Secondary schools in the UK should not use phonics alone to support the children who are still struggling to read by the time they leave primary education, new research has found.
The phonics approach, heavily promoted for use with younger students, is not the most effective way of teaching older children who have reading difficulties, according to analysis published last week.
The findings from the charity Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) contradict previous reports, which argue that the approach should be central to the teaching of reading in secondary schools and colleges, as it is in primaries.
The EEF analysis, which examines evidence from 1,200 studies, concludes that it is "highly unlikely" that any single approach will succeed in helping 11-year-olds with poor reading skills. Instead, teachers should carry out in-depth assessments of what children need and offer a range of support.
In primary schools an effort has been made to emphasise the role of synthetic phonics in learning to read. Nevertheless, many children still start secondary school having fallen behind. Although they may be able to read texts aimed at nine- to 11-year-olds, often they will not pick up on inferences and may be unable to find and collate information.
"The educational prospects of children in this group are bleak," said Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF. "Despite repeated efforts, the proportion of struggling readers at the transition [from primary to secondary] has remained static for the past decade."
He added: "There are no quick fixes. But some approaches offer greater promise than others. Using evidence will increase the chances of the 11-year-olds who need our help."
The EEF report finds that phonics helps younger children but its effectiveness declines by the time that pupils reach secondary school. Other teaching techniques - such as reading comprehension, which focuses on meaning and building understanding from context - are more effective on average, the research shows.
"Supporting struggling readers is likely to require a concerted effort across the curriculum, and a combination of approaches," the report concludes.
"It may be that children who have not succeeded using phonics previously will benefit from approaches which place a greater emphasis on meaning and context."
But phonics campaigners argued that it was wrong to compare the strategies. "The simple view of reading, which is widely accepted, shows that meaning and decoding are separate," said Chris Jolly, founder of the popular Jolly Phonics programme. "My experience of providing phonics skills is that it is just as applicable at different ages. Children and teenagers benefit from being able to work out words phonetically."
Ruth Miskin, founder of the Read Write Inc programme, said that phonics and comprehension could be used together. "Each programme serves different purposes," she added.
"If children's reading difficulties were picked up in primary, we could sort it out. I'm not knocking secondary schools but they shouldn't be in this position."
According to the EEF, phonics programmes help 11-year-olds with poor reading skills to make the equivalent of three months' progress on average over the course of a year - the same as relatively expensive summer schools. However, comprehension approaches lead to four months' progress. And children receiving one-to-one tuition, which may include different teaching techniques, make up to five months' progress.