Volumes of reports and articles have been written over the past decade concerning the
government’s approach to synthetic phonics methods of teaching reading in schools in
England and Wales. Much of the debate has centred on whether synthetic phonics should
be used in isolation as THE method or should more traditional strategies be incorporated.
To add further complexity to this already confused and fiercely debated conundrum is
whether teachers actually embrace and implement in full, synthetic phonics teaching
principles, as set-out in governmental guidance.
In her paper published in May 2014 entitled ‘The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics
Programme on Reading”, Dr M Grant describes some the difficulties and practises that
still pervade in schools today. Her comments are based on the findings of a report
commissioned by the Dept. of Education and carried out by the National Foundation for
Educational Research, entitled “Phonics Screening Check evaluation, Research Report”
(May 2014). Dr Grant writes:
“In spite of the Government initiatives to raise literacy standards through synthetic
phonics, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), on behalf of the DfE,
reported the following evaluation findings in 2013 and in 2014 about the teaching of
phonics and the attitudes towards phonics in schools. There is “wide misunderstanding of
the term ‘systematic synthetic phonics’”. About 90% of literacy coordinators “feel that a
variety of different methods should be used to teach children to decode words”. “Many
schools believe that a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other
methods”. “Teachers in general have not yet fully adopted” DfE recommended phonics
My intention in writing this article certainly is not to weigh into this argument, indeed
there are far better qualified pedagogues and other teaching professionals positing their
own hypotheses based on both practice and theory; making any of my thoughts on the
matter seem inconsequential. The only question I seek to ask is how can we truly judge
the efficacy of the synthetic phonics approach unless it is used correctly and is it was
intended? At least then we would have a yardstick from which to judge.
Until such a day comes, there will be no closure on the matter and any attempt at gauging
the success of the strategy is fraught with inaccuracy and inconsistency. The answer, well,
further teacher training is of course a good place to start. The difficulty lies in letting go of
the traditional and familiar, which naturally, is a scary prospect for some to behold.