Ministers fail comprehension test – cited evidence supporting synthetic phonics doesn’t actually do so.

Janet Downs's picture
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.

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Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 17:10

I'm trying to work out which part of this is actual evidence disproving the claim. Most seem to be you selectively quoting from things you have selected yourself as possible sources of evidence.

The evidence for systematic phonics is overwhelming and you know it. The evidence for synthetic phonics over other types of phonics is good enough to suggest we pay attention to it, if not conclusive.

Weasel words like "sole use" can always be used to suggest that, even though the evidence supports the effectiveness of phonics over all other methods, it would be more effective to do less of it, but this is such an unlikely claim that the burden of evidence should be on the people who make it.

As for the argument that teachers should be free to teach as ineffectively as they like, even someone like me who whose default position is giving teachers freedom has to draw the line somewhere, and ideologically motivated efforts to keep kids illiterate are certainly on the wrong side of that line.

By the way, last time we discussed this I asked some direct questions. In particular I wanted to know if you had linked to an article by yourself as one of your sources of evidence without telling us you were the author. Any chance you could answer that one?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 12:39

"teachers should be free to teach as ineffectively as they like"
Could you tell us a little about your teaching experience Andrew? As the resident 'expert teacher of the internet' it would be nice if you gave us some insight into your roots.

My son is on a comprehension based reading scheme at the minute. It's absolutely excellent. I'm loving hearing him read to me and it seems to make perfect sense. He did a bit of phonics in KS1. It was fine. But mainly his class seem to use other things.

How are your children getting on Andrew?

Geraldine Carter's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 17:46

Perhaps you would care to look at the results of Oxford - amongst the worst performing City and Counties in the country. They have been exemplary in following your advice and the students on the PGCE course at Oxford Brookes have been taught very specifically not to use the "sole" method.

Have you read the findings of the Australian enquiry into early reading or Diane McGuinness' book, Early Reading Instruction:What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading?

Those of us who tutor children who are struggling very quickly move them on to 'real reading' as SP instructed children very quickly understand the logic of the alphabetic code when it is taught systematically and in incremental steps.

A good percentage of those children referred to me came from book-filled families whose parents read to them nightly. It was the 'mixed methods' so beloved of the education establishment that resulted in their lack of reading progress.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 18:16

Geraldine - Oxford doesn't appear on the list of the 20 "worst-performing" areas of the country in data compiled from DfE data. Perhaps you could provide a link to your statement that Oxford is "amongst the worst performing City and Counties in the country."

And do the graduates of Oxford Brookes only teach in Oxford?

If you read my thread you will see that one of the pieces of evidence which was used by the Government to support synthetic phonics did actually say that this method "was an effective tool for improving the reading skills of pupils with special educational needs." However, both pieces of evidence did not focus exclusively on synthetic phonics but used the term "systematic phonics" which is the methodical teaching of any type of phonics instruction. And both pieces of evidence (sorry to labour the point) recommended a mixed approach.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 18:22

I read this recently:

"Experiments showed that all practised readers proceeded by 'look and say'. All that they knew of genetic psychology was opposed to analysis in the early stages. The results showed there was much more rapid progress in the early stages by look and say than by phonic methods. Miss Barbara Foxley MA, in another paper, concluded: 'If my observations are correct, it seems children do not learn to read by means of analytical methods, but in spite of them."

This appeared in "The Schoolmaster", September 14, 1912 (reproduced in "The Teacher", September/October edition, 2012).

I don't offer it up as evidence but merely to point out that controversy over the teaching of reading has been going on for at least a century.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 19:50


There is no need for you to indulge in all this speculation. The DfE is absolutely clear on the evidence that informs its policy on phonics. As well as the US NRP, there’s :

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’… The analysis concluded that using systematic synthetic phonics instruction enabled the children to read and spell better than those taught by alternative approaches (including analytic phonics). At the end of primary school, following the completion of the intervention programme, children in the synthetic phonics group had word reading 3 years and 6 months ahead of chronological age, and their spelling was 1 year and 9 months ahead.

Then there’s:

The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative .. led by Professor Tommy MacKay, an educational and child psychologist. West Dunbartonshire is the second most deprived area in Scotland and the 10-year research project saw the authority become the first to state it had eradicated illiteracy among school- leavers. In the Final Research Report (2007), MacKay explains: “Among the individual components of the intervention, the synthetic phonics study has highlighted the benefits of a strong and structured phonics emphasis. The study indicated the superiority of the synthetic over the analytic or traditional approach, and the clearest policy recommendation would be for schools to adopt this approach.”

Anyone still in phonics denial might also try

Ofsted’s 2010 report ‘Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It’. The report explains that “concentrated and systematic use of phonics is key to their success; this is based on high-quality and expert teaching that gives pupils the opportunity to apply what they have learnt through reading, writing and comprehension of what they are reading”.

You might also want to note:

In 2006, the Department for Education and Skills commissioned the Universities of York and Sheffield to conduct a review of the experimental research on using phonics to teach reading and spelling. Torgerson, Hall and Brooks found that systematic phonics teaching “enables children to make better progress in reading accuracy than unsystematic or no phonics…

If you like your evidence to have an antipodean flavour:

In Australia, the committee for the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy produced the report ‘Teaching Reading’ (2005). The committee concluded: “The evidence is clear, whether from research, good practice observed in schools, advice from submissions to the Inquiry, consultations [...] that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is aessential foundation for teaching children to read. ...systematic phonics instruction is critical if children are to be taught to read well

….and let’s not forget an old favourite:

In England, Jim Rose (2006) in his ‘Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, Final Report’ emphasised that beginner readers should be taught using a systematic approach to phonics and cautioned that evidence submitted to the review suggested that, for almost all children, diluting the approach by using a mix of approaches can hinder children’s progress: “A model of reading which encourages switching between various strategies, particularly when phonic work is regarded as only one such strategy, all of equal worth, risks paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition which must first be secured by beginner readers, [for example] if beginner readers are encouraged to infer from pictures the word they have to decode ...It may also lead to diluting the focused phonics teaching that is necessary for securing accurate word reading.”

....oh and, Janet, the world really, truly isn't flat.

Geraldine Carter's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 21:58

Nov 2010: Key Stage 1 results at schools in Oxford revealed as worst in country, with almost a quarter failing to reach expected levels in reading. Oxfordshire placed second from bottom in list of similar local authority areas.
Feb 2011: Oxfordshire County Council plans an inquiry into the results.
May 2011: Cabinet member for schools improvement, Michael Waine, stands down but denies poor results are reason. Melinda Tilley appointed to succeed him.
Oct 2011: New tests show Oxford city is still bottom for writing but has made slight improvements in maths and reading in Key Stage One results.
Nov 2011: Six-point improvement plan launched
Dec 2011: Key Stage 2 results which show nearly a third of Oxford 11-year-olds fail to get the expected grade branded “rubbish” by Mrs Tilley.
May 2012: New county council leader Ian Hudspeth told to make improving education standards a priority by Prime Minister and Witney MP David Cameron.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 07:21

"Whilst Oxfordshire’s Key Stage Two results for 2012 have outstripped the national rise in achievement by three percent, the county’s reading standards amongst primary age children are currently lower than expected, with 2011 Key Stage 1 results causing particular concern."

To address this concern Oxfordshire County Council has commissioned The National Literacy Trust to work with 81 local primary schools and improve standards of reading of Year 2 pupils (7 year olds). The National Literacy Trust hopes their intervention will foster "a culture of reading and a love of books children will have a better chance of future success" and will include the use of volunteers which will provide one-to-one support.

The National Literacy Trust links to a wide range of documents re literacy including "Literacy under the Conservatives".

"Failing to realise synthetic phonics place within a broad and varied programme of learning will reinforce many of the negative attitudes that school children have towards reading."

"A broad and varied programme of learning" - that is what I am supporting not the excessive focus on just one method.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 06:37

Please note that this post only referred to the TWO pieces of evidence cited in the Education White Paper (linked in post). The TWO piecies of evidence, known as the American research, have been cited by Nick Gibb. They also appear in the Ofsted training manual:

"The Schools White Paper 2010 referred to ‘the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics as the proven best way to teach early reading’ (p.22). The footnote accompanying that sentence referenced publications from the United States. The earlier Rose Review in 2006 was more circumspect. Although coming down on the side of synthetic phonics, it preferred to use the term ‘systematic phonics’ and continued with this throughout the review."

Perhaps if posters had read the post thoroughly they would have understood that I was only discussing these TWO pieces of evidence "referenced in the footnote". It would have saved them a lot of time finding other pieces of evidence.

Note that Rose used the term "systematic phonics". As I explain above this term refers to ALL methods of teaching phonics as long as these methods are approached systematically (hence the word "systematic").

Nil points for comprehension, then, to posters who equate "systematic" with "synthetic", to posters who failed to understand I was discussing only TWO pieces of evidence (the ones cited in the Education White Paper in the footnote) and to Ofsted trainers for fudging the difference between "systematic" and "synthetic".

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 02:50

Actually you referred directly to Elisabeth Truss's claim that "“Research shows clearly that phonics is the best way to teach young children to read.”

You then claimed, with no justification, to know exactly what evidence she was relying upon and reinterpreted what she said in light of your selective quoting of that evidence.

However, all this did was leave your entire argument very confused, and your demands that everyone else only pay attention to the texts you have suggested does not clear anything up, it just indicates that you are being deliberately selective with the evidence.

But then you'd have to be, as phonics denialism is not an alternative evaluation of the evidence; it is an ideological position based on ignoring the mass of evidence.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 12:40

What evidence was Liz relying on Andrew?

Guest's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 06:44

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 06:53

The post at the top of the thread refers to the TWO pieces of evidence cited by the Government in the Education White Paper. These TWO pieces of evidence do not include the Clackmannanshire study.

Update re Clackmmananshire here:

Guest's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 06:35

'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.' ?????

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 06:49

As highlighted above, this thread is a discussion of the TWO pieces of evidence highlighted by the Government in the Education White Paper. However, anyone wanting further info re the West Dunbartonshire study access it on the second link below or read my post on 22/8/12 2.59 pm on this thread:

The West Dunbartonshire study did indeed recommend synthetic phonics but as part of a "multiple-component literary intervention". In other words, it needed to be part of a complete literacy strategy and not as a stand-one method to the exclusion or the downgrading of anything else.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 09:56

No, sorry Janet..... with respect, you are not being straight here.

In your original post above you wrote:

Truss must be referring to American research cited in the Education White Paper
... and you imply she was referring to/relying upon the American evidence exclusively.

But what evidence do you have that Truss (or any other minister) has relied exclusively upon the two pieces of evidence you happen to select?

Since the DfE has gone to the trouble of publishing an 'evidence paper' summarizing all sorts of other studies (linked in my previous comment), isn't it more likely that ministers are basing policy on the totality of the evidence cited in the evidence paper, considered in the round?

Guest's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 06:38

'It can be concluded that the synthetic phonics programme led to children from lower socio-economic backgrounds performing at the same level as children from advantaged backgrounds for most of their time in primary school. It also led to boys performing better than or as well as girls.'

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 13:56

Point taken - I should not have presumed that Truss was referring to the evidence from the States. It would have been better if I had worded the sentence:

"Perhaps she was referring to the American research cited in the Education White Paper" because that is what I wanted to discuss - the citation of TWO pieces of evidence to support synthetic phonics as the best method of teaching children to read when the cited evidence did not do so.

Truss's predecessor, Nick Gibb, did refer to the "Amercian research" in a press release discussed here:

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 07:06

Comprehension alert: "systematic phonics" highlighted in much of the evidence cited by RT above is NOT exclusively "synthetic phonics". The two terms should not be confused especially by those who claim to be experts (ie the DfE, ministers, Ofsted...).

It does not follow that in criticising the Government's misuse of evidence which is supposed to support the exclusive use of synthetic phonics but does not that one is in "phonics denial". The methodical teaching of phonics is part of an overall literacy strategy which comprises different strategies. Teachers need to be free to choose the most appropriate method for their pupils at any given time and not be forced into a straight-jacked imposed from above.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 02:57

There is always a lot of confusion on this issue, because the argument is invariably between advocates of synthetic phonics and phonics denialists (i.e. people who wish to reduce the amount of systematic phonics either to nothing, or to one strand among several in early reading). The alternative position of non-synthetic, systematic phonics is often ignored because it has far fewer advocates (particularly as the most recent research seems to discredit it).

However, I'm really not sure what this issue has to do with anything here. Elizabeth Truss's claim just mentions "phonics". It looks like you are just trying to confuse matters.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 01/10/2012 - 09:07

Comprehension alert: “systematic phonics” highlighted in much of the evidence cited by RT above is NOT exclusively “synthetic phonics”. The two terms should not be confused ...

it should be noted that, in most instances, the term systematic phonics appears to refer to synthetic phonics because of the specific instruction methods it uses. (In the United Kingdom, the term systematic phonics is "generally understood as synthetic phonics" according to the reading review which was conducted in 2006.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 07:09

Hansard exchange in full (link was provided):

"Mr Laurence Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what his policy is on teaching children to (a) read through phonics and (b) decode phonics. [120251]

Elizabeth Truss: Research shows clearly that phonics is the best way to teach young children to read. This is why we are strongly encouraging schools to use phonics, and have made available up to £3,000 of match-funding to enable schools with Key Stage 1 pupils to buy high-quality systematic synthetic phonics resources and/or training. The Year 1 phonics screening check which we have introduced will help teachers to identify which children are able to decode accurately using phonics, and which children need further support."

Truss mentioned "phonics" and then made it clear that Government support would be for "systematic synthetic phonics".

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 12:40

"because the argument is invariably between advocates of synthetic phonics and phonics denialists"

Absolute bunkum. You just like to pretend it is so that you can create straw men you can set light to.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 01/10/2012 - 10:05

I thought we'd been discussing research from outside the UK?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 01/10/2012 - 10:14

Then you haven't been paying attention. Most of the work I cited is from the UK.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 01/10/2012 - 12:48

Essentially, Ricky, children seem to start learning to read through two strategies - decoding text (phonics) and whole world recognition. Other, more complex strategies seem to be added in later.

My son's class did what is most commonly called synthetic phonics in British classrooms at the minute - where children learn phonemes and associate text, sounds and pictures with them and they learn to read through texts associated with the scheme.

I watched the children in his class learning to read. I was surprised how many of them were going for whole word recognition even though they hadn't been taught it in school. I think their parents were teaching them it as they read with them or maybe they had a propensity to think that way for other reasons. They made quick progress at first and then got stuck and had to engage with phonic decoding. The way they'd been taught with actions, sounds and pictures meant that the component parts of this strategy had stayed with them even though they hadn't been paying as much attention to it as they would have been had it been their main strategy for reading, making the task of switching slightly easier.

My son is very logical and he worked with phonics and learned to decoded. He did not use whole word recognition. He didn't find reading interesting but he made gradual progress and then things got worse. He got completely stuck and started to hate it. His teacher diagnosed that he had not learned whole word recognition at all and this meant that he couldn't read the common short words, many of which are atypical for phonics.

So we got fridge magnets of the first hundred words and drilled him until he could read them as whole words. His reading took off and ever since then he seems to have decoded words when they've been new but quite quickly moved the words he has decoded into his 'whole word recognition reservoir'. After year 1 his school seems to use more traditional phonics - building word power and spelling by focusing on different letter groups at a time. By this time all children are switching between decoding and word recognition fluently. If they are not then individual interventions are used and this is appropriate because the children who are still struggling often have particular issues which respond well to individual diagnosis and support.

Synthetic phonics proposers rightly point out the difficulties dyslexic children have with decoding (they tend to be very good at whole word recognition and this can mask the fact that their decoding is poor for a long time). But synthetic phonics is no perfect fix for dyslexia - mainly because english is so irregular and because the link between phonemes and graphemes is so weak. People have been coming up with fixes for these issues so long as I can remember. Changing the english language to make it more phonetic is an obvious one. The use of transliterated phonetic schemes such as the phonetic alphabet or a synaesthetic system like the silent way have much going for them as they allow the reader to read any language but there's more time investment in teaching them. I suspect the ready availability of tools like google translate will revive interest in them and that they greater time investment may prove to be very powerful for children and adults with dyslexia. In many countries children are taught to read later so that they can use more sophisticated learning strategies and don't tend to pursue one strategy to exhaustion quite so much as four-year-olds do.

The issue of 'evidence' is far, far bigger than the citing of a few pieces of evidence. We have an overarching body of evidence gathered over many years, internationally, which has enabled an understanding of common features of teaching which are the most effective. The greater overview has also enabled an understanding of methods which are in danger of undermining learners' literacy potential - including damaging their long-term habitual reading and spelling reflexes.

It is essential to clarify what each debater means when they refer to various literacy 'strategies'. Rose and his team of inspectors raised this in the Final Report through comments made and by providing descriptions of children reading aloud in different scenarios - an example of which has already been provided by Ricky Tarr in an earlier posting:

“A model of reading which encourages switching between various strategies, particularly when phonic work is regarded as only one such strategy, all of equal worth, risks paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition which must first be secured by beginner readers, [for example] if beginner readers are encouraged to infer from pictures the word they have to decode …It may also lead to diluting the focused phonics teaching that is necessary for securing accurate word reading.”

Many readers do default to multi-cueing reading strategies which amount to guessing words through various cues. This is an instruction approach which has mistrained teachers and caused misery for some learners - but which has been inevitable, in a sense, when children are given books to read which they cannot realistically decode without the code knowledge required for the book. Whilst many children can indeed succeed in becoming literate through multi-cueing which amounts to a great deal of guessing or whole word recognition - many other children have been damaged by such an approach - both in terms of their struggles to read in this way as children and in terms of their subsequent ingrained life-long guessing habits. I suggest that the teaching profession may largely be unaware of the damage that is possible from such multi-cueing strategies as this approach still dominates our schools and various intervention programmes. Individual pupils hit a ceiling with this multi-cueing guessing approach and neither they, nor their teachers and parents, may have a clue about the causes or consequences of earlier experiences.

Regarding 'other literacy approaches', however, where this amounts to all manner of language and literature enrichment, these are all invaluable contributions to developing literacy in our children. There has never been an issue with this from synthetic phonics proponents - only from their detractors. Rose himself made it clear that the phonics provision was within a literacy-rich environment - of course all these things contribute. The Simple View of Reading diagram illustrates clearly that word decoding is only one aspect of being a 'reader' and, to my knowledge, synthetic phonics proponents have welcomed the clarity brought to bear that the phonics is only one aspect and not the be-all-and-end-all of reading instruction.

One thing that Rose and his team of inspectors also brought to bear was an honesty about what they saw with their own eyes when they visited schools using various approaches ranging from the 'synthetic phonics schools' which do not promote the multi-cueing guessing strategies to the schools which did teach with phonics but mixed this with multi-cueing. This should not be underestimated. I would suggest that we are poised in an historic moment whilst more and more schools are begining to uderstand and appreciate the improved effectiveness of not detracting and diluting from thorough teaching of the English alphabetic code and the skills of blending and segmenting - skills which are required to be proficient life-long readers and spellers (skills which adult, literate readers and spellers take for granted as they have ferreted out on their own the alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills).

Regarding the discussion about types of phonics, one reason for the promotion of synthetic phonics which is mainly at the level of the phoneme is because of its efficiency, flexibility and mathematical sense. It is not helpful for little children if teachers are inconsistent with the type of phonics they promote. Teaching phonics at the level of consonant clusters adds a further 76 units of sound over and above phoneme-level letter/s-sound correspondences - and teaching with onset and rime adds a huge number of additional units of sound. It is not sensible, either, for one teacher to teach a skill of all-through-the-word blending or segmenting at phoneme level and another teacher to teach through onset and rime snapping together necessitating a huge number of end units for single syllable words.

So, when the debate/discussion broadens out beyond the citing of individual studies into the overview picture of studies and the actual details of teaching and learning with the synthetic phonics approach, perhaps it enables sensible explanations, and enables a more common understanding of the efficacy of systematic synthetic phonics in place of getting bogged down in a minute part of the field alone.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 14:58

Debbie - thank you for your post. However, it does not undermine the point that the two pieces of evidence that the Government cited in the Education White Paper were not the unequivocal endorsement for synthetic phonics that the Government claimed.

The DfE report into the Year 1 Phonics Screening Test acknowledged that the results in one of the pieces of evidence cited in the White Paper, the NRP report, could have been artificially inflated because "some pupils who received phonics may also have received elements of whole-language approaches."

The DfE report said that "There is sound evidence that specific systematic phonics programmes are all more effective to teach pupils to read than non-systematic phonics programmes or teaching that doesn’t include phonics". It made it clear in the footnote that systematic phonics included "synthetic, analytic etc."

Later the DfE report cited evidence about the efficacy of synthetic phonics eg Clackmmananshire (updated here):

The DfE then cited the Gross report for the Centre for Policy Studies which produced this lively exchange in the TES:

And FullFact voiced concerns that the Gross report contained no references and the factcheckers were puzzled about where the report's data came from.

The recent report into reading by Eurydice which found that the teaching of phonics was already widespread but what was needed was more work on comprehension.

Finally, Rose pointed out that it was perfectly possible to be a competent decoder and not have a clue what the words mean. He used the example of Milton's daughters who could decode the Greek text and read to their blind father. However, they did not comprehend what it was they were reading.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 03:09

And now we are back to the usual situation where you are quoting *opinion* rather than evidence and hoping that if you keep doing it fast enough, and without answering direct questions, you can confuse matters enough for people to think there is some kind of controversy over the evidence, rather than simply between those who believe in empirical research and those who ignore it.

I know that people with pseudo-scientific beliefs do this a lot, but you must know that there are enough people looking at threads like this who know the actual evidence base and will point out that no amount of TES opinion pieces or Eurydice's casual dismissal of the evidence, can actually change the facts.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 07:17

Andrew - I am quite sure readers can differentiate between opinion and facts. Of course, the TES piece was opinion - I included it not as evidence but as an example of lively debate around the issue. I don't think I have to insult readers' intelligence by labelling everything with an emoticon differentiating between what is obviously opinion eg the piece in TES, and research/analysis eg the Eurydice report: Teaching Reading in Europe: Contexts, Policies and Practice. It's 224 pages long and was the result of research so I don't think it can really be described as "casual dismissal of the evidence".

I think that this thread shows that there is "some kind of controversy over the evidence", don't you?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 12:42

"no amount of TES opinion pieces... can actually change the facts."

Indeed. But they can conceal them for quite a long time.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 08:41

I think that this thread shows that there is “some kind of controversy over the evidence”, don’t you?

No, I think it demonstrates that there is no genuine controversy, merely what Andrew Old correctly identifies as a willful obstinacy based on ideology.

You may just be clutching at straws, but you seem to be making a meal of the distinction between "systematic phonics" and "systematic synthetic phonics" - such that you imply that if only the DfE would give a fair crack of the whip to analytic phonics, you might come round. Yet nowhere do you spell out what you find attractive (if anything) about analytic phonics, or why you believe (if you really do) that it is superior to synthetic phonics. And you also give the impression sometimes that the chief reason you object to synthetic phonics is because the system was championed by Nick Gibb. It was also championed by Labour's Ruth Kelly.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 18:07

Not really no.

I mean you can pretend that the Eurydice report is "evidence" on the basis of how many pages it has, but its only argument for rejecting the evidence on phonics consists of this assertion on page 36:

"Overall, it is important to remember that although phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, phonics instruction and fluency have become the most popular, widely used and researched approaches to teaching reading, they are not the only approaches. They address only some of the processes that need to be developed in conjunction with others in order for the pupil to become a reader. For example, Cowen (2003, p. 2) reviewed six major research studies into learning to read and found that reading for meaning and understanding should be taught separately from direct phonics
instruction and vice versa. He therefore calls for a 'balanced programme' for early reading instruction, which 'requires a very comprehensive, integrated approach, demanding that teachers know a great deal about literacy research related to emergent literacy, assessment-based instruction, phonological and phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, phonics and word study, selecting appropriate levelled readers, reader response, writing process and constructivist learning.'"

The one source given is not actually an academic study or peer-reviewed research, it is an obscure pamphlet by a US-based phonics denialist group. So, no, there is no evidence here for doubting the research on phonics, simply a further indicator of how willing phonics denialists are to misrepresent opinion as research.

Obviously there is "controversy" over phonics, but that is entirely different from saying there is a rational argument for the denialist position. There is controversy over phonics in the same way there is controversy over the theory of evolution, global warming, the historicity of the holocaust or the idea the earth goes round the sun. There is the evidence, and there are denialists trying to obscure and misrepresent it.

By the way, now you are talking to me again, any chance you can answer my question from the previous thread? The one about whether you were actually the author of an article you linked to?

Hi Janet,

I mentioned the Simple View of Reading to make the point that no-one, including SP proponents, are suggesting that all there is to reading is synthetic phonics. But synthetic phonics teaching does not work against language comprehension processes - it is not an either/or scenario. Children are more likely to be able to comprehend the content of age-appropriate books, however, when they can decode the words on the page - and decode them with greater ease - but of course they will only be able to understand the words that they have decoded at their level of oral comprehension and in their own language.

A child's level of comprehension is the level of the child's spoken language - and underpinning the child's language development, of course, will be plenty of experience of literature - enjoyed and shared with supportive adults wherever possible.

Suggestions that a focus on phonics teaching and learning undermines language development (comprehension), or enjoyment of books, are simply not founded. I am a SP teacher-trainer and although I am not privy to the content of other SP trainers events, I can assure you that it is made very explicit indeed how important spoken language and literature enrichment is as part of my training events - and I do know of other SP trainers who also strongly emphasise these aspects of provision.

Rose recently wrote a letter to the Guardian and described (Rosen's) anti-phonics protests as 'sterile argy-bargy'. He said:

"The interminable debate about the teaching of early reading grinds on mired in arguing about fake opposites that set phonics at odds with ‘the enjoyment of reading’. At a time when we know more about the teaching of reading and writing than ever before, it would be no bad thing to move on from the sterile argy- bargy about phonics and focus on how best to train and support teachers to teach reading and writing to greatest effect."

What I am suggesting is that more often than not, anti-synthetic phonics arguments of one description or another are ill-founded, begrudging, political, based on lack of understanding, misinformation or lack of experience of lack of actual teaching experience using a systematic synthetic phonics approach.

Worst of all, they seriously detract from some truly excellent improvements in the standards and methods of reading and spelling instruction and levels of children's learning in many schools. We could, arguably, be poised at a most inspirational point in educational history as we unpick the complex English alphabetic code and make it more teachable and learnable in enjoyable ways than ever before.

There are teachers in schools of all sorts of circumstances, some extremely challenging with children speaking many different languages from one another, who are so 'up for' improving their teaching effectiveness, so willing to do justice to every single child in their classes with a 'no excuses' approach, and yet this inspirational stuff is missing in the media.

It's been far too easy in the past to blame 'within child' reasons for weak literacy and illiteracy, but now the teaching profession is increasingly aware that the very complex English alphabetic code and the failure of the teaching profession to teach it at all, or well, has contributed hugely to poor literacy in English-speaking countries. The profession is also becoming more aware that 'method' or 'approach' does make a difference - for example, it's common place nowadays to note that the 'real books' era was a disaster for so many of our children in the past.

The teaching profession has been led to largely abandon the teaching of the English alphabetic code - and now, at last, they are being supported to understand it more thoroughly and to teach it effectively in the classrooms. Be pleased for that - and go and visit some of the improvements that are going on around the country.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 17:48

Debbie - it's interesting you should mention what Rose described as "fake opposits". That was the criticism of the Newsnight programmes on synthetic phonics which were analysed by Adam Lefstein (Ben Gurion University of the Negev). He criticized the way the programme promoted a “makeover” approach whereby a “savior” in the same mould as “Supernanny” was parachuted into schools to improve reading.

Newsnight latched on to a sole method, synthetic phonics, and ignored other aspects of the “Read, Write, Inc” programme (eg co-operative learning) which Ruth Miskin, the founder of “Read, Write, Inc” stressed were important.

An educational researcher, who expected evidence to be academically rigorous, appeared on Newsnight and was set against someone who relied on personal experience of what worked for her (in the same way that FullFact found that Gross had done for the Centre for Policy Studies report cited in the DfE report on the phonics screening test). Lefstein wrote that the researcher was effectively punished for being “attuned to the complexity” instead of being adamant about “what works”. The programme was looking for easy answers not nuance and did the subject a discredit by placing it within a context of "reading wars".

And so it is with the Government’s position – there is but one “proven” method of teaching reading but the picture is more complex.

And here’s Nick Gibb, ex-minister for schools, citing the faulty OECD PISA 2000 figures for the UK in a speech to the Reading Reform Foundation:

How can we trust someone who makes speeches containing data known to be flawed?

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 03:14

Do you think we've missed how far your comments here have gone from anything resembling evidence?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 18:11

And talking of reading wars, there seems to be quite a furore going on within synthetic phonics circles as this website shows:

Of course, the authors are publishers of phonics teaching material which could mean that they are not impartial. But they made an interesting point in their conclusion:

"The ‘reputability’ of research is determined by peer review, not by Departments of the government, and certainly not by lobby organisations. " Lefstein made this point in his analysis of the Newsnight programmes (see above) - Newsnight had already made up its mind about "what works" and sidelined the educational researcher who wanted evidence to be subjected to academic rigour.

A number of programme authors recognise a commonality in their approach of teaching the alphabetic code mainly at phoneme level in a systematic way - and after only a few letter/s-sound correspondences introduced, teach the all-through-the-printed-word blending skill, and all-through-the-spoken-word segmenting skill (then allot letters or letter groups for the identified sounds). There are variations on this theme - but not so different as to cause concern - for example, there are good systematic programmes which their authors describe as 'linguistic phonics' rather than synthetic phonics - but they more or less accomplish the same teaching.

Children can then practise their blending and segmenting (and handwriting) skills with a cumulative bank of words plus cumulative sentences, texts and reading books which include the correspondences which have been taught. This is in common in the programmes.

Further, a number of programme authors agree something in common which is NOT to teach the multi-cueing reading strategies when these amount to guessing from picture cues, first letter cues, and going on to read the whole sentence then guessing words which 'might fit'. These authors recognise that whilst some children have indeed learnt to read by these methods, they are not advisable as they can damage children's potential and detract from applying alphabetic code knowledge and blending - the skill required even by adult, literate readers when they need to decode unknown words in their reading material.

The programme authors recognise that for years children have been given reading books to take home in their bookbags which they could not read other than by guessing their way through the text. This has been traumatic for many, but not all, of the children - and traumatic for many, but not all, of their parents.

None of the authors, that I am aware of, suggest that little children should not be exposed to all manner of literature - they just say that children should not be required to read 'independently' reading books which they cannot actually read.

In other words, these authors, and other people, have studied the research and the literature in the field, they have a great deal of collective experience in education - and they are respectful of the idea that variations of materials and practices based on the criteria above can be very successful.

The Read America paper is indeed one person's conclusions and not impartial and, arguably, riddled with inaccuracies and personal ideas and statements. I have neither the time nor inclination to delve into the paper concerned - nor do I consider it relevant to my point which is the need to move forwards and acknowledge the very good advances being made in most of our schools.

Here is the truth of the matter: We have an illiteracy and weak literacy problem in English-speaking countries and yet the vast majority of the teaching profession (at least in the UK) has not been trained in the English alphabetic code nor in teaching blending and segmenting until very recent years. Even then, many student-teachers and new teachers have reported a very brief or generally inadequate training. Neither have most teachers been trained in marking for spelling - or teaching spelling specifically.

Many teachers routinely call upon the mantras that 'No one size fits all' and 'Children have individual learning styles' but they fail to appreciate that it is the same alphabetic code and blending and segmenting skills that we need to teach - and that whatever the learning style, most proficient, adult, literate readers and spellers apply their phonics knowledge and skill to reading and spelling - these are long term requirements and should be taught specifically.

So this really is a discussion which is detracting from the current advances arising in teacher-training, in continuing professional development - and in the teaching and learning of the basic literacy skills in our schools - very long overdue!

There are many people like me who have had to put a huge amount of effort and time into drawing attention to very flawed methods of teaching little children - and children with learning difficulties - and thank goodness we had Nick Gibb who was prepared to listen to us and to look into both the research and the classroom findings.

Nick Gibb helped to establish a parliamentary inquiry into the teaching of early reading and subsequently we have had the Rose independent review undertaken by Rose and a team of inspectors. There is so much more involved into looking into reading instruction than can possibly be outlined on a blog.

It would be like starting all over again to go into all the research - and to research the research - and to observe school after school and to conduct all the same old, same old arguments.

I urge you to visit some schools with an open mind and heart and see the advances for yourself.

Geraldine Carter's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 07:36

I'm afraid that you do not know the history of the owner of the USA site , and her antagonism to synthetic phonics. She bombarded UK sites, speaking in different voices - a 'headmistress' on some occasions to sneer at synthetic phonics programmes - on one occasion questioning whether there was a paedophilia connection between ie 'John' a teacher reported in the media for paedophilia and a '[John' who supported synthetic phonics. There are thousands of examples of her tragic deviation from normal standards of decency. .

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 13:18

Geraldine - the tone of the site was antagonistic, I agree. And the writer accused certain lobby goups of using just the same tactics that you describe. I deplore the use of such tactics, whoever is using them.

It's always difficult to ascertain whether posters are using multiple personalities in order to bombard websites with anecdotes or manufactured "evidence" which supports one particular point of view. I guess that was what was behind your suggestion that I wrote many of the article which I cited. That's why I provide links to primary sources where possible so people can read the evidence and find out the authors or organisation publishing the source. Any LSN threads started by me have my name on them.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 13:26

Geraldine - do you know which names she's been using?

Geraldine Carter's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 14:37

Rebecca - yes I have paperwork of some of the 2006 and 2007 entries.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 15:12

Anything you're prepared to publish I'd gratefully receive. Alternatively I'm easy to find on and through my blogs. The US Dept Ed are investing heavily in forums for teachers and I've been advising them on all sorts of things and I'm just generally interested. I write about mass online discussion as well as about education.

Geraldine Carter's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 19:03

Rebecca - I'll get back to you on Linkedin but in a week or so - but I don'[t think I will have time to go through the long and tortuous history - I'd like to move on!

Geraldine Carter's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 07:59

To bring the subject back to the importance of synthetic phonics those of us who have worked intensively with struggling children see daily the damage done to these children.

Instead of providing the intensive practice required to master the skill of decoding to automaticity, children are offered a range of strategies. While these practices undoubtedly help some children, others can be left floundering. who The latter are left confused by the number of strategies they must consider. What is more, the vital opportunity to practise their fragile skills is fragmented.

When teaching the piano, it's important to make sure that children learn to achieve automaticity. You do not denigrate music teachers for so doing, you do not tell them that music is a complex language full of subtlety, art, skill, complexity, and ask children to play Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky . Of course reading ia subtle, demanding, complec -it's fatuous to think that because foundational skills are required that most synthetic phonics teachers don't take great delight in moving children past the foundational stage.
It is, quite simply, one of the most wonderful things to witness: a 7 year old, guessing and floundering their way through reading a book and then being guided ,with synthetic phonics instruction, to read anything that's within their spoken vocabulary.

For too many years, we watched as more and more children were labelled as having within-child problems and few people fought for this c.100,000 children a year in order to give them clear, rational instruction.

I have asked many times for names of inner city schools and those with a deprived intake who successfully use mixed methods. As you so passionately believe in multi-cueing you must be able to produce the names of hundreds of such schools.

I, too, would also like to know whether one of the articles you refer to was written by you?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 08:58


I hope you will consider carefully the points raised here by Debbie and Geraldine and pay heed to Rose's warning on the 'dilution' of the efficacy of phonics by contextual clues.

You do seem to be hung up on an Aunt Sally. No one advocating systematic synthetic phonics argues that phonics are the only strategy to be used in teaching children to read. The point is in the timing and sequencing.

My local primary has a policy of using phonics FIRST, FAST and SOLELY for the initial sixteen weeks of learning. Parents are given classes before the programme begins to ensure that nothing they do dilutes the effect. After 16 weeks, other methods are introduced. The results are astonishing.

Earlier in this thread you made passing mention of the professional freedom teachers should enjoy to select and mix different approaches. An analogy can perhaps be made with the professional freedom a doctor has to prescribe drugs.

Notwithstanding a doctor's professional independence, I'd imagine you would be pretty cross with your doctor if he -

a. refused to prescribe a proven remedy because of his ideological distaste for the drug company that manufactured it


b. prescribed two drugs in combination, one of which nullified or reduced the efficacy of the other.

Yet you seem to be advocating something very similar in teaching reading.

Others here have alluded to the dangerous consequences of following your line. Please re-consider.

Geraldine Carter's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 08:54

The observations below are from the American mother of a profoundly cognitively and physically impaired child – mitochrondrial disease, epilepsy,poor hearing,sight, severe stammering. A large number of mixed methods programmes had resulted in this nine year old unable to read a single word. You, Janet, presumably would have advised the continuation of the mixed methods (with a bit of phonics thrown in)?

( Synthetic Phonics) here replaces the name of the specific synthetic phonics’ programme used.

“She just turned 14 and started public school for the first time. She is in 7th
grade in a classroom for cognitively impaired kids.
They just did the Woodcock Johnson test with her. Her overall IQ score came out
as 35 (with 100 being average)---so severely impaired. This is an age
equivalency of 5 years, 5 month---or like most kids starting K. Her cognitive
efficiency as 4 years, 11 months--so still a preschool level. Her working
memory was less than 4 years old---so very severely impaired.

Now, for the GOOD part. She scored 9 years, 6 months or 4th grade for sound
blending, 8 years or end of of second grade for word identification, 7 years, 3
months for reading fluency (2nd grade), 7 years, 8 months for spelling (end of
2nd grade), and end of 1st/early 2nd grade for passage comprehension, applied
problems and writing samples.

Her phonemic awareness was 66 while her working memory was 15 (over 3 standard
deviations from her average).

To me, this shows that (synthetic phonics)can and DOES work with kids with severe LDs and cognitive impairments. Her profile, with scores ranging from36-87 (with 85-115 being normal for her age) this shows that she has a cognitive impairment as well
as some significant learning disabilities. Thanks to (Synthetic Phonnics) she can read and read quite well. Right now she LOVES to read and was reading a horse encyclopedia the other day.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 12:40

Can I remind posters that this thread is about the Government's use of TWO pieces of evidence (aka the American research) which it claimed to support synthetic phonics unequivocally when they did not. The Government implied that the American research supported synthetic phonics and uses this to justify both the emphasis on synthetic phonics (thereby sidelining other methods) and its matched funding which has not been widely taken up for reasons discussed in the link below and which teachers might have wanted to buy other literacy materials or library books.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 13:06

Few, if any, posters have commented on these TWO pieces of evidence. Instead, unreferenced comments and reports from places as wide apart as Scotland and Australia have been thrown into the pot in an attempt to discredit, or draw attention from, my concerns about the misuse of evidence.

The thread has been illuminating. Tactics used include:

(a) implying an ulterior motive (eg I object to it because it was advocated by Nick Gibb). Nick Gibb may "have been prepared to listen" to synthetic phonics advocates but he ignored the prohibition on the use of the OECD 2000 PISA results by the organisation that first published them and found them to be flawed afterwards. Gibb was not alone, Gove regularly cites them, they even appear as a foreward to the Education White Paper.

(b) complaining that I include both opinion and facts supported by evidence in my posts. That's what argument is - stating an opinion and backing it up with evidence, preferably with links to the primary source (sadly lacking in many of the posts).

(c) setting up binary opposition ie "You're either with us or against us". There's no room for nuance here. Anyone who expresses concern about the excessive emphasis on synthetic phonics is branded a heretic, a "phonics denialist" and must be silenced.

and, (sorry, but this one had me crying with laughter),

(d) implying I'd written many of the cited articles myself. No, I wasn't responsible for the Eurydice report (European Commission), the two pieces of American research, the report on the phonics screen test (DfE), Ofsted training (Ofsted), or the TES editorial. I was responsible for the linked LSN threads (that's obvious, they've got my name on them). As for the TES opinion piece in the "What keeps me awake at night" - that was written by anon (and included a link to the Eurydice report which was not written by me).

I'll leave you to speculate on the identity of anon.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 13:12


Janet I think you're making the mistake of suggesting that Liz Truss reliably bothers with evidence.

Hence your post is deeply flawed.



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