Phonics project – more steps


Phonics project – more steps

13 Apr ’20 Teaching 0

Previously I made a commitment to take smaller, slower steps in investigating Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP). I returned more than a few times to that original post, adding snippets of learning here and there. The post ended up being rather long, so I started this second post, Phonics project – more steps.

The more I read about (SSP), the more I see this as a debate of instruction. Muddied waters, articles covering the “reading wars,” side either with SPP (whilst other phonics model exist) or Whole Language instruction, where letter-sound correspondences are only taught incidentally when needed (it is rare that they are not taught). As my introduction has been as a result of my son’s SSP, I wanted to also look at the broader debate.

I started over at the Education Endowment Foundation.

Phonics approaches have been consistently found to be effective in supporting younger readers to master the basics of reading, with an average impact of an additional four months’ progress.

Then I looked for the counter-arguments for my own professional knowledge. A debate, often referred to as the “reading wars” presents plenty of links and debates on social media to follow, it even has it’s on Wikiedia page. Margaret Clark shares a UK-focused critique here. In reviewing these debates, I get the familiar sense of a polarised education debate.

One challenge that has my attention presently is, whilst there is evidence that phonics is better than no phonics, where is the evidence that SSP specifically is superior to when letter-sound correspondences are only taught incidentally?

Bowers (2018) shows that every subsequent meta-analysis taken to support systematic phonics over whole language has made the same mistake of comparing systematic phonics to a mixture of different methods, or comparing systematic phonics to interventions that included no phonics. Accordingly, none of these meta-analyses should be taken to support systematic phonics over whole language.

A second prickle point, is the lack of coverage of SSP in complex orthographies such as English. Too many many exceptions, “tricky words,” or instances where SSP is unsuccessful. Here the waters are muddied when we read acknowledgements that “other strategies” are required.


With Direct Instruction in mind, travelling the phonology world, I spent some time reviewing the “Phonemic Awareness Instructional Routines.” From Florida I headed to Sydney, to listen to ACE/CIS “Phonics in context is not enough” – the link starts at the beginning of the affirmative debate. Q and A here. Affirming and negative sides, two teams of three. Cheers of support and jeers of derision. Takes me back to those thoughts of polarisation.

“Explicit and systematic” is mandatory, “significant and relevant” is even more important.

One signpost I have bookmarked is Structured Word Inquiry (SWI). SWI is an instructional approach that teaches morphological families with the help of the matrix and explicitly teaches letter-sound (grapheme-phoneme) correspondences in that context, as well as historical (etymological) influences that make sense of spellings. With that Direct Instruction flavour, it is not, a “program,” nor “morphological instruction,” nor “a version of whole language” nor does it “ignore or under represent phonological factors.”


The are a lot of statistics and charts in phonology. Sound-letter probabilities, phoneme spellings in order of frequencies,

My growing understanding of phonics and instruction practice underlines the reliance on working memory and attentional switching (see, say, sign) as we support learners towards fluency.

This issue of context frequently arises. The example of “wind” is a good example of the importance of context. Are you reading about today’s weather, or readying your watch?

The Jabberwocky – an argument for meaning comes first.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

A striking property of this poem is that, although we do not understand most of the words in it, still we understand much of what it tells. How can this be? So the argument goes, meaning comes first. From which we hear the “barking at print” criticism of SPP. Language is developed in context.


Bowers, J.S. (2018). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. PsyArXiv.


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