So if phonics doesn't work...what then?

With a quarter of ten and eleven year-olds in England unable to read to the expected standard (DfE, 2018), and with the majority of those children now having had phonics instruction for two years of their initial schooling perhaps Glazzard (2017) is correct when he asserts that if a child has received phonics instruction from aged five to seven and is still struggling to read then more phonics instruction is irrational; something different is needed not more of what has already failed.​

The fact that the DfE (2016) year 3 pilot screening of seven and eight-year-olds revealed that nearly 50% of those assessed had not reached the threshold for phonics mastery might suggest that Glazzard (2017) is indeed correct. Phonics just doesn't work for some children so something different is needed and the NAHT and other teaching unions were justified in crowing their success in having the year 3 phonics screening dropped (rather than hanging their heads in shame in achieving one of the darkest stains on national literacy assessment- exacerbated by the pilot's conclusions that it was poorer children who fared worse in the evaluation).

The impact of instruction in phonics on reading is significantly greater in the first two years of schooling (Ehri, 2004). However, effect sizes are considerably smaller when this instruction is introduced after the age of seven with fluency instruction and comprehension instruction producing far greater effect sizes (NIHCD, 2000). This led Ehri (2004) to suggest that beyond ages of seven, phonics instruction must be combined with other forms of reading instruction if maximum impact is to be attained. This is counter-intuitive to the Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tumner, 1986) which indicates that decoding mastery is directly correlated with reading comprehension (see here). Ehri (2004) makes this supposition directly from effect sizes and concedes to there being a paucity of research in this field. She surmises, that the diminishing effect sizes for phonics instruction in older pupils may be a result of the difficulties in altering students’ habits and compensatory strategies when attacking unknown words. This may require the suppression of guessing words based on initial phonemes and contextual cues and the closer examination of spellings when reading words (Ehri, 2004). For an older child who has failed to master phonics, the most efficacious strategy when attacking an unknown word is to wait until an adult decodes it for them (Connor, Morrison, Katch, 2004) - if you want to see this strategy in action, observe the majority of KS2 reading lessons.

Although specific research into the teaching of phonics beyond the age of seven is elusive, inferences can be drawn from wider studies. ‘The Reading First Program’, a reading intervention for struggling readers, established as part of the No Child Left Behind (2001) legislation in the United States, included substantial decoding instruction for older pupils (seven- and eight-year olds). Although the impact on reading fluency and comprehension was poor, the impact on decoding was significant (Kucan and Palincsar, 2011) indicating that phonics instruction for older children can be effective. The poor outcomes for comprehension have been blamed on a poorly conceived strategy for instruction with the approach lacking a systematic and consistent method (McKeown et al, 2009).

Further indication that phonics instruction in later years may be effective can be implied from Vaughn et al.’s research into a thirty-week intervention for forty-five eight-year-old children identified with reading problems. Although the intervention included both fluency and comprehension instruction, the early weeks were weighted heavily in favour of phonemic awareness and letter-sound relationships. Seventy-six per cent of the sample met the success criteria at the end of the intervention and further monitoring indicated that of those, seventy percent continued to be successful readers.

McCandliss et al.’s (2003) study of seven-year-olds whose word-attack strategy relied on initial consonant decoding also indicated that interventions that focused on phonemic manipulation by altering one letter at a time (a regular strategy employed in linguistic phonics programmes) resulted in participants significantly outperforming the control group in a decoding assessment. These results were supported by Harm et al.’s study into word building interventions that focused on participants writing letters rather than focusing on speech activities. The pairing of orthography and phonology was crucial, the study concluded, to enhance the knowledge of phonemic structure (Harm et al., 2003).

The growing recognition that many reading difficulties are revealed beyond the early years of schooling (Chall, 1967) has not corresponded with research studies in this area. However, Leach et al. (2003) studied older pupils with late-emerging reading difficulties (eight and nine-year olds) and concluded that word recognition, decoding and spelling are significant impediments to progress in reading achievement beyond early school grades. They suggested that late emerging reading difficulties are being overlooked by educators and that a more forensic assessment protocols are required by schools.

Summarising research into struggling readers, particularly in later years, Kucan and Palincsar (2011,) conclude that, ‘We need to focus our efforts on minimizing the bottle-neck effects of the decoding problems experienced by some struggling readers…’ (Kucan and Palincsar, p. 354).

With the poverty of research into the value of phonics instruction in later years it is apposite to review studies into adult literacy improvement for any clues as to the efficacy of an approach which seeks to advance decoding strategies where some non-phonic compensatory schemas may be established. Despite there being little academic investigation in this area of reading prior to the 1970s (Brooks, 2011), Kruidenier’s (2002) analysis of random controlled trials into adult illiteracy indicated that phonemic awareness and word analysis instruction led to an increase in achievement for poor adult readers. Burton’s (2007) small-scale study of adult illiterates supported this with its conclusion that phonics instruction enhanced students’ progress. A follow-up study by Burton (2008) found that there was a positive correlation between students’ progress and the amount of phonics training that their teachers had received. Brooks notes the lack of research into the efficacy of systematic synthetic phonics instruction for older learners despite the positive indications for very young readers and suggests that this approach ‘awaits convincing demonstration…’ (2011, p.192).

That the efficacy of phonics instruction for older learners has been questioned posits a crucial line of inquiry. There is little explicit research into this area of pedagogy, but what implicit research exists suggests that it is possible and effective. If phonics mastery is a threshold that must be traversed for reading fluency to be possible then the unpicking of compensatory strategies will be essential along with the establishing of an effective instructional programme in phonics for older learners.

The Reading Ape will share the results of a two year study into the effects of phonics instruction on reading fluency in older children at the end of the year.

You may be interested in reading:


















Follow the reading ape on twitter - @thereadingape