faith by ministers, but has it worked?

The Rose Review reported early in 2006 and most schools had switched to a diet of synthetic phonics by September 2007. This should have impacted on KS2 Reading tests around 2013. Here are the results:

KS2 date   L4 or above
2008          87%
2009          86%
2010           83%
2011            84%
2012           87%
2013           86%
2014           89%
2015           89%

There is no sign here of a dramatic improvement despite the political zeal about synthetic phonics.

We would also expect the dramatic rise in the pass rate for the phonics test (Y1) to be reflected in KS1 results a year later (Y2).

2012   2013   2014   Phonics Y1
58%    69%    74%
2013   2014   2015   KS1 Reading Y2
89%    90%    90%

The phonics test results have improved dramatically but with virtually no change in actual reading. It is time Government ministers stopped imposing their will on the teaching profession.


Please read our series of posts showing the lack of evidence behind this Government’s insistence on the ‘synthetic phonics’ method. 

Phonics: myths and evidence

The Scottish phonics miracle: myths and evidence

The Rose Report on phonics: playing fast and loose with ‘the evidence’

The phonics check: what does it prove?

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