Nick Gibb returns as schools minister – time to refresh memories about the evidence he uses to support synthetic phonics

Janet Downs's picture

Nick Gibb’s return to the Department for Education (DfE) has been warmly welcomed by John Bald, writing on Conservative Home. However, when I commented that Nick Gibb’s evidence about synthetic phonics didn’t entirely endorse the method as the best way of teaching children to read, John remarked that I was talking “absolute bunkum”.

So perhaps it’s time to revisit the evidence promoted by Gibb and the DfE which allegedly supports synthetic phonics as the best and only way of teaching reading.

National Reading Panel (NRP USA 2000) found systematic phonics instruction was more effective than alternatives in teaching children to read. NRP recommended a four-pronged approach: explicit instruction about phonemic awareness (understanding that spoken words consist of smaller parts called phonemes), systematic phonics (any method), improving fluency and increasing comprehension. NRP found synthetic phonics was an effective tool for improving the reading skills of pupils with special educational needs.

A meta-analysis (Ehri et al 2001) looked at different ways of teaching phonics. Findings suggested “no one program or delivery system is better than others for teaching phonics systematically and that multiple ways can provide effective phonics instruction.” Authors found systematic phonics instruction to be more effective than alternatives and recommended it be part of literacy programmes. But systematic phonics instruction meant any phonics instruction not just synthetic.

Teaching Children to Read: The authors explained they found problems with the methodology of the NRP research. Nevertheless, they found the effect of systematic phonics was indeed substantial and 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.” Again, systematic phonics covered all methods of teaching phonics.

A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling, by Torgerson et al, recommended systematic phonics teaching as a “routine part of literacy teaching, in a judicious balance with other elements.” As before, the systematic methods were not confined to synthetic phonics - the authors actually found no significant differences between analytic and synthetic phonics.

The authors found a design fault in the Clackmannanshire study (cited by Nick Gibb) and claimed this meant “ part of the synthetic phonics group’s greater progress was probably illusory” (pp 20-21).

Torgerson et al considered the advice given by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) that synthetic phonics should be taught “first, fast and only”. Nick Gibb spoke at the 2011 RRF Conference where he endorsed synthetic phonics. This is what Torgerson and co-authors found:

1    the “first”, the authors found no research evidence to support this;
2   “fast” the authors found no experiments had taken place.
3  “only”, the authors found there was not enough randomized controlled trial evidence to support or contradict this suggestion (pp 55-56).

The authors conceded that RRF had practical examples but concluded these only show what “can be done, not whether it should.”

All of these reports have been used by the Government at some time to support the teaching of synthetic phonics “first and fast”. But while all recommended the systematic teaching of phonics none endorsed synthetic phonics as the best method.

Ironically, a DfE report which carried a foreword by Nick Gibb,said further analyses suggested the greater effect attributed to systematic phonics instruction found in earlier reviews may have been due in part to “the fact that some pupils who received phonics may also have received elements of whole-language approaches. This may have resulted in an artificially high estimate of the effect of phonics.”

The same DfE report said “phonics should be accompanied by innovative teaching practices that engage pupils in exciting lessons… or co-operative learning methods where pupils work in groups.”

“Co-operative learning” and group work are likely to be methods Gibb dismisses as “progressive”. These methods, he claims, have “failed”. He asks people to join him in the “battle” against them. But his description of “progressive” education is a misleading parody – soundbites which pander to stereotypes of what “progressive” teaching methods are.


But as I’ve argued before, pitching “progressive” against “traditional” is a false dichotomy. Both are needed.


But I don’t expect Nick Gibb will agree with me.

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Rosie Fergusson's picture
Fri, 18/07/2014 - 21:23

As Gibb is an accountant I had just assumed when he endorsed "synthetic phonics" he was thinking of it as a generic term for any phonics system...
You missed out The Rose Report ( 2004 I think).commissioned by the Labour Government who wanted to see the widespread use of phonics to produce sustainable reading skills, beyond the rote learning of the whole-word method ,but didn't have the balls to make it mandatory via statutory testing ..I remember this one because in typical macho style it bears the research collaters name but was strongly devised by well established female phonics gurus Ruth Miskimmin and Debbie H??

Phonics rocks ...after two years of well embedded phonics my school's Year 2 Pupil premium pupils now have an APS of 15 in reading compared to previous years of between 10 and 11.5.

Geraldine Carter's picture
Fri, 18/07/2014 - 22:08

Would Janet Downs like to list the London schools in areas of high deprivation 1970s-1990s (when phonics was aggressively discouraged) which succeeded in enabling virtually all children to acquire literacy skills? This is what synthetic phonics trained teachers do in high deprivation parts of London to-day. Perhaps it is of little consequence to her that so many children were left barely literate after 6 years at primary school?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/07/2014 - 07:14

Rosie - I omitted the Rose Report because it endorsed synthetic phonics without reservation. The evidence listed above has been used by the Government to endorse synthetic phonics as the best method when all of them, as I've made clear, endorsed ANY method of teaching phonics as long as it was systematic (ie not ad hoc).

And some of the cited evidence contained qualms. Even the DfE report with a foreword by Nick Gibb said the effect of phonics found in earlier reviews may have been inflated because pupils had received "elements of whole language approaches".

Gibb's support for synthetic phonics culminated in the matched-funding scheme which granted up to £3000 to schools which spent up to £3000 on synthetic phonics materials from a Government approved list. This has proved very profitable for many of the companies concerned as I said here:

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/07/2014 - 07:24

Geraldine - It does not follow that in pointing out that the evidence cited by Gibb supposedly in favour of synthetic phonics did not wholly do so that I feel it is "of little consequence...that so many children were left barely literate after 6 years at primary school". That's a straw man argument.

To repeat, the evidence cited by Gibb and the DfE in favour of synthetic phonics actually endorses the systematic teaching of ANY method of phonics teaching. If Gibb and others confuse the descriptions "systematic" and "synthetic" then they have no business mandating just one method, "synthetic". Phonics teachers may, for example, prefer analytic phonics or to combine phonics with other methods.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Sat, 19/07/2014 - 11:49

Can Geraldine Carter name a school where "phonics was aggressively discouraged"? There seems to be a myth that teachers in the past did not teach children the sounds of the letters and help them to build up words from those sounds. I really do not believe that any teacher has ever tried to teach anyone to read English without using phonics as part of the process, so I would be most interested to see any evidence that this used to happen.

Is there somewhere a document on the teaching of reading dating from 1970-1990 which advices teaches never to use phonics? I did a PGCE at a Teachers' Training College in 1974-5 which included the teaching of reading - and we were certainly taught strategies on how to use phonics.

The Bullock Report "A Language For Life" was published in 1975. This was a major review in the teaching of reading and, discussing misinformation based on poor knowledge what goes on in schools, says:

"We received many letters whose writers seemed convinced that the majority of infant teachers had abandoned the teaching of phonics; they argued that a return to the practice would raise standards dramatically. But the results of our survey showed that their supposition was far from correct. The teachers of six year olds in our sample were asked which approaches they were currently using. The results were as follows:

1. Look and Say (word recognition)97%
2. Phonic 1 (letter sounds, digraphs, diphthongs)97%
3. Phonic 2 (based on syllables)70%
4. Sentence Method51%

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 19/07/2014 - 14:40

It was a hope of mine that once the curtain came down on the 'Noddy Gove' Show, the tendency to see more accurate, balanced and reasoned views on LSN would increase. We are however off to a slow start.

Patrick is right-on with his re-phrasing of Geraldine's question to Janet. I taught junior children (in South Wales) and became head of two primaries ( Outer London) during the period in question and can confirm that the application of phonics in the teaching of reading was alive and thriving throughout.

I now have a grandson in the lower half of Key Stage 2 who thankfully missed out on the phonics screening test. As a fluent reader, he would have struggled with the non-words because he would have been seeking meaning and probably questioned his failure understand the material. It is my belief that serving teachers encounter this with some of their pupils which raises the question of whether blanket testing has a place in the current system. Why not apply the assessment to those developing readers judged to need it in order to identify vital elements of a programme of future instruction?

The 'success' of the previous SoS for Education in ensuring synthetic phonics secured a handsome financial return for his favoured advisors is well documented. Whether the present emphasis on one phonics approach is the best way of helping those young readers who need it, it is too soon to say. Your point about the difference between "systematic" and "synthetic" is very much on the button I suspect, Janet.

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