Phonics leads to easier, more accurate, reading, new research finds

Linking symbols to sounds helped adults learn to read unfamiliar scripts

Helen Ward

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Learning to read through phonics leads to more accurate reading aloud and comprehension than focusing on whole words, new research reveals.

Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, tested the effectiveness of phonics by training adults to read in a new language, printed in unfamiliar symbols, and then measured their learning with reading tests and brain scans.

They found that people who are taught the meanings of whole words did not have any better reading comprehension skills than those who are primarily taught using phonics, and that those taught using phonics were better at reading aloud.

'Brains had to work harder'

They also found that the brains of adults who had learnt to decipher the symbols by a whole-words method had to work harder when they read, compared to the brains of people using phonics.

Professor Kathy Rastle, head of the psychology department at Royal Holloway, said: "The results were striking; people who had focused on the meanings of the new words were much less accurate in reading aloud and comprehension than those who had used phonics, and our MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading”.

There has been a major push to introduce phonics into English schools. Phonics is part of the National Curriculum and a phonics check is taken by pupils at the end of Year 1.

The check involves pupils reading aloud 40 words, including 20 non-words, to their teacher.

In 2016, 81 per cent of pupils reached the expected standard of 32 correct words in the phonics check, up from 77 per cent in 2015.

But there has been concern that the focus on phonics may not help all children - particularly older readers who are struggling and children with special educational needs.

Old claims disproved

“There is a long history of debate over which method, or mix of methods, should be used to teach reading,” Professor Rastle said.

“Some people continue to advocate using a variety of meaning-based cues, such as pictures and sentence context, to guess the meanings of words.

"However, our research is clear that reading instruction that focuses on teaching the relationship between spelling and sound is most effective. Phonics works.”

Dr Jo Taylor, also of Royal Holloway, carried out the research with Professor Rastle. She said: “People frequently argue that phonics disadvantages reading comprehension. Our work puts that claim to rest. Phonics actually enables reading comprehension by relating visual symbols to spoken language.

"The laboratory method that we’ve developed in this study offers strong evidence for the effectiveness of phonics, and has also helped us to understand why phonics works, in terms of the brain systems responsible for reading”. 

Nick Gibb, the Schools Standards Minister, said: “This research highlights the potential benefits of learning to decode using phonics.

"Thanks to the hard work of teachers, our continued focus on raising standards and our increased emphasis on phonics‎, there are now 147,000 more six-year-olds on track to becoming fluent readers than in 2012.”

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The paper. Comparing and validating methods of reading instruction using behavioural and neural findings in an artificial orthography, was published today in the  Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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