Synthetic Phonics; To Mix or Not to Mix ?

21st August 2014

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 

practices.”

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.


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