A desire for simplicity (and a good story) leads the media to portray the battle as traditionalist supporters of phonics versus trendy lefties who want children to learn to read by something approaching osmosis.
That tends to obscure the fact that there are two major techniques of phonics teaching - synthetic and analytic - which are quite different.
Synthetic phonics teaches children the "building block" sounds made by letters or groups of letters which put together make words. The Government stresses its usefulness in helping children read.
Analytic phonics teaches children to recognise larger chunks within words - particularly rhyming words such as fight, might, right. This is thought to be useful in helping children to write.
Under the National Literacy Strategy, emphasis on phonics has increased with different use of synthetic and analytic phonics for children at different ages.
But it also encourages teachers to teach children to recognise whole words, to use the grammatical structure of sentences to identify words and to guess words according to their wider context.