How phonics became an education culture war

The use of phonics to teach early reading is one of the best-evidenced areas of education, yet debate persists over which method schools should adopt – and, at times, it can get pretty heated
22nd April 2022, 6:00am
Phonics, Reading, wars


How phonics became an education culture war

For several years, I literally did not talk about it,” says Ruth Swailes. “People would ask me questions and I’d say: ‘I’m happy to talk to you by direct message but there is no way I’m putting the ‘P’ word in a tweet’.”

Swailes is an independent educational consultant and school improvement adviser with 25 years’ experience working in early years foundation stage and primary schools, and is what you might call a phonics advocate. She has taught “hundreds of children to read with phonics” and has led phonics training for local authorities since 2007. 

She describes herself as “passionate” about phonics but, for years, she avoided even mentioning the word on Twitter for fear that something she said might be misinterpreted.

“I know it sounds paranoid but I think there are people who search for that keyword. And if they see anything about it, they’re on you,” says Swailes.

She is not the only one to feel this way; when researching this article, several teachers told me they wouldn’t comment publicly on phonics because the debates surrounding it have become, as one teacher put it, too “fractious”. 

Education researchers have also sometimes found this a difficult area to write about. 

In January, a research paper by Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury, from UCL Institute of Education - which questioned the prominence of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) in the national curriculum - provoked a strong reaction on social media and in the national press, including opinion pieces by government ministers, and numerous blogs by researchers and educationalists. 

Among the responses to the paper, there were what Bradbury calls “personal attacks” on the pair’s integrity as researchers and their motivations for conducting the study.

“People were writing about us on Twitter as people who didn’t want children to read,” Bradbury, a professor of sociology of education, says. “It’s incredibly extreme. It’s not ‘we disagree with their interpretation’, it’s ‘we think these are people who want to damage children’s life chances’.”

Phonics is one of the best-evidenced areas of education; many would argue that there is as close as you can get to definitive support for its use in teaching early reading. And with the Department for Education’s current ambition for 90 per cent of children to reach the expected standard in key stage 2 for reading and writing by 2030, early reading is firmly in the spotlight.

Why, then, has phonics become a topic that people are reluctant to talk about - and what does that mean for classroom practice? 

‘The reading wars are over’

The issue has a long history, stretching back over decades to the start of the so-called “reading wars”, in which researchers, politicians and practitioners thrashed out the arguments for and against competing theories around the best ways to teach children how to read. 

It’s a complex debate, but can broadly be summed up as a head to head between those who favour phonics-based approaches and those who favour “whole-language” approaches.

In their 2018 paper Ending the Reading Wars: reading acquisition from novice to expert, researchers Kate Nation, Kathleen Rastle and Anne Castles explain that phonics approaches are those “in which the sounds that letters make are taught explicitly”, while whole-language approaches emphasise “the child’s discovery of meaning through experiences in a literacy-rich environment”.

However, according to Rastle, the part of the debate that pitted these two approaches against each other has already been settled. 

“The reading wars are over,” she says. “The consensus around phonics is as strong a consensus as you ever get in science.” 

Wyse, one of authors of the IoE paper mentioned earlier and a professor of early childhood and primary education, agrees.

“Nobody now is seriously advocating for whole language alone,” he says. “I think it’s fair to say that most children need good phonics teaching for the best outcomes. That’s where the science of reading has moved on.”

‘The consensus around phonics is as strong a consensus as you ever get in science’

Researchers today tend to agree that phonics is an essential component of teaching reading but that there is also a lot more to it. Good-quality reading instruction involves exposure to whole texts and a focus on skills, such as comprehension and fluency, all underpinned by early teaching of systematic phonics.

Discussions among researchers, therefore, focus on the nuance: which phonics method (there are various types, including the synthetic approach, widely used in England, and the analytical approach, popular in Scotland), how much phonics should be taught and how skills should be assessed.

“There’s nowhere that does phonics only,” says Rastle. “No reading scientist would ever say that phonics is all there is to reading. And the national curriculum doesn’t say that either.” 

But while the science has moved on, the wider public debate, arguably, has not - with discussions about reading often presented in outdated terms.

Jessie Ricketts, director of the Language and Reading Acquisition Lab at Royal Holloway, University of London, suggests that this has created a “false dichotomy” that frames reading pedagogy as an “either/or”, ie, that “it has to be phonics or it has to be some other approach - it can’t be a mixture of both”. 

“That’s because, historically, that’s what happened. It was phonics and then it was something else,” she says.

Up until the 1960s, when educationalist Ken Goodman’s philosophy of whole language began to take off, phonics was the dominant method for teaching reading in the UK. This was followed by a period in which children were taught to read through approaches such as learning to recognise whole words by rote.

It was only in 1998, with the launch of Labour’s national literacy strategy, that the pendulum began to swing back towards phonics. 

Phonics, war

This shift was then cemented in 2006, when Tony Blair’s government announced that all children should be taught to read using phonics, following the publication of Sir Jim Rose’s report, Independent review of the teaching of early reading, that same year.

In Ricketts’ view, this history affected how teachers felt about the debate. She was a consultant to the DfE when it was developing its phonics screening check (first introduced in 2012), and remembers the reactions of the teachers she worked with at the time.

“For a lot of people, they had been taught in their initial teacher education, and had been doing - in their sometimes 30 or 40 years of teaching experience - one thing, which wasn’t phonics,” she says. “Their view was that ‘well, I’ve been doing one thing and most kids learn to read, and I don’t see why I should change what I’m doing’.”

The re-introduction of phonics forced teachers to question their existing practice in uncomfortable ways, she says. 

“There’s another side to it, which is, ‘if I accept that this is better, that means that what I’ve been doing has been suboptimal, and I’ve not been doing the best by the kids in my classes’,” says Ricketts. “That is so challenging.”

Today, the echoes of these past divisions arguably shape much of the discourse around reading still. This means that when you get a paper such as Wyse and Bradbury’s, which challenges some aspects of how phonics is being taught, the narrative can easily slip back to pro-phonics versus anti-phonics, whether that is what is really being said by the paper or not.  

Moreover, the debate is then further polarised by stances around phonics getting linked to other issues in education and used as a “proxy war for other debates”, says Bradbury, such as ideas about explicit instruction versus discovery learning - and that can make it much harder for people to just let things go.

According to Rastle, this linking of topics has been happening for years: “These issues around reading have been a touchstone for a wider debate about a philosophy of education, and that’s been true for many, many decades,” she says.

However, Bradbury says that there has been a shift recently, with views on phonics increasingly being aligned with issues that go far beyond what happens in the classroom.

“The teaching of reading has become another touchstone for other traditional versus ‘woke’ ideas,” she says. “That’s never been an angle on it before. There’s always been progressive versus traditional [in teaching], but it’s never been so tied up with other ideas. What you think about phonics has got nothing to do with what you think about other ‘culture wars’ issues. So, I found that a bit worrying.”

All this, of course, then gets exacerbated by social media, where all the biggest culture wars play out. But how far do spats on Twitter about the teaching of early reading actually touch primary teachers in classrooms? 

On the whole, it seems that much of the discourse may simply be passing them by.

“I don’t see the reading wars being fought on the ground,” says Swailes. “When I go into schools, it’s widely accepted that phonics is a good way to teach reading.”

One primary teacher, who asked not to be named, suggests this is because most people teaching in primary schools today were initially trained to teach reading through phonics and have now been doing so for years.

“The reality of primary education is that teachers will come to broadly support anything that they have done for a considerable period of time,” he says. “It’s just too uncomfortable for teachers to imagine that what they have spent time planning and teaching over many years has been less effective than it should have been.”

For this reason, combined with a lack of knowledge about the “underpinning theory” that supports the use of phonics, “most primary classroom teachers are entirely disconnected from the wider debates around phonics”, he says. 

‘Pretty unpopular’

However, Heba Al-Jayoosi, assistant head (inclusion) at Mayflower Primary School in London, says that how engaged teachers are in such debates depends on how research focused their school is, and the approach of senior leaders.

“It’s dependent on how much a school tries to engage with research and welcomes professional debate, and also, to some extent, the personal interests of teachers themselves,” she says. “I think if you are part of a school with top-down rather than collaborative leadership approaches, you may well, as a teacher, have no time to discuss these things, or, worse still, have your voice silenced and be told to just get on with things.”

On the other hand, she points out: “I cannot imagine there are any teachers in the early years or KS1 who would not be aware of the debate, because SSP is so prominent”.

And while most teachers might be too busy teaching for arguments playing out on Twitter to “be on anybody’s radar”, says Aimée Tinkler, head of school at Carsington and Hopton Primary School, in rural Derbyshire, recent policy shifts have meant that some of the nuances of the debate are now starting to get more attention in classrooms. 

“I think the focus by Ofsted on early reading…has very much prompted people to be more aware of the research behind this very strict, rigorous synthetic phonics,” she says. 

So, yes, there is widespread support among teachers and leaders for the use of phonics but that support wavers when it comes to some of the mandates that accompany the SSP “first and foremost” doctrine.

One teacher, who does not want to be named, points out that “the phonics screening check is pretty unpopular” in schools, while Swailes cites the introduction of a list of government-approved phonics programmes as something that is “driving the issue in schools rather than the online phonics debate”. 

She explains that “although the DfE says quite categorically that you don’t need to have an approved scheme if your results are good”, when it comes to the prospect of an Ofsted inspection, “realistically, most people feel that if they haven’t bought a scheme, they lay themselves open to criticism straightaway - and nobody wants to do that”. 

Meanwhile, Al-Jayoosi questions the expectation that synthetic approaches alone should be followed, and the recommendations that children should read what she calls “nonsensical texts” (the use of nonsense words to assess decoding is supported by research, though is unpopular with some teachers).

“I think, broadly, all teachers understand that SSP is a way into early reading and has an important role to play but, in my experience (and I know there is fierce opposition to this), the use of SSP as the foremost strategy is what they are opposed to,” she says. “And the fact that the DfE imposes upon schools the use of approved reading schemes, which frankly include appalling products, is hugely unpopular.”

Those who back current methods would argue that all this is in line with the science of reading and that there are good reasons for existing policies. For example, on the point about approved schemes, Rastle argues that the UK has “a good programme” for independently validating phonics programmes. 

Phonics, war


Compare this to the US, she says, where schools “just have the marketing to go on”, and what has emerged there is that “some of the most well-used programmes don’t align with the science of reading”.

Supporters of existing approaches might also point to data that suggests those approaches are working. The DfE’s recent White Paper states that, since the introduction of the phonics screening check, the percentage of Year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard has risen from 58 per cent to 82 per cent, with 91 per cent achieving this standard by Year 2.

Others, though, have questioned the degree to which meeting the standards for the screening check actually translates into reading outcomes further down the line.

Overall, then, the message is that while there is plenty to agree on, there are still points of contention that need to be untangled. Addressing those disagreements, though, is not easy when you have a situation whereby people don’t feel comfortable discussing their opinions.

“If we’re ever going to get anywhere with this, we need to be able to have a conversation without feeling like we’re going to be professionally attacked,” says Swailes.

Wyse agrees: “What we should have in a democracy is people of different views getting around the table, disagreeing, and being forced to agree in the end. That’s genuinely what we need, isn’t it? I’m sure we all know in our hearts that the best thing for teachers, for schools, for education, is that we work hard to get agreement.”

‘We need to be able to have a conversation without feeling like we’re going to be professionally attacked’

Unfortunately, the strength of feeling that is attached to these issues can compromise what might otherwise be respectful discussions. And, as with other culture war topics, those feelings can be tricky to put aside, making agreement hard to reach.

“People really feel strongly about learning to read because it is so important as a gateway skill to other learning,” says Julia Carroll, professor of child development and education at Coventry University. “I also think that our own self-perceptions about reading can be quite misleading - we all read every day, and it feels intuitive and automatic to most people. We aren’t really able to introspect what we’re doing when we’re reading.” 

Everyone, from government ministers to classroom teachers, recognises just how much reading matters, in school and in later life. Reading is, as Tinkler puts it, “the most important thing that you’re teaching them”.

“It’s a very emotive topic,” adds Bradbury. “The minute you say, ‘we’re teaching children to read in not the most optimum way’, that raises people’s feelings.”

People’s stances on the issue, therefore, are not simply about point-scoring; there are genuine concerns underpinning the views of those who support SSP “first and foremost” and those who call for more “balance”.

Ricketts, for instance, points out that people on “the phonics side” are afraid that “accepting that anything else is important somehow affects the ‘phonics is important’ message”. 

“There’s a kind of fear that any challenge to that message will undo all of the work that’s been done. And, actually, I share that fear because the introduction of systematic phonics is a major success story,” she explains.

Crisis and recovery

If you consider the international perspective, these fears do not seem unfounded. Parallel debates about reading are happening now in other countries and policies are changing as a result.

“Australia is currently trialling using the phonics screening check, as the UK does, so they are discussing phonics approaches a lot,” says Carroll. “There is [also] a parallel phonics furore at present in the USA. It is about whether, and to what extent, phoneme awareness skills should be taught as well as segmenting and blending, which are the only skills emphasised in synthetic phonics.” 

And while some countries, such as Australia, are making changes that put them more in line with the UK, other countries are doing things differently.

South Africa, for example, is said to be facing a “reading crisis”, following years of early reading approaches that have emphasised reading aloud, fluency and correct pronunciation above everything else. 

In New Zealand, meanwhile, the “reading recovery” approach, pioneered by Marie Clay, remains “very entrenched”, says Ricketts. This is an early intervention programme for children who struggle to learn to read, that is “very much on the anti-phonics side”.

“It all comes from this kind of Piagetian idea about discovery learning and ‘let’s give children the opportunities to learn for themselves’, which I fully believe in,” says Ricketts. “The problem with that approach [to reading] is that a lot of children don’t get there.”

The UK is highly unlikely to backtrack on SSP. But, the international context does suggest that, in theory, we could be just one election away from a change in direction. And, as Ricketts suggests, that worries people.

Phonics, war


While we can “quibble about the details”, she says, the argument for using systematic phonics early in a child’s education is “irrefutable” and so many people “hold it quite precious that that change has happened in policy and in schools”.

“People are quite scared that some low-quality research could come in and just blow that out of the water and we’d be back where we were 15 years ago,” she says.

But there are also real fears on the other side of the equation, too. 

For instance, Wyse and Bradbury are worried about the amount of space given over to SSP in the national curriculum, and the accountability measures attached to the teaching of it. They argue that this is leading schools to teach phonics in isolation from other elements of reading and to prioritise SSP to an unhelpful degree.

In fact, they were so concerned about this that, in January this year, they penned an open letter to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, with 251 signatories, calling on him to look again at current approaches.

While some have questioned how far their concerns are based in reality, Swailes says that she has seen some worrying practice in schools. For example, she describes teachers who feel they must follow their approved scheme with complete fidelity, even where this goes against their best judgement for meeting the needs of the pupils they teach.

“I’m talking to teachers who are now spending 50 per cent of their time teaching phonics and, even as a passionate phonics advocate, that, to me, feels skewed, when I look at timetables and I unpick how much time those children are getting for prime areas in early years, which we know they’ve missed out on because of the pandemic,” she explains.

“The danger of that is you miss out on the vital stuff that children need to do, and prime areas are time sensitive: we know that children have until five and a half or six to get those right, and we’re using that time sitting children at tables doing phonics.

“I’m not anti-phonics at all. But if I were to put that out there into social media, I know I would be labelled a ‘phonics denialist’,” she adds.

Context is key

Another concern is around the children for whom SSP simply doesn’t work. This is something that Al-Jayoosi finds particularly troubling, given that current government guidance for children who do not make good early progress in phonics is for them to receive more tuition in phonics - what she calls the “absolutely demoralising approach of repeating phonics with them until they get it”.  

“If you examine the way some of the SSP schemes work, they stream children without mercy. Some children in Year 3 will be put with children in Reception, and we know what that does to self-esteem and motivation for learning,” she says.

Teresa Ward, KS1 phase leader at Mayflower Primary School, points out that this can affect pupils who speak English as a second language. These children, she says, “naturally rely more on context”, so the approved phonics schemes don’t always line up with their needs.

“To limit children in such an extreme way makes me really anxious,” she explains. “I fear that the detrimental effects will not be realised for some time to come and, by then, it will be too late.”

Finding out what to do for the children for whom phonics doesn’t work should clearly be a priority. This is something that Carroll would like to see addressed. At the moment, she says, “the question of what is the best approach to support these individuals is quite open”. 

“What we are realising is that, with these learners, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and they need individualised tuition based on their own strengths and weaknesses,” she says. 

And while she agrees with the approach of repeating phonics tuition “to a point, there has to come a point where you should try other approaches as well or instead”.

“Teaching phonics to older children who have been going over the same material for several years is demoralising and likely to become less and less useful,” she says.

Ultimately, however, for Rastle, the best way to support all developing readers - and to learn more about how best to teach the later stages of reading, which we currently know less about - is to move the conversation on. 

“We keep getting pulled back to phonics. And actually, you know, nobody really wants to talk about phonics anymore, the evidence is so strong,” she says.

“What we need to be focused on is the really hard stuff: things like reading comprehension, developing fluency, getting children doing independent reading, getting them reading for pleasure - all of which they can’t do if they don’t have the tools for reading.”

Ending the climate of fear

How, then, do we move the debate forward? Given the multi-layered nature of the issues, and the strong feelings attached to them, there aren’t any easy answers here. But there are some suggestions.

In their paper, Wyse and Bradbury call for the government to discontinue some of the more prescriptive policies, which some see as reducing teacher autonomy - such as the vetting of phonics programmes and the use of the screening check as an accountability measure. This, they say, could help to relieve some of the tension in schools.

Politicians “are overstepping the mark, if they’re steering pedagogy. That’s not appropriate. That’s the job of professionals,” says Wyse.

Ministers taking a step back, they argue, would change the relationship between teachers and the DfE for the better, helping to end the “climate of fear” that currently exists. 

“Let’s face it, the government’s relations with the school sector through the whole of Covid were terrible,” says Bradbury. “What the DfE should be doing at this point is trying to rebuild that trust and relationship, and get rid of this feeling of teachers just being told what to do and not listened to.”

However, Ricketts suggests that it’s not the policies that need to change but teachers’ understanding of the science behind those policies. 

Supporting teachers to see that phonics is simply the code that gives children “the tools that they need to be able to teach themselves to read” is key to changing their opinion, she argues. This was something that helped when the screening check was first introduced. 

Perhaps most importantly, though, there is a need to focus on the common ground, which we already know exists. According to Swailes, this begins with recognising why people care so much about this issue in the first place.

“We need to remember that we all have children’s best interests at heart and why we are doing the work we do,” she says.

If we can keep that common ground at the forefront of our minds, this might avoid, as Rastle puts it, us “constantly going back to these old debates from 30 or 40 years ago”, when “there are much more interesting things to be talking about”. 
“Phonics is the beginning,” she says. “I don’t know whose analogy it is but somebody talks about it as being the starter motor: if you only have a starter motor in your car, you’re not going to be able to drive across the country, right? But if you don’t have the starter motor, then you’re not going to go anywhere either. 

“So, phonics is the starting motor; we know you have to have it. But then, let’s talk about how you drive across the country. That’s the really interesting stuff.”

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