Phonics – A hit or a miss?

By John Freeman

| 26 April 2016

Here are two newspaper headlines from 25 April 2016:

If ever there was evidence needed for education in the interpretation of media messages, this coverage would be really useful!

The London School of Economics study looked at the progress of 270,000 children across 150 local authorities which introduced phonics at different times. As such, it is really powerful research – I am a fan of such large cohort studies, which in many ways are the gold standard of educational research. (Randomised Control Trials are much more difficult to implement in education – health is easier, where you can have a white pill that might be a placebo or an active medicine, and no-one knows, even the doctor administering the pill, but in education, everyone knows what method is being used.)

So what did the study actually show?

I’ve deliberately not read the study but have carefully read both articles. The conclusion is clear: phonics is markedly successful for children from deprived backgrounds or who have English as an additional language, but there is no benefit, on average, for other children.

Other children not taught phonics lagged in their early reading but had caught up by age 11.

The researchers conclude that phonics is a powerful and cost-effective tool in raising national literacy levels when delivered universally, as it is inexpensive to train teachers compared with other strategies such as reducing class size.

So I was wrong to be sceptical, several years ago, when I thought of phonics as being a quick fix – it really does appear to work and to close the achievement gap, and it can be delivered efficiently and effectively.

I’m still really sceptical about the benefits of national testing and reporting, and would much prefer to see unreported phonics diagnostic tests. And I really dislike, on principle, the use of nonsense words. But I’m a convert to phonics on the basis of the evidence.

Now all we need is for the Education Secretary to start looking at the evidence on academies.

By the way, I still can’t see how the Daily Telegraph got its headline! (nb my incorrect use of an exclamation mark).

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