Focus on phonics to teach reading is ‘failing children’, says landmark study

A landmark study has described the way primary school pupils are taught to read in England as “uninformed and failing children”, calling on the government to drop its narrow focus on phonics.

Researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education say the current emphasis on synthetic phonics, which teaches children to read by helping them to identify and pronounce sounds which they blend together to make words, is “not underpinned by the latest evidence”.

They claim analysis of multiple systematic reviews, experimental trials and data from international assessment tests such as Pisa suggests that teaching reading in England may have been less successful since the adoption of the synthetic phonics approach rather than more.

The UCL researchers are among 250 signatories to a letter which has been sent to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, calling on the government to allow for a wider range of approaches to teaching reading, which would allow teachers to use their own judgment about which is best for their pupils.

The use of synthetic or blended phonics to teach reading in schools in England has been the subject of ferocious debate since it was backed by former education minister Michael Gove, who introduced a phonics screening check for all children in year one (aged five or six) to check pupil progress.

In synthetic phonics, children begin by pronouncing individual sounds in words and are then encouraged to blend them together to make words. For example “s-t-r-ee-t”. Supporters say it has had a positive impact on literacy, and point to significant long-term benefits for disadvantaged pupils.

Critics say phonics training only helps children to do well in phonics tests – they learn how to pronounce words presented to them in a list rather than understand what they read – and does nothing to encourage a love of reading. England’s Pisa reading scores are virtually unchanged since 2006.

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