Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction

There is a widespread consensus in the research community that early reading instruction in English should emphasize systematic phonics. That is, initial reading instruction should explicitly and systematically teach letter (grapheme) to sound (phoneme) correspondences. This contrasts with the main alternative method called whole language in which children are encouraged to focus on the meanings of words embedded in meaningful text, and where letter-sound correspondences are only taught incidentally when needed (Moats 2000). Within the psychological research community, the “Reading Wars” (Pearson 2004) that pitted whole language and phonics is largely settled—systematic phonics is claimed to be more effective. Indeed, it is widely claimed that systematic phonics is an essential part of initial reading instruction.

The evidence for this conclusion comes from various sources, including government panels that assessed the effectiveness of different approaches to reading instruction in the USA (National Reading Panel 2000), the UK (the Rose Review; Rose 2006), and Australia (Rowe 2005), 12 meta-analyses of experimental research, as well as nonexperimental studies that have tracked progress of students in England since the requirement to teach systematic phonics in state schools since 2007. The results are claimed to be clear-cut. For example, in his review for the English government, Sir Jim Rose writes

“Having considered a wide range of evidence, the review has concluded that the case for systematic phonic work is overwhelming …” (Rose 2006, p. 20).

Similarly, in a recent influential review of reading acquisition that calls for an end to the reading wars (in support of systematic phonics), Castles, Nation, and Rastle (2018) write

It will be clear from our review so far that there is strong scientific consensus on the effectiveness of systematic phonics instruction during the initial periods of reading instruction.

Countless quotes to this effect could be provided.

Importantly, this strong consensus has resulted in important policy changes in England and USA. Based on Rose (2006), systematic phonics became a legal requirement in state-funded primary schools in England since 2007, and to ensure compliance, all children (ages 5–6) complete a phonics screening check (PSC) since 2012 that measures how well they can sound out a set of regular words and meaningless pseudowords. Similarly, based on the recommendations of the National Reading Panel (NRP 2000), systematic phonics instruction was included in the Common Core State Standards Initiative in the USA (http:// The Thomas Fordham Foundation concluded that the NRP document is the third most influential policy work in US education history (Swanson and Barlage 2006).

Nevertheless, despite this strong consensus, I will show that there is little or no evidence that systematic phonics is better than the main alternative methods used in schools, including whole language and balanced literacy. This should not be taken as an argument in support of these alternative methods, but rather, it should be taken as evidence that the current methods used in schools are far from ideal. Once this is understood, my hope is that researchers and politicians will be more motivated to consider alternative methods.
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