The teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is “the proven best way to teach early reading”. This was enshrined in the Education White Paper
and is constantly repeated by ministers.
“Research shows clearly that phonics is the best way to teach young children to read,” said new education minister, Elizabeth Truss, in a written answer
to a Conservative MP who must have been asleep during the speeches of her predecessor, Nick Gibb. Or perhaps he was just lobbing Truss an easy question. She reminded the House that the Government supported phonics teaching by granting matched-funding for the purchase of material that used synthetic phonics (as opposed to other methods of teaching phonics).
Truss must be referring to American research cited in the Education White Paper. The first was “Teaching Children to Read
: the fragile link between science and federal education policy.”
The cited evidence seems to support Truss, at least at the beginning: “the NRP [National Reading Panel] found that systematic phonics instruction was more effective than alternatives in teaching children to read.” But the writers of the Education White Paper (and ministers, past and present) should have read on. The authors explain that they found problems with the methodology of the NRP research. Nevertheless, they found that the effect of systematic phonics was indeed substantial but this effect was tripled when combined with language activities and individual tutoring. They cautioned against the over emphasis on phonics which was “one aspect of the complex reading process.”
So the first piece of evidence cited in the Education White Paper to support synthetic phonics as the “best way to teach reading” doesn’t actually do so to the extent claimed by the Government. Instead, the evidence says systematic phonics should be combined with other activities. The term “systematic phonics” means the methodical teaching of phonics using any phonics technique and is not confined to synthetic phonics (see NRP
for further details).
What, then, does the second piece of evidence cited in the Education White Paper actually say? This piece of evidence is from the National Reading Panel
(NRP) in the USA. It actually recommends a four-pronged approach: explicit instruction about phonemic awareness (understanding that spoken words consist of smaller parts called phonemes), systematic phonics (in its widest sense), improving fluency and increasing comprehension. The recommended phonics teaching methods were not confined to synthetic phonics although NRP
found synthetic phonics was an effective tool for improving the reading skills of pupils with special educational needs.
CONCLUSION: The two pieces of evidence which are claimed to underpin the Government’s confident assertion that synthetic phonics is the “proven best way to teach early reading” do not do so. Both pieces of evidence say that “systematic” teaching of phonics – that is, any method of teaching phonics as long as it is approached methodically – is effective but should be combined with other methods. It is essential, therefore, that teachers are allowed to use their professional judgement to decide which method of teaching reading is appropriate for any given pupils or situations. It should not be dictated by ministers who rely on half-digested research papers which do not say what the Government claims. And neither should Ofsted be judging schools on their use of synthetic phonics when the evidence does not support its sole use in the teaching of reading.