Should we rethink the way we teach children to read?
For the first time in more than 100 years the approach to teaching reading in England has changed. However, there are concerns as to whether the current approach is the right one.
19 January 2022
Teaching children to read is one of the most important elements of primary education because it is fundamental to children’s development. If children are not being taught to read in the most appropriate way then they will not progress as much as they should. For this reason, it is vital that the teaching of reading, and curriculum policies on reading, are informed by robust research.
For more than 100 years, children in England have been taught to read through a balanced approach where teaching about the relationships between phonemes (sounds) and letters is carefully balanced with teaching about whole texts and other aspects of reading. The main focus of the balanced approach to teaching reading is comprehending the meanings of texts. However, a new survey of more than 2,000 teachers conducted by researchers from IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, shows that synthetic phonics has become the main approach. Synthetic phonics focuses first and foremost on teaching about phonemes (sounds) and how they are represented by letters in words.
The survey is part of a comprehensive study led by Professor Dominic Wyse and Professor Alice Bradbury, directors of IOE’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0-11 years) (HHCP). The research, reported in a paper in the peer-reviewed research journal Review of Education, was based on a discourse analysis of national curriculum texts in English-dominant nations who score highly in PISA and PIRLS and a comparison of their orientations to teaching reading compared to England; the survey of more than 2,000 teachers; a new Systematic Qualitative Meta-Synthesis (SQMS) of tertiary reviews, systematic reviews and meta analyses, and of 55 experimental trials with longitudinal designs.
- The findings from the survey showed that synthetic phonics is now the dominant approach to teaching reading in England, and that assessment policy in the form of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) has contributed to the stronger emphasis on phonics as part of the teaching of reading.
- Taken as a whole the responses to the survey showed that policy changes have resulted in adaptations to pedagogy including devotion of a greater proportion of teaching time to phonics, separation of phonics from other literacy activities, and reliance on a limited number of phonics schemes.
- The SQMS found that contextualising phonics teaching with whole texts in all phonics lessons was effective although there were no studies, that met the SQMS criteria in the paper, that had been undertaken in England.
- England’s national curriculum policy on reading was an outlier compared to successful English-dominant regions.
A key question that the researchers address in the study is whether robust research evidence supports this historically significant change in reading pedagogy. The findings from analysis of tertiary reviews, systematic reviews and from the SQMS do not support England’s synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading.
The researchers found the most effective interventions carefully connected the reading of whole texts with the teaching of phonics and other relevant aspects within all lessons. They describe this as ‘contextualised teaching of reading’. They stress that separating the teaching of the alphabetic code from the context of whole texts as part of teaching in primary schools is unlikely to be as effective as contextualised teaching of reading. As a result there is a significant risk to typically developing children’s education and life chances because they may not be receiving optimal teaching based on robust research evidence.
The conclusions of the paper also suggest the need for a new more careful consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the whole language orientation to teaching reading.
““The reading wars have often resulted in some very dismissive attitudes to whole language, a position that is not underpinned by the research. While there remains no doubt that phonics teaching in general is one important component in the teaching of reading, the research certainly does not suggest the complete exclusion of whole language teaching.” - Professor Dominic Wyse
- Phonics teaching is most likely to be effective for children aged five to six. Phonics teaching with children younger than this is not likely to be effective.
- A focus on whole texts and reading for meaning, to contextualise the teaching of other skills and knowledge, should drive pedagogy.
- Classroom teachers using their professional judgement to ensure coherence of the approach to teaching phonics and reading with other relevant teaching in their classroom is most likely to be effective. Insistence on particular schemes, scripted lessons, and other inflexible approaches is unlikely to be optimal.
- Where robust research evidence exists, this should be the required basis for governments’ recommendations. An independent body, possibly like the Office for Education Research proposed by the Royal Society/British Academy report (British Academy & The Royal Society, 2018), is one appropriate way forward.
- There is a need for a much more collaborative policy ethos where policy makers, teachers and researchers work together, over longer time scales than in the past, to evolve England’s national curriculum and associated pedagogy on the basis of the most robust evidence of effective teaching methods.