Phonics: the wider picture

Relevant research

Given the central importance of literacy in our developed and developing world, it is no surprise therefore that we want to know, how best can children be enabled to learn to read and write?  To try to answer this question there has been many studies undertaken.   In the UK there was an Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (DfES, 2006) – hereafter called the Rose Review. A similar review was undertaken in AustraliaTeaching Reading: Report and Recommendations (DEST, 2005) – and in the United States, the National Reading Panel was set up in 1997 to investigate the research about the teaching of reading (NRP, 2000).

This perennial question – how best can children be enabled to learn to read and write? – has been asked for many decades. It continues to be asked because there is no simple answer and because what we know about how children learn to read and write changes over time. In the last decade or so there has been a fairly widespread consensus on the elements of a successful reading programme. This consensus view has recognized the importance of phonics as a reading strategy, but has seen this as one very important strategy among several that a reader might use within the context of a rich and broad literacy curriculum.

The Australian reading report, for example, concluded that:

The evidence is clear …that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. Findings from the research evidence indicate that all students learn best when teachers adopt an integrated approach to reading that explicitly teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension. This approach, coupled with effective support from the child’s home, is critical to success.

It went on to recommend that:

….teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency. Equally, that teachers provide an integrated approach to reading that supports the development of oral language, vocabulary, grammar, reading fluency, comprehension and the literacies of new technologies.

This ‘phonics as part of a wider approach’ is often expressed as ‘phonics is necessary, but not sufficient’. Learning to read is influenced by many different factors, including such things as children’s understanding of the pleasures and purposes of reading, the range of skills children need to be taught and employ (including phonics), parental and societal influences and teacher expertise. Phonics is important in learning to read but it is not the only important element.