“Systematic phonics is the great equaliser,” states Anne Castles, distinguished professor in the department of cognitive science at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “If the child does not have rich language background, you can teach them phonics then they can go and read and supply themselves with that rich language, which is so key for their ability to access the curriculum later on.”
Speaking on this week’s episode of Tes Podagogy, Castles argues that the evidence this is the case is now compelling.
“There have been thousands of studies that have looked at phonics in various ways, various forms and using various measures,” she reveals. “We are at a level of confidence now where we can say we have a pretty good understanding that if a phonics programme follows a set of principals then most likely it will be effective, because it would fit with the broader evidence base we have.”
Evidence for phonics
Despite this evidence base, however, she admits that she understands why the topic of phonics remains controversial.
“It is certainly true that it has been more difficult to document evidence of the success of phonics in the long term, but we are starting to see that evidence come through,” she says. “However, we do need more of it.
“And a lot of teachers have used whole language methods for a long time and have experienced success. There are plenty of children who will learn to read regardless of the method being used. So it is very hard for teachers, as they have seen a method bring success, to be told there is a better method.”
She says there has also been a tendency on both sides of the argument to claim that phonics should be the totality of reading instruction in the early years – or that this is what people wish to happen – and this has fanned the flames of the debate unnecessarily. It’s an issue she touched on in a co-written article for Tes earlier this year and one she revisits in the podcast.
“There should never be a suggestion that the only reading instruction children should be getting is phonics,” she says. “They should be read to, they should be enmeshed in a reading environment, they should be engaged in all sorts of reading instruction.”
A balanced approach
Another claim that she says is unhelpful is that, if well taught, every child will "get" phonics. That is simply not the case, she says, but what phonics can do is help teachers to spot those with reading disorders sooner.
“I don’t believe it is true that all children will ‘get’ phonics if they are taught properly,” she explains. “There are some children who are instructional casualties – they have no reading disorder but have not been taught explicitly and have needed the instruction – but there will also be a group who will continue to struggle way past the first few years of schooling [despite good phonics teaching]. What phonics can do, is help us to spot those children who do have reading difficulties. By having a phonics check in place, you can pick out the ones who do not seem to be responding well and get some intervention in place.“
In the podcast, Castles goes on to discuss the evidence base in more detail, to talk about the commercialisation and politicalisation of phonics and how that influences the debate, and also about the problems with identifying language problems at too early an age.
You can listen to the podcast below, or by searching for "Tes - the education podcast" on your chosen podcast platform.