Phonics is an approach to teaching some aspects of literacy, by developing pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the relationship between written symbols and sounds. This involves the skills of hearing, identifying and using the patterns of sounds or phonemes to read written language. The aim is to systematically teach pupils the relationship between these sounds and the written spelling patterns, or graphemes, which represent them. Phonics emphasises the skills of decoding new words by sounding them out and combining or ‘blending’ the sound-spelling patterns.
1. Phonics has a positive impact overall (+5 months) with very extensive evidence and is an important component in the development of early reading skills, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
2. The teaching of phonics should be explicit and systematic to support children in making connections between the sound patterns they hear in words and the way that these words are written.
3. The teaching of phonics should be matched to children’s current level of skill in terms of their phonemic awareness and their knowledge of letter sounds and patterns (graphemes).
4. Phonics improves the accuracy of the child’s reading but not necessarily their comprehension. It is important that children are successful in making progress in all aspects of reading including comprehension, the development of vocabulary and spelling, which should also be taught explicitly.
The average impact of the adoption of phonics approaches is about an additional five months’ progress over the course of a year.
Phonics approaches have been consistently found to be effective in supporting younger pupils to master the basics of reading, with an average impact of an additional five months’ progress. Research suggests that phonics is particularly beneficial for younger learners (4−7 year olds) as they begin to read. Teaching phonics is more effective on average than other approaches to early reading (such as whole language or alphabetic approaches), though it should be emphasised that effective phonics techniques are usually embedded in a rich literacy environment for early readers and are only one part of a successful literacy strategy.
While there have been fewer studies examining phonics with older readers, there is evidence that it can be a positive approach. With any reading intervention, careful diagnosis is required on the difficulties that the reader is experiencing, regardless of age. If an older reader is struggling with decoding, phonics approaches will still be appropriate. Where readers are struggling with vocabulary or comprehension, other interventions may be more appropriate.
There is some variation in impact between different phonological approaches. Synthetic phonics approaches have higher impacts, on average, than analytic approaches. Analytic phonics approaches has also been studied less overall (only 9 studies). The small number of analogic phonics approaches identified in this review (6 studies) have a negative impact on average.
Within the Sub-Saharan African (SSA) region, the impact of phonics on learning outcomes has not been the focus of research. A study in South Africa reveals difficulties for ESL learners with more demanding listening tasks and the need for targeted interventions through speech-language therapist.
Two quasi-experimental studies investigated the effects of two phonics instructional modes on ESL learners’ achievement in reading, and the effect of synthetic phonics instruction on Nigerian ESL learners’ interest in reading. The findings revealed that synthetic phonics (method of teaching where words are broken up into the smallest units of sound (phonemes)) significantly improved pupils achievement in reading compared to analytic phonics (common approach to teaching of reading that starts at the word level, not the sound level), and that synthetic phonics is more significant in “enhancing pupils’ interest in reading.
The majority of studies have been conducted in primary schools, though there are a number of successful studies with secondary age pupils with a similar overall impact (+5 months)
Most studies of phonics are of intensive support in small groups and one to one with the aim to supporting pupils to catch up with their peers. The effects of one to one tends to be a little higher (+5 months) compared with small group interventions (+4 months), but this needs to be offset by the number of pupils who can receive support.
Approaches using digital technology tend to be less successful than those led by a teacher or teaching assistant. Studies of intensive support involving teaching assistants show slightly lower overall impact (+4 months) compared to those involving teachers. This indicates the importance of training and support in phonics for interventions led by teaching assistants.
Synthetic phonics approaches have higher impacts, on average, than analytic phonics approaches.
Studies have been conducted internationally (7 countries), mainly in English-speaking countries. Those conducted outside of the USA have typically shown greater impact.
Phonics approaches aim to quickly develop pupils’ word recognition and spelling through developing pupils’ ability to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes (the smallest unit of spoken language), and to teach them the relationship between phonemes and the graphemes (written letters or combinations of letters) that represent them. Successfully implementing a phonics might involve:
- Using a systematic approach that explicitly teaches pupils a comprehensive set of letter-sound relationships through an organised sequence
- Training staff to ensure they have the necessary linguistic knowledge and understanding
- Carefully monitoring progress to ensure that phonics programmes are responsive and provide extra support where necessary
- Carefully consider any adaptions to systematic programmes that might reduce impact
Good implementation of phonics programmes will also consider pupils wider reading skills and will identify where pupils are struggling with aspects of reading other than decoding that might be targeted through other approaches such as the explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies.
Where phonics is delivered as an intervention targeted at specific pupils, regular sessions (up to four times a week), of 30 minutes or so over a period of up to 12 weeks appear to be the most successful structure.
Initial costs, particularly training of teachers, may be moderate. However, there are no ongoing costs of interventions once teachers have already been trained. As a result, the overall cost of intervention may be low.
These cost estimates assume that schools are already paying for staff salaries to deliver interventions, facilities to host lessons, and basic stationary materials for staff and pupils. These are all pre-requisite costs of implementing a phonics intervention, without which the cost is likely to be higher.
The security of the evidence around phonics is rated as very high. 121 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit.
Although there is an acute dearth of research evidence on the impact of phonics on learning outcomes in SSA, the evidence from other low- and middle-income countries reveals some positive impacts of phonics interventions on learning outcomes. Nonetheless, there is need for further research in SSA for quality studies on phonics interventions.
The available evidence suggests positive effects of the phonics on educational outcomes. However, the existing evidence base is very limited.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.