The Great Phonics Debate and Methodical Madness.

On and on rage the arguments about “synthetic phonics” and their use in learning to read.

Consider this delightful sentence I came across in Pedant’s Corner in the Guardian recently:

“These are tools that everyone should have in her/his armamentarium if s/he is to work competently.”

My guess is that you read this sentence without resorting to the use of ‘synthetic phonics’, unless, that is, you were unfamiliar with the word ‘armamentarium’, in which case you might have “sounded it out” syllable by syllable, or even letter by letter.

In the first instance, though, you probably “read on” to the end of the sentence before going back to phonically analyse the unknown word – and you did that in order to get context cues from the surrounding words and to get help from the general syntax and semantics of the sentence in order to make sense of it. This is what happens when we come across phrases such as

Once xxxx a xxxx there was a . . . . . .


Xxxx xxxx a time there was a . . . .

By far the quickest way to “read” unknown words is to use context cues – pictures, syntactic cues and semantic cues, as well as, of course, one’s existing memory of known words and phrases, including part words and syllables. (If we don’t know the word ‘syllable’ we might work it out by beginning with a part which we already know, which might well be ‘able’. A knowledge of the word ‘tactic’ might help us figure out ‘syntactic’.)

We resort to phonetic analysis when all else fails.

None of which is saying that phonic knowledge isn’t desireable and necessary. Of course it is. We’re just saying that it’s one cuing system amongst several – all of them equally important.

Supposing, however, you ‘sound out’ ‘armamentarium’. You may well, using your experience as a reader, be able to pronounce the word correctly after looking carefully at all its syllables and letters, but you may still not know the meaning of the word, in which case you are merely ‘decoding’ it and not really reading it, if we take ‘reading’ to mean ‘understanding’ and the making of meaning.

We’ve now reached a point in some synthetic-phonics obsessed schools where many children appear to be fairly fluent readers – but only in the sense that they’re skilled decoders, who don’t necessarily understand what they’re reading, or even care about what they’re reading, let alone enjoy what they’re reading. To which we say, this is outrageous and shameful.

The fact that certain people are making sacks of cash out of flogging sythetic phonics-only government-approved reading ‘schemes’ is equally outrageous; as is preventing children from having access to any books other than the synthetic phonics reading scheme – i.e. proper, worthwhile books.

It’s not only foolish to bar beginning readers from using context cues and all the other cueing systems when tackling text – it’s counterproductive and confusing. And at what stage are these children then taught NOT to use synthetic phonics as the main or only strategy for ¬†reading?


From the BBC website today:

Teachers’ unions urge rethink of phonics checks

by Judith Burns

Leaders of three teachers’ unions have written to MPs urging a rethink of the phonics checks for six-year olds in England’s schools.

The unions say the controversial tests are an expensive way to tell schools what they already know and will do nothing to improve children’s reading.

They describe the checks on how well children can read both real and made-up words as “flawed”.

In a joint briefing note to MPs the leaders of the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Association of Head Teachers voiced their concerns about the checks.

The unions say the use of made-up words will frustrate confident readers and confuse children for whom English is a second language or who have special educational needs.

They also voice concerns that the checks risk making young children feel like failures, pointing out that in the pilots only 33% of children reached the expected standard.

They say they do not object to the use of phonics which they view as an essential tool for teaching early literacy but say they are not the only method of teaching children to read.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: “Once again the government is totally failing to understand how children learn – phonics checks for six-year-olds risk doing more damage than good.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers said the test risked “distorting teaching”.

Chrstine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers said the message to the government from professionals was “that they want freedom to adopt whatever method best suits their children and not be pushed down a one-size-fits-all route.”

We need to be very clear about this. “Phonics are not the only method of teaching children to read.” The use of phonic knowledge is not a METHOD of learning to read – it’s the use of a sub-skill – one amongst several that are needed in fluent reading – all of which need to be employed from the outset, all of which children can readily appreciate and intuitively use when tackling text. To prevent a child ‘memorising’, or ‘guessing’ a word from context, is foolish in the extreme. Children should be praised for using these other skills and strategies – not banned from using them.


Here’s another webpage on phonics, which parents (and possibly some teachers) might find helpful.

Five things about phonics
By Kathryn Westcott


Here’s a webpage that explores some wider issues in this whole debate –

Phonics test: NUT may ballot on boycott
By Angela Harrison


Michael Rosen, ex-children’s laureat, has been sending out a stream of posts from his blog throughout this past week – on phonics, literacy, the new national curriculum, poetry, etc. We’d like to strongly encourage all teachers, and especially those who teach literacy at any stage, as well as parents who are interested in these aspects of teaching and learning, to find the time to read Michael’s blog and benefit from his expertise. If only the GOVErnment would do the same . . . .

Readers might like to pay particular attention to the political aspects of recent developments –

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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1 Response to The Great Phonics Debate and Methodical Madness.

  1. Pingback: Phonics Readers | All Things Latin

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