''Phonics is best understood as a body of knowledge and
skills about how the alphabetic system works, and how to apply
it in reading and spelling, rather than one of a range of
optional ‘methods’ or ‘strategies’ for teaching children how to
''The findings of this review argue strongly for the
inclusion of a vigorous programme of phonic work to be securely
embedded within a broad and rich language curriculum”
(Rose review 2006)
''Phonics is the basic mechanism of all reading. There
are no reliable alternatives''
Recommended links for student teachers
and NQTs -see X
The English Alphabet Code:
The twenty-six letters of the English alphabet are used, both
singly and in combination, as a code to represent the individual
sounds in our speech. The English alphabet code is very complex compared to other spelling codes. It became
one of the most opaque in the world due to the mixing of words using Norman-French, Danish, Latin and Greek
spellings over time, into the original, transparent
Anglo-Saxon spelling system.
''For example, ch is used to spell /ch/
in Anglo-Saxon words such as chair; is used to spell /k/ in
Greek derived words such as chorus; and spells /sh/ in French-derived
words such as charade and Charlotte'' (Louisa Moats)
An alphabet code is the reversible relationship between the phonemes (the smallest discernible sounds in spoken words) and the graphemes (spellings). The English alphabet code consists of the
approximately *44 phonemes
(number depends on accent) that we use when we are speaking English and the ways these sounds
are represented in our writing using spellings consisting of
one to four letters consecutively or two vowel letters 'split' around a consonant spelling
(for example: him, photo, catch, dough, late)
*The number of
phonemes varies between languages. For example: Hawaiian has 18,
Italian has 25 and the South African !Xu language has 141
All of the 40+ English sounds correspond with multiple
spellings (for example: common /ee/ spellings include tree, leaf,
she, sunny) and some spellings represent more than one sound, called 'code overlap' in linguistic phonics programmes (for example: plastic, paper,
water / touch, sound, soup).
''The 40+ English phonemes are the basis for the code and never change. These 40+ sounds provide a
pivot point around which the code can reverse...The 40+ sounds will always play fair even if our spelling system does not.''
An Introduction to the English Alphabet Code.
English Spelling explained: for kids, but a clear and concise guide for puzzled adults too.
Why high quality synthetic / linguistic phonics programmes are rooted in the 40+
The English Alphabet Code (phonemes within slash
marks): a limited overview which includes examples of
words with unusual spellings to show how they can be coded.
Note that there are no 'silent' letters (scroll down for
explanation). There is variation in coding between programmes
-for example: build
or build, save or save...
|/a/ mat, salmon, plait
||/g/ gate, egg, ghost, guest,
|/ai/ ape, baby, rain,
||/h/ hat, whole
square, bear, prayer
||/j/ jet, giant,
|/ar/ jar, fast, aunt,
||/l / schwa+l / lip, bell, sample,
|/e/ peg, bread,
said, friend, any,
||/m/ man, hammer, comb, some
|/ee/ sweet, me, beach,
||/n/ nut, dinner, knee, gnat, gone
||/ng/ ring, sink, tongue
|/igh/ kite, wild, light,
fly, height, island
||/p/ pan, happy
|/o/ log, want, cough, because
||/k-w/ queen, acquaint
|/oa/ bone, soul,
boat, no, snow, dough
||/r/ rat, cherry, write, rhyme
|/oi/ coin, toy
||/s/ sun, science, city, castle, psyche
|/oo/ book, should, put, wolf
||/sh/ ship, mission,
station, chef, sugar
do, shoe, through
||/t/ tap, letter, debt,
|/or/ fork, ball,
sauce, law, door, bought
|/u/ plug, tough,
||/v/ vet, have, of
|/ur/ turn, her, work,
first, ogre, earth
||/w/ (/oo/) wet, wheel, penguin
|/ue/ (/ee-oo/) unit,
||/k-s / g-z/ box, axe, exist
|/b/ bat, rabbit, build,
||/y/ (/ee/) yes,
|/k/ cat, key, quick,
||/z/ zip, fizz,
is, cheese, xylophone
watch, question, tube
||/zh/ treasure, television, beige,
|/d/ dog, ladder, rubbed,
||/uh/ (*schwa) the, about, picture, doctor
|/f/ fish, coffee, photo,
||Colours indicate examples of
code overlap: one spelling->different sounds.
*The dreaded schwa
The spellings in the chart above are placed according to a Received Pronunciation accent, but
synthetic / linguistic phonics programmes recommend teaching to the accent of the children. For example, in a Lancashire accent the <au> spelling in aunt and laugh will move from /ar/ to /a/. ''(I)f someone in Lancashire says /s/ /t/ /er/ /z/ instead of /s/ /t/ air/ /z/, we put the spelling in the /er/ categories'' (John
Walker) The phoneme /x/, which represents the final sound
in words such as 'loch' and 'lough' found in Scottish
and Irish accents, can be added to a code chart.
''Phonics instruction isn’t elocution and it adapts to every
accent if taught well. The number of sounds in English varies
according to accent but relies on teacher knowledge to adapt
instruction.'' (Y1 teacher &SENCo)
X English Alphabet Code chart - for student teachers, but suitable for anyone wanting a visual resource to learn about the Code and an outline of synthetic phonics teaching (see chart's side bar).
The word 'alphabet' comes from the names of the first two
letters in the Greek alphabet, alpha beta. The Greeks created
the first 'sound' alphabet when they added vowel sounds to
the Phoenicians' consonants-only alphabet. For the next 2,500
years reading was taught by first teaching the alphabet and
then the syllables: ba be bi bo bu, da
de di do du, fa fe fi fo fu(m!) ...etc. It wasn't until the
8th century that conventions in writing that we take for granted,
such as spaces between words and the use of lowercase letters,
appeared, set in place by the English scholar Alcuin.
the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal discovered
that it was possible to split syllables into smaller sound units
- phonemes, and in doing so created synthetic phonics (Rodgers p32) The
use of the word 'synthetic' to describe a reading programme is not new; Pollard's Manual of Synthetic Reading and
Spelling was published in 1889. Nellie Dale, a teacher at
Wimbledon High School for Girls, created a programme in 1898
that taught a basic/simple code and had linked decodable books, similar to today's synthetic
and linguistic phonics
Nellie Dale’s Book ‘On the Teaching of English Reading’
In the Days When Reading Instruction Was Not a Problem: Nellie Dale and the Dale Readers
Rebecca Pollard's Manual of Synthetic Reading and Spelling
N.B. Pollard's method used diacritic markings, unlike
UK-style synthetic phonics.
High Quality Phonics Work:
Rose Review 2006
The Rose review recommended that the NLS 'Searchlight'
multi-cue word-guessing strategies should be
dropped and replaced by the 'simple view of reading', and that
all children should be taught to read using ''a vigorous
programme'' of ''high quality
phonics work'' taught directly and discretely.
(Rose review 2006). Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary at the time, agreed and said, ''I accept all your recommendations and will ensure that they are implemented''.
High quality phonics programmes teach all or
most of the common
(high frequency in print) spellings of the English
alphabet code systematically and explicitly. As Sir Jim Rose put it in his review, ''It cannot be left to chance, or for children to ferret out, on their own, how the alphabetic code works''
(italics added. Rose review 2006.p19)
“Explicit instruction is instruction that does not
leave anything to chance and does not make assumptions about
skills and knowledge that children will acquire on their own”
(Joseph Torgesen 2004)
An artificially transparent basic / simple alphabetic code, which is
generally the most common spelling for each sound, is taught
first. This device of initially and temporarily, only teaching the
first level of complexity of the English alphabet code (with
an unmodified orthography, unlike the 1960's initial teaching alphabet: i.t.a),
helps to level the playing field between those who are
learning to read and spell in English and the majority of
their counterparts on the European continent.
i.t.a: a great idea but a dismal failure.
Spelling and decoding are taught
in tandem in all high quality phonics programmes, with an ''equal split between the two
(Johnston&Watson 2014) from the outset of instruction, to make clear
the reversibility of the code and to ensure that pupils'
encoding and decoding abilities remain as closely as possible in
synchrony, avoiding the commonly occuring development of a
serious spelling lag.
Once children are secure and confident reading and
spelling words using a programme's simple / basic code GPCs,
the common spellings of the
complex / advanced alphabet code are carefully introduced.
- No 'common exception' or high frequency words are memorised by
- No phonological awareness training (sounds only, no letter symbols) is
given, either as a pre-requisite or alongside the phonics
No spelling or syllable-type
division rules are taught.
Lessons are cumulative, with
each lesson building on the code taught in previous lessons.
At each step, children are provided with plenty of phonically decodable reading material to practise segmenting and blending: first single words, then captions and short sentences, moving rapidly on to decodable
books and texts. Phonically decodable
materials only contain words that can be sounded out based on what the
student has already been taught, so no guessing or whole word memorising is necessary.
Phonics experts recommend at least half-an-hour of
daily, discrete phonics teaching:
''Direct, focused phonics'' teaching should take place ''every
day in Reception and key stage 1''
(Ofsted 2019). Children
should then apply (practise) that knowledge in all their
reading and writing throughout the day.
Incidental phonics is used to decode words that crop up
in the course of the school day.
X A Journey to the Dark Side: From Phonics Phobic to Phonics
2021. High Quality Phonics Update:
X The DfE's new *Essential Core
Criteria* that all phonics programmes to be used in England's
schools should meet:
Synthetic Phonics (SSP) Programmes:
The first GPCs taught are those (commonly, s, a, t, i, p
and n (Hickey)) that make up plenty of two and three letter words for
early reading and spelling practice. Each new GPC is introduced
individual grapheme on a flash card.
Multi-sensory mnemonics are used initially, to help young
children remember the individual letter-sound correspondences of the code (for example: Jolly Phonics teaches a simple hand
action and a catchy jingle for each of the basic code GPCs). Note that, ''(T)he sounds we model for the children are stylised versions of phonemes and not the phonemes as they actually occur in normally-spoken words'' (Chew.RRF message board 12/11/09)
Common exception words (DfE NC)
(high frequency words containing a 'not yet taught'
GPC) are drip-fed into lessons systematically and taught using phonics
all-through-the-word, not memorised as whole shapes.
Letter names are
introduced early on, usually through singing an
''People say that there are no silver bullets in education, but
I think systematic synthetic phonics comes pretty close. A
method of teaching reading that has scientific backing and is
proven to be effective for all children – especially those who
are disadvantaged because of socio-economic factors, have
English as a second language, or struggle with dyslexic-type
difficulties – is one worth fighting for.''
The Clackmannanshire study: A Seven Year Study of the Effects of
Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment
Exemplar UK-style synthetic phonics programmes include Phonics International
and Read Write Inc..
Linguistic Phonics Programmes:
programmes are closely related to UK-style synthetic phonics
programmes as they also teach the common GPCs of the alphabet
code systematically and explicitly, going from simple to
complex in discrete lessons. They also shun all whole language
elements (whole word memorising, multi-clue word-guessing,
predictable text reading schemes..) and work with phonemes and
graphemes from the beginning, not larger sound units such as onsets and rimes. There are some
differences though: letter names aren't introduced until the
links from phoneme to grapheme for all the simple/basic code
spellings have become completely automatic. They don't
use any mnemonics or special terms such as silent letter,
short / long vowel, soft / hard sound, magic or bossy
letter <e>. The GPCs are always
introduced and taught in the context of real words.
Linguistic phonics programmes are
informed by the research and prototype of cognitive-developmental psychologist Professor Diane McGuinness. She analysed the probability structure of the English spelling code: ''A probability structure is the calculation of the number of spellings used the most to those
used the least. This calculation must be based on frequency in print (how often these spellings appear in print)''
Her analysis revealed that, ''Of the 350-400 spellings
only 176 are common, and these spellings account for around 90% of the words in print'' (D.McGuinness.Allographs1 p2)
. These are the spellings that need to be taught directly
and systematically (in the context of real words) in every high
quality phonics programme. They provide a firm
foundation, driving the implicit learning
necessary for acquiring the rest of the code.
''Instruction is the visible tip of the learning iceberg;
implicit statistical learning is the mass below.''
(Prof. Mark Seidenberg)
''(E)xplicit teaching feeds the
process of implicit learning''
Directly and systematically teaching the 176 common English
spellings over the course of the
first three years of primary for reading and spelling, along with how to read and spell
multi-syllabic words, ensures that virtually every child
is enabled to accurately decode around 90% of the words in print they might meet over a lifetime, including the much less common
(Tier 3 vocabulary), usually multi-syllable words found in secondary school
texts. ''(T)hough the words that are used most often are
only one syllable long''
(McGuinness. p291 WCCR), at least 80% of words in the
English language are multi-syllabic.
Diane McGuinness also set out the 4 characteristics of the English alphabet code,
making its complex structure transparent. These levels of increasing complexity determine the most effective teaching progression through a phonics programme. (D.McGuinness.2011 RRF conference)
1. A phoneme can be spelled using one letter: p-e-t / d-o-g / s-w-i-m / s-p-l-a-t
2. A phoneme can be spelled using 2 to 4 letters: h-i-ll / sh-i-p / l-ear-n / d-augh-t-er
3. A phoneme can be spelled in multiple ways: d-ay / t-r-ai-n / l-a-k-e / b-r-ea-k / s-t-r-aigh-t
4. A spelling can represent more than one phoneme: g-r-ea-t / c-l-ea-n / b-r-ea-d (code overlap)
X A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code
by Professor Diane McGuinness.
One sheet to print: A Prototype
for Teaching the English Alphabet Code aka 'The Golden Ticket'
X Sound Reading System (linguistic phonics) Alphabet Code Chart.
''Having resisted for many years'', Prof. Dylan Wiliam says
he's ''now persuaded by Diane McGuinness's work on the
importance of linguistic phonics'' (Prof.
In linguistic phonics instruction the GPCs are always
introduced and taught in the context of real words, so flash cards showing isolated graphemes such as
<ch>, <ea> and <ou> are not used.
Why linguistic phonics teachers don't use flash cards with isolated graphemes.
At the advanced code stage, a number of alternative spellings
are introduced and taught together rather than
individually. For example: an advanced code lesson, focusing on
phoneme /f/, would include a variety of common words with the spellings
phone and laugh. Comparing
the alternative spellings in the context of real words
increases the brain's ability to analyse the code's
statistical spelling patterns and this aids memory -see Spelling
for further explanation of the contextual and
statistical nature of English spelling.
One sound, different spellings:
A hundred or so high frequency words with unusual or unique GPCs (common exception words DfE) are introduced systematically during the appropriate lesson/s ensuring a phonics all-through-the word approach
(for example: <many> and <friend> would be taught
in lessons with the focus sound /e/, alongside words with the common spellings for /e/ such as
<shed> and <bread>)
Teaching high-frequency words? Stay consistent with your
phonics teaching and teach them as you teach the alphabetic
Pupils are explicitly taught the important, but
often overlooked, 4th level of the code's complexity, that a
spelling can represent more than one phoneme (for example:
'One spelling, different sounds'
Bomb, Comb, Tomb – why strugglers need to know how English works
Albrow, a university lecturer in linguistics, rejected
'silent letters'; giving the <kn> and <gn>
spellings as examples, he described them as ''complex consonant symbols''. He added that, ''(T)he concept of silent letter is avoided in this description; since all letters are clearly silent, silence cannot therefore be a distinction. This has already been implied by the treatment of <ie>,<oa> etc. as single symbols'' (Albrow p.19) Educational
psychologist Dave Philpot described the concept of silent letters as
''nonsensical for a language that contains no silences, e.g in
the word know, the k is silent but the w isn't. Logically,
either kn and ow are both digraphs, or else both k AND w are
don't find "silent letters" a useful way to describe or
explain such spellings. Pretty much every letter in a word is
there for a reason''
''Children have no idea what the teacher means when she says vowels are 'long' and 'short'. They think she is talking about physical size, a long A and a short A'' (D.McGuinness. WCCR. p97)
Avoid the confusing language of 'short' and 'long' vowels.
''To them, long and short describe visual length – so the
<ou> in double is long and the <a> in table is short, but
they’re not and that’s confusing''
Explaining split vowel
spellings avoiding magic, bossy or silent letter <e>
Sound~Write's longitudinal study of literacy development from
2003-2009, following 1607 pupils through KS1
Exemplar linguistic phonics programmes include Sounds~Write
and the Sound Reading System
Phonological / Phonemic Awareness:
Phonemic awareness (PA: able to
identify and manipulate individual phonemes) is the
subject of much controversy and confusion. Children who enter
pre-school with low or no PA and then fail to acquire sufficient
PA 'naturally' with a balanced
approach for teaching decoding, are deemed to have inherited a
neurodevelopmental defect, the hallmark of dyslexia. Many
literacy experts advocate phonological awareness training (no
letter symbols) for all children prior to any teaching of
reading, to help remediate this brain 'glitch' that appears to
be present in so many.
''(T)he research conclusively proves there is no benefit to phoneme-only training programmes as opposed to instruction using a good synthetic phonics programme from the outset, one which teaches segmenting and blending using letter symbols and lots of writing practice. Phoneme analysis sufficient to be able to decode is acquired much more rapidly in the context of print than in isolation'' (D.McGuinness. Response to Hulme).
''Lots of studies showing kids do better when
phonemic awareness tasks are tied to print. Phonemes emerge in
part from exposure to print''
(Prof. Mark Seidenberg. Twitter)
X Should we teach phonemic awareness?
finding of this study is that phonological awareness
intervention that focused on rhyme awareness, syllable
segmentation, & initial phoneme discrimination had little effect
on the later literacy acquisition of children from low-SES
2020. Meta-analysis of the Impact of Reading Interventions
for Students in the Primary Grades:
''Interventions that included
instruction on phonological awareness were associated with
significantly smaller effects, whereas interventions that
addressed encoding or writing yielded significantly higher
- Prof. D.McGuinness's book:
Language Development & Learning to Read p37-> 'A Theory
- Prof. Julian Elliott's book The
Dyslexia Debate p42-> 'The phonological deficit
''Teaching children to manipulate phonemes using letters
produced greater effects than teaching without letters''
(USA.2000 National Reading Panel. See Chapter 2: 6, 21, 33,
Researchers Johnston and Watson found that synthetic
phonics develops phonemic awareness very efficiently without any prior PA training: The phonemic segmentation of the synthetic phonics group improved far more in 16 weeks than either of the other two groups. At the start of their research in Clackmannanshire, the synthetic phonics group got 4.1% right, while the other two groups got 2.7% and 4.5%. After 16 weeks, the figures (in the same order) were 64.9%, 17.2% and 34.7%. (Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 2004)
''Activities that had no impact, positive or negative
(correlations at zero), were time spent....on larger phonetic
units, such as clapping out syllable beats, and time spent on
auditory phoneme awareness tasks (no letters)''
(D.McGuinness. A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet
''Scores of developmental studies show that phonemic processing is one of the most “buffered” language skills humans possess, and is least susceptible to disruption and malfunction. Chaney showed that by age three, children are highly sensitive to the phoneme level of speech. Nearly all of the 87 three-year-olds in her study could listen to isolated phonemes (/b/ -- /a/ -- /t/), blend them into a word, and point to a picture representing that word – with nearly 90% scoring well above chance'' (D.McGuinness. RRF messageboard)
For discussion of the 'phonological brain glitch' theory
see Myth 2
Jenny Chew points out, ''If you teach letter-sound correspondences from the start without assuming an initial logographic stage, children's perception of the sub-units of sound in the spoken words will be determined by the letters they see on the page - they will see the printed word 'cat' as 3 letters and will think of it as having 3 sounds (/c/ - /a/ - /t/) not as having 2 sounds (/c/ -- /at/)''.
PA training (without print) is not a necessary prerequisite
to learning to read and spell. Phoneme sensitivity
is innate as all babies need it in order to acquire their native language, but they are not consciously aware
of this ability. ''In fact, no one needs to be explicitly aware
of phonemes unless they have to learn an alphabetic writing
system'' (D.McGuinness LDLR p36).
''Sounds are ephemeral, short-lived, and hard to
grasp, whereas letters provide concrete, visible symbols for
phonemes. Thus, we might expect children to have an easier time
acquiring PA when they are given letters to manipulate'' (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230852982_Phonemic_Awareness_Instruction_Helps_Children_Learn_to_Read_Evidence_From_the_National_Reading_Panel%27s_Meta-Analysis)
People who have learnt to read using
script such as Chinese, which is based on the syllable unit of sound, lack phonemic awareness; studies ''show the strong impact of the type of writing system and type of instruction on the development of phonemic awareness -an environmental effect, and restates the point that you do not acquire this aptitude unless you need it'' (D.McGuinness WCCR p135)
The ease with which a child can be taught how to consciously
unravel speech in order to hear the individual phonemes
appears to be heritable. ''Good/bad phoneme-awareness runs in
families, just as musical talent does...the ability to access the phoneme level of speech is
heritable...on a continuum of innate ability'' (D.McGuinness WCCR p151) This unraveling is necessary because speech consists of
co-articulated sounds blended into a rapidly produced sound
Phonemic awareness occurs as a direct result of the teaching
methods found in high quality phonics programmes; it
is the process of learning the letter-sound correspondences,
translating the letters into sounds in words and vice-versa,
which makes the phonemes explicit. ''(A)s their literacy improves it should again
become an automatic process for literacy purposes and drop
below consciousness unless it is actually needed to deal with
an unfamiliar written word.''(Philpot.
Avoiding the Gender Gap:
The gender gap disappears when a high quality phonics programme is taught with
fidelity, starting in reception year. In the Clackmannanshire study, boys and girls in the synthetic phonics programme read well above expected levels, but the boys were ahead of the girls. (Johnston and Watson. 2005) When Sir Jim Rose closely examined synthetic phonics teaching, he found that, ''A common feature of the best work was that boys' progress
and achievement did not lag behind girls: an important outcome
given the generally weaker performance of boys, especially
in writing.'' (Rose review.2006 para 57)
''I still can’t help but be concerned about the fact
that only 44% of disadvantaged, white working class males
achieve an acceptable outcome by the end of reception year'' (Quirky
Teacher. Twitter 06/03/18)
''If we really want boys to read voraciously, first we need
to teach them to read. On a properly normed & standardised
spelling test, of the 1607 boys and girls we followed through KS1,
there was no statistical difference between them''
The Simple Model / View of Reading:
Gough and Tunmer first proposed the Simple Model of Reading in 1986. In their paper the authors wrote, ''To clarify the role of decoding in reading and reading disability, a simple model of reading is proposed, which holds that
reading equals the product of decoding and comprehension....
we are reluctant to equate decoding with word recognition, for the term decoding surely connotes, if not denotes, the use of letter-sound correspondence rules'' (italics added. 1986, Remedial & Special Education, Vol 7, No.1, 6-10).
"The ability to decode is at the core of reading
ability, such that learning to decode is tantamount to learning
to read." (Gough and
Morag Stuart and Rhona Stainthorp re-presented Gough and Tunmer's
Simple Model of Reading in an annex to the 2006 Rose
review, re-titled it
the Simple View of Reading, and described it as ''a useful conceptual framework''. They explained that, ''When trying to understand something as complex and multifaceted as reading, it is helpful first to simplify –in this case, by delineating two major, essential, interacting but different components of reading''.
The Simple View of Reading (SVoR): Reading ability is based on
''two major, essential, interacting but different components'': phonics decoding ability x language comprehension. Note
that both components are essential but neither
component is sufficient on its own.
''Peterson’s study led her to conclude that literacy consists
of two skills. One, comprehension, could be considered relative;
it certainly varies with subject matter. The other, decoding,
cannot be considered relative; it can be applied equally well in
A useful illustration of the necessity of both
components for reading, and the insufficiency of each component
on its own, is the story of Milton in his blindness. Wishing to
read ancient Greek texts, but unable to do so because he could
no longer see the words, Milton encouraged his daughters to
learn to pronounce each alphabetic symbol of the ancient Greek
alphabet. His daughters then used these phonic skills to read
aloud the texts to their father. Their father could understand
what they uncomprehendingly read aloud to him. The daughters
possessed word decoding skills, which did not enable them to
understand the text; Milton, despite his ability to understand
the Greek language, was no longer able to use his word decoding
skills and so was no longer able to understand Greek text
without harnessing his daughters’ skills
(Rose review 2006)
Listening comprehension & word decoding explains 96% of
variation in early reading comprehension
''The hallmark of skilled reading is fast
identification. And rich
context-dependent text understanding.''
(Italics in original. Dr.Charles
X This flowchart is based on The Simple View of Reading. It will help you identify whether a child is struggling with decoding, comprehension - or with both.
Listening / Reading Comprehension:
A myth disseminated by the whole language advocates is that
using synthetic phonics to teach word decoding and spelling leads to lower comprehension levels. The Clackmannanshire researchers Johnston and Watson say, ''Much is made of the fact that the synthetic phonics programme in Clackmannanshire led to much greater increases in word reading and spelling skill than in reading comprehension, implying that reading comprehension did not benefit from the intervention. However, it should be noted that at the end of the seventh year at school, reading comprehension in the study was significantly above age level, in a sample that had a below average SES (socio-economic status) profile'' (RRF newsletter 59. p3)
A follow up study by Johnston and Watson found that,
''The children in the Clackmannanshire study (taught using synthetic phonics) were reading words about two years ahead of what would be expected for their age. Their spelling was six months ahead of what you would expect for their age, and their reading comprehension was about right for their age. However, although the pupils in England (taught
using NLS analytic word reading) from similar backgrounds were reading words about right for their age, their spelling was 4.5 months below what is expected for age, and reading comprehension was about seven months behind'' (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7147813.stm)
When students struggle with word decoding, their comprehension also suffers. ''One way we overcome this limitation
of working memory while reading is by learning how to make a rapid,
automatic deployment of underlying reading processes so that they become
fast and unconscious, leaving the conscious mind (i.e. the working memory)
free to think about what a text means. This is why fast and accurate
decoding is important. Experiments show that a child who can sound out
nonsense words quickly and accurately has mastered the decoding process and
is on the road to freeing up her working memory to concentrate on
comprehension of meaning''
"Successful decoding doesn't guarantee comprehension,
but poor decoding guarantees poor comprehension."
(David & Meredith Liben)
Decoding, comprehension and muddled thinking.
Does phonics help or hinder
Phonics: The Holy Grail of Reading? Jenny Chew explains the
relationship between Decoding and Comprehension
Synthetic / linguistic phonics is not taught in isolation. The need to ''develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding'' is specifically mentioned in the statutory requirements of the National Curriculum - see for example p11.
In the new Ofsted School Inspection
Handbook, schools are told that inspectors will look at whether,
''stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction are chosen for reading
to develop pupils’ vocabulary, language comprehension and love
of reading. Pupils are familiar with and enjoy listening to a
wide range of stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction''
''Reading for pleasure is important.
Phonics doesn’t prevent that. It enables it.''
(Prof. Kathy Rastle)
The importance of
storytelling: ''Research has shown that the vocabulary of
general conversation is surprisingly impoverished, compared to
the vocabulary we find in written material''
''More rare words are used when reading a children's book than
in a conversation between college graduates: reading to
kids matters'' (Nick Gibb.
Minister of State. DfE)
A new study
finds children hear more unique words when adults read to them
than in ordinary conversation.
''There are a variety of ways to build knowledge, but one
crucial method is to read aloud to children from texts that
are too complex for them to read themselves. Children’s listening
comprehension exceeds their reading comprehension, on
average, through middle school'' (Davidson&Wexler.
The Importance of Knowlege)
David Didau explains ‘Why we need to read aloud’ to our primary
and secondary age pupils (video and ppt slides)
What reading does for the mind: Cunningham&Stanovich
Read non-fiction books
to your late talkers and preschoolers: here's why
Leaping the Lexical Bar
Alphabet Letter Names:
It is well established that knowledge of the alphabet
letter names is one of the best predictors of later reading
attainment, but those who as a consequence of this information
advocate the early teaching of the names, are confusing
correlation with causation. Letter name knowledge, ''is just an
indirect marker of high print exposure, literate household, good
paired-associate memory etc.'' (Monique
''Letter names can be hazardous to your
spelling'' Early Reading Instruction p275 ->278 ''The
message is clear: Discourage and eliminate the use of letter names
and encourage the teaching of phoneme-grapheme correspondences'' (D.McGuinness)
a study of 3000 Australian students..[30%] of children entering
high school continue to display confusion between names and
''Teaching letter names and sounds is
harmful to some. The problem is cognitive load and confusion
about the nature of the code: sound to print not letter name to
print'' (John Walker)
Researchers Treiman & Tincoff found that letter name
learning focused children's attention on the syllable rather
than the phoneme, impeding their understanding of the alphabetic
The Fragility of the Alphabetic Principle
Learning to Label Letters by Sounds or Names: A Comparison of
England and the United States
''(T)he English children—especially the younger ones—produced
more phonologically plausible spellings for most types of
nonwords in our study...(O)ur results show that children can
start to read and write without [LNs]. Several of the English
children in our study performed at the first-grade level on the
standardized spelling test even though they knew the names of
just few letters''
Spelling using letter names,
''involves an unnecessarily complicated sequence of
events...He is using two distinct codes...and one does not
immediately evoke the other''
(ML Peters.Spelling: Caught or
''Teaching both [letter sounds and names] potentially confuses children and doubles the amount of information they are required to learn. Letter names are best introduced after children have gained fluency in their application of letter sounds and can distinguish between letter names and sounds with fluency. Teaching names is a redundant skill in both early reading and spelling and takes instructional time which could more usefully be devoted to other activities'' (Solity p20)
''It is most efficient to teach students from the very
beginning to associate a sound with a letter...Letter sounds
are much superior in this work than letter names, because
letter sounds can be used directly both to read and spell
(Dr. Michael Bend)
Let's not sing our ABCs
''Sometimes the child knows the names of
the letters. Unfortunately, this knowledge, far from being
helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading''
(Prof. Dehaene. Reading in the brain. p200)
Letter names or sounds?
When and how to use letter names.
Sight Words, High Frequency Words and Common Exception Words:
The widely held
belief that English words are mostly ''non-phonetic''
and therefore ''cannot be sounded out''
occurs because so many common
English words such as <straight>, <their> and <people>,
an unusual or unique sound-spelling correspondence that is hard to decode initially without direct instruction. These are called common exception words in the National Curriculum.
''But every English word, even if irregular, is still
phonetic. You would need a word like XY4Z, pronounced
"sailboat," to have genuinely non-phonetic language.'' (Bruce
''An exception word is simply a word with (a) sound-spelling
correspondence(s) that are beyond the systematic teaching
sequence; exceptions are not words that ‘'cannot be sounded
out’' (Charlotte MacKechnie)
Teach 100 first spellings, not 100 first words
''Let’s look at two of the most common, short-cut approaches to
teaching so-called ‘sight words’. The first is the use of
flash cards. If a child cannot decode a word on a flash
card, they are being asked to remember the word as a whole,
something that is very difficult to do given that thousands of
words contain the same number of letters and often begin and end
with the same letters. The words ‘house’ and ‘horse’ spring to
''Any teaching using flash cards, where the children
are expected to read words visually, seriously undermines the
synthetic phonics method''
(Prof.Johnston& Dr.Watson. Teaching Synthetic Phonics p36)
<One> is a common exception word, often held up as a word that can't be
sounded out (phonically decoded). It has two GPCs; the single letter 'o' represents two sounds /w-u/ (just as the letter 'x' represents two sounds /k-s/ in the word <fox> ) and the digraph 'ne' represents the sound /n/ as in the word <gone>.
The common words with 'grotty graphemes' (Ruth Miskin) need to be taught directly and systematically in every early reading programme
using a phonics all-through-the word approach - See
teacher said "through" "couldn't be sounded out in a million
years." Dr. Michael Bend took this as an "opportunity to
highlight a prevalent misconception about the role of phonics in
good reading instruction"
How to respond to the 'But some words can't be sounded-out' objection to phonics
Decodable, Leveled, Banded and 'Real' Books:
Another widely circulated piece of mis-information is that synthetic phonics teachers engage in the ''rather cruel'' (Goouch/Lambirth p39)
''hiding other text that does not fit phonics teaching''
or are even said to ''forbid''
(Wyse.Twitter) the use of
so-called real books
until children have ''cracked the phonic code'' (Hileryjane blog 27/01/10).
Certainly, as the synthetic phonics method positively excludes
the use of whole word memorisation and multi-cue
word-guessing, beginning readers are not expected to
use the early levels of patterned-text scheme books (Book Bands:
pink, red, yellow, blue and green), or 'real' books, when
reading. As Debbie Hepplewhite says, ''There is a
myth that children who get synthetic phonics teaching are
totally deprived of real books. The reality is that children
who get true synthetic phonics teaching are not expected to
read independently a book which they cannot decode so that
they are forced to guess the words or memorise the sentences
by heart''. Fortunately, there are plenty of attractive and
well written decodable book schemes
available nowadays. These schemes are written using cumulative
phonics text, making them suitable for beginning readers (or
those having reading intervention) from the very earliest
stages. By Year 3 virtually all children should be able to read age-appropriate 'real' books independently.
''My book area has two or three hundred books that
the children can choose freely''
(Y1 teacher who uses linguistic
Sir Jim Rose wrote in his 2006 review, “The findings of this review argue strongly for the inclusion of a vigorous programme of phonic work to be securely embedded within a broad and rich language curriculum”. Beginning readers in high quality synthetic phonics classrooms will have plenty of access to real books (fiction and non-fiction) with freedom to browse the text if they want to do so. When doing shared reading of a
'real' book, the teacher (or parent if it is a home book) takes responsibility for reading any as yet untaught GPCs or words with tricky spellings so no multi-cueing (guessing) or whole word memorisation is necessary.
''Send home four books a week, two decodables (one on current
unit and one for revision) and two books for parents to read to
them. Therefore home practise is supporting both strands of the
reading rope (decoding + comprehension)''
(James Lyra. DSF conference 2019)
See - 3) ''I’m just saying phonics is not the only part of reading''
It's also a myth that children taught through synthetic phonics and decodable books will never be able to read
'real' books independently. Jenny Chew notes that, ''mixed methods' children do more independent
reading of 'rich' literature in the early stages because they
aren't limited to words that they can decode - they also know
lots of 'sight' words and can guess from pictures and
''It’s the question to the problem of when we can make the
transition from tightly controlled texts which align closely
with the phonics approach being taught formally in class,
towards texts which contain sound-spelling correspondences that
are not so restrictive''
Moving from decodable books into leveled or 'real' books (with
support) at the end of KS1.
Maggie Downie, a phonics intervention tutor,
explains why it is important that beginning or older,
struggling readers are not expected to decode the words in 'real' books or predictable-text scheme books
independently. She says, ''There is a world of difference
between 'looking' at books and reading them. Synthetic phonics
practitioners are just as concerned that children should enjoy
a 'literature rich environment' as any of the balanced
literacy/whole language advocates. All that they say is that
children should not be expected to READ books which are beyond
their current state of phonic knowledge. Giving children words
to decode which are beyond their capability is something akin
to expecting a beginning pianist to play a piano sonata before
they have mastered the scales. Systematic phonics instruction
is scaffolded learning; give the child words to read which it
hasn't learnt the code for and you pull the scaffold away from
under them, leaving them dangling helplessly with no option
but to guess at the word. This confuses and scares children,
and turns them off reading. I can't understand why anyone
would want to do that.''
''There is some force in the
view that, as they learn to master the alphabetic code, children
should be given reading material that is well within their
reach in the form of 'decodable books'... Using such books
as part of the phonic programme does not preclude other reading.
Indeed it can be shown that such books help children develop
confidence and an appetite for reading more widely.'' (Rose
review 2006 para 82)
2020. Ofsted's annual report: ''Schools should be using a
structured phonics programme that has decodable reading books
in a sequence that carefully matches the letter–sound
correspondences that children have learned''
''It doesn’t matter how many wonderful books you
surround children with, or how engaging and exciting you make
reading – if they can’t decode the words on the page, then they
will fail. No one can read for pleasure if they can’t read''
alternative to Book Bands for beginner readers
X Video: Alison Clarke illustrates why predictable or repetitive texts are harmful for beginning readers.