Synthetic phonics – a plea for teacher autonomy

By Fiona Read, Head of Bedales Nursery & Pre-prep, Dunannie and Harriet Rhodes, Teaching Associate, University of Cambridge

All children deserve great teachers. This is something that no one can or will ever argue about, although what exactly that means in practice can be hard to pin down these days. In recent years, teachers have felt increasingly stifled by central prescription and ‘one size fits all’ approaches to teaching.

In January, researchers from the Institute of Education at UCL published the results of a study into the way that primary school children in England are taught to read, and concluded that an emphasis on synthetic phonics is inflexible, unfair and fails children. We were not surprised by this conclusion.

In synthetic phonics, children are first encouraged to pronounce the individual sounds in words, and then to blend them together to make words. Supporters claim benefits in terms of literacy, and particularly so for disadvantaged pupils. Government has been heavily invested in their use since their endorsement by (then) education minister Michael Gove, who introduced a phonics screening check for all children in year one (five or six year olds) to establish progress.

However, use of synthetic phonics, or at least the extent of their use, has been controversial. Critics have argued that phonics training only helps children to perform in tests, and that it does not develop understanding or encourage a love of reading. Research shows that teachers feel pressured by the compulsory screening check, with a survey of teachers finding that synthetic phonics was their main focus for teaching reading.

Importantly, the UCL researchers argue that claims for the effectiveness of synthetic phonics are not underpinned by the latest evidence. Their study was no light undertaking, involving analysis of multiple systematic reviews, experimental trials and data from international tests such as PISA (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment). The results must be taken seriously, and not least the finding that the successful teaching of reading in England may have declined since the adoption of synthetic phonics.

In early years, establishing a literacy-rich play environment is a prerequisite to pre-literacy skills – young children develop literacy such as listening to others, representing their ideas, narrating their play and experiencing the pleasure of seeing their thoughts transformed into a structure populated by their imagination.  Phonics is a useful tool as a part of a greater whole, but limiting childrens’ experiences of learning to read to an adult-directed, dry and reductive approach is counter intuitive. 

Instead, the educationalist Helen Tovey says “Learning should be joyous, meaningful and relevant. It should inspire further learning, or it is nothing”. And this is particularly true of learning to read. Through the use of techniques such as Helicopter Stories (Trisha Lee’s interpretation of Vivian Gussin Paley’s Storytelling and Story Acting curriculum), young children become sensitive to narrative structures and develop new vocabulary, helping their reading development and comprehension skills.

We know that children learn best when something pricks their curiosity and is playful – using real children’s books that speak to their experiences and enable them to encounter different emotions, subjects, vocabulary, rhyme and rhythm will unlock a lifetime love of reading far more effectively than any reading scheme. Children are motivated to read if it is fun. Dr Seuss wrote The Cat in The Hat in response to concerns about children’s literacy. His imaginative and silly stories are still effective ways of teaching children how to play with language and learn to read. 

The report’s authors acknowledge that there are some strengths to England’s current approach, but they are concerned – as are we – by the demise of a balanced approach to the teaching of reading, and by the straitjacket government’s enthusiasm for phonics places upon teachers. Prof Dominic Wyse, one of the authors, explains: “Our view is that the system doesn’t give teachers enough flexibility to do what they think is best for their pupils, nor to encourage pupils to enjoy reading.” There are many studies suggesting that children who are taught to read through synthetic phonics can be turned off reading for pleasure and meaning.

No less worrying is that all of this is symptomatic of a wider trend. The profession as a whole is consistently excluded from policy making by a DfE which relies on consultation with very few educationalists. Meanwhile, teachers routinely report that they are disempowered, and unable to make decisions affecting their children. In this case, teachers are aware of the best reading strategy for each child, but as they feel compelled to replace broader English lessons with narrower phonics in order for children to meet the tests so they take another step towards becoming professionals without agency (and a far cry from the great teachers we all agree that children deserve).

The UCL report underlines the urgent need for those in the DfE to listen to the experts, and the open letter to the Education Secretary from educators and academics, urging a reassessment of the place of phonics based on the evidence and the greater autonomy of teachers, is one we wholeheartedly endorse. Teachers should be able to apply their own judgement as to whether phonics and other balanced reading approaches are best for their students. Pupils’ comprehension and enjoyment of texts, as well as phonics, should be the focus of our efforts in the classroom – a place where we, not politicians, should be making the calls.