The fight for phonics in early years reading

One of the most important things a child will do at school is learn to read, but there are few battlefields in educational discourse as contested as how to best teach it. Here, Jennifer Buckingham outlines the evidence base for systematic synthetic phonics as the most reliable method we have – and also why so many find it hard to accept.

There is extensive research on how children learn to read and how best to teach them. One of the most consistent findings from methodologically sound scientific research is that learning to decode words using phonics is an essential element of early reading instruction.1 Language comprehension (vocabulary and understanding of semantics, syntax, and so on) is also essential to gain meaning from reading, of course. But children must first be able to accurately identify the words on the page or screen before they can bring meaning to what they are reading.2

Many high-quality studies over the last two decades in particular, including systematic reviews, have shown that classroom programmes and interventions with an explicit, systematic phonics instruction component are more effective in teaching children to read than those without such a component.3 More recently, a teaching method called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) has garnered strong evidence in its favour.4 In synthetic phonics, teaching starts with a sequence of simple letter-sound correspondences, building to the more complex code as children master the skills of blending and segmenting.5

Systematic synthetic phonics is well-researched in school classrooms and in clinical settings. It is also supported by cognitive science research on the processes that take place in the brain when children learn to read. This research shows that reading is not like speaking: the human brain is not innately wired for reading to develop automatically with exposure to print. Making the cognitive connections between print, sound and meaning requires making physical neurological connections between three distinct areas of the brain.6 Some children create these neural connections relatively quickly but others require methodical, repeated and explicit teaching.7 This is particularly true for a complex language like English where the relationships between letters and sounds is not uniform in all words.

Despite the clear evidence supporting systematic phonics instruction, there is still debate about the role of phonics in learning to read and how to teach it effectively. The reasons for this are many, and interrelated. While the points listed here are drawn from the Australian context and experience (particularly in the state of New South Wales), they are also relevant in other countries.

  • Many teachers do not have sound knowledge of language constructs and the most effective ways to teach reading, and generally overestimate what they know.8 A recent study of prep teachers (first year of formal schooling), found that only 53% could correctly define a morpheme and only 38% could correctly define phonemic awareness.9 The latter is a powerful predictor of reading ability and a critical element of initial reading instruction.10
  • Initial Teacher Education courses do not consistently provide graduate teachers with evidence-based reading instruction strategies and this is often compounded by low-quality professional learning.11
  • Contradictions within one department lead to teachers being given strongly conflicting messages.
  • For example, the NSW government reading programme ‘L3’ is inconsistent with a document on effective, evidence-based reading instruction produced by the same government.12
  • Important policy decisions are frequently made by education ministers and department executives who don’t have a good understanding of the evidence and research. They are often guided by people whose knowledge and experience is in literacy more broadly, or even just primary education generally; while early reading instruction and intervention is a highly specialised field of research and expertise. An example of this was the NSW Ministerial Advisory Group on Literacy and Numeracy (MAGLAN), which produced a report that misrepresented important educational strategies such as response to intervention.13
  • Very few literacy teaching programmes and interventions are subjected to rigorous trials or evaluations.14
  • Endorsement of expensive and unproven interventions that invoke neuroscience or involve computers, or both. There are numerous programmes that claim to help children learn to read by doing anything but actually teaching them to read.15

Despite the clear evidence supporting systematic phonics instruction, there is still debate about the role of phonics in learning to read and how to teach it effectively.

  • The influence of people in both the public and private sectors who continue to promote theories of reading that do not reflect current research on effective reading instruction.16
  • Rejection of research-informed policy proposals without careful consideration of the evidence, instead relying on conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks.17
  • The perception of some programmes and policies as being ‘too big to fail’. It can take years, and sometimes even decades, to replace them even after research has shown them to be ineffective (for example: reading recovery).18
  • Significant investment in resources, buildings and furniture that are connected to outmoded and ineffective ways of teaching. For example:
  • Schools have spent thousands of dollars building up libraries of levelled readers and other resources designed for reading methods based around whole language and ‘three-cueing’ approaches. This makes it difficult for those schools to make dramatic changes to reading instruction.
  • School furniture and buildings are frequently designed in ways that do not accommodate explicit instruction pedagogies. The open classroom is one example of this: research has shown that noise levels in open classrooms are a problem for students.19 Yet many new government and Catholic schools are being built with open classrooms that exacerbate these problems.
  • Widespread misinformation about effective teaching methods, including the misrepresentation of synthetic phonics and the misuse of terms like ‘explicit teaching’.20

Despite all of this, there are reasons for optimism. The NSW government has recently allowed public schools to use funding that was earmarked for the reading recovery programme for other reading interventions; the Australian government is negotiating with the state and territory governments to introduce a Year 1 Phonics Check; and the newest version of the Australian Curriculum has a much greater emphasis on phonemic awareness and phonics. Acknowledgement of the importance of explicit instruction is growing and becoming more accepted, even if it is not always put perfectly into practice. Much has been achieved but there is still much to be done.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project at The Centre for Independent Studies ( Jennifer’s doctoral research was on effective instruction for struggling readers and she has written numerous reports and peer-reviewed articles on reading instruction and literacy policy. She is a board member of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, an Associate Investigator at the Centre for Cognition and Its Disorders at Macquarie University, a member of the Learning Difficulties Australia Council, and recently chaired an Australian Government expert advisory panel on the introduction of a Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.

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