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If your child is starting school or currently in primary school in England, they will learn to read through the teaching of phonics. 

What is phonics?

Phonics is a method for teaching reading and writing to children in primary schools introduced by the Coalition government in 2011. Children link sounds (phonemes) and their written form (graphemes) in order to recognise and read words, using basic units of knowledge to “decode” new or unfamiliar words.

Why is phonics the favoured teaching method?

According to the Department for Education's guidance for parents, "Research shows that when phonics is taught in a structured way – starting with the easiest sounds and progressing through to the most complex – it is the most effective way of teaching young children to read. It is particularly helpful for children aged 5 to 7."

How is phonics taught?

Words are made up of just 44 sounds in English. You may have heard your child or their teacher use particular words that form the core of understanding phonics. Here's a quick explanation of some of the key concepts. 

  • Phoneme - the smallest unit of sound as it is spoken.
  • Grapheme -  a written symbol that represents a sound (phoneme) that's either one letter or a sequence of letters
  • Digraph - two letters that work together to make the same sound (ch, sh, ph)
  • Trigraph - three letters that work together to make the same sound (igh, ore, ear)
  • Split digraph (sometimes called 'magic e') - two letters that work together to make the same sound, separated by another letter in the same word. This enables children to understand the difference in vowel sounds between, for example, grip/gripe, rag/rage, tap/tape.

Rather than memorising words individually, children are taught a code which helps them to work out how to read an estimated 95% of the English language.

Arguments for and against phonics

In Learning to read through phonics: information for parents, the Department for Education says, "Children who have been taught phonics also tend to read more accurately than those taught using other methods, such as 'look and say'. This includes children who find learning to read difficult, for example those who have dyslexia."

One of the biggest advocates of teaching phonics has been Schools Minister Nick Gibb, who noted that, "One of the most controversial education reforms introduced by the Conservative-led Government in 2010 was our decision to require schools to use phonics to teach children to read." Citing the success of introducing phonics, he says, "In 2012, the first year of the Phonics Check, just 58% of six-year-olds reached the pass mark of 32 out of the 40. This year, 81% of six year olds reached that standard, with 92% of children reaching that standard by the end of year 2." Gibb also points to England's 2016 success in the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) rankings, an international comparative study of nine-year olds' reading and literacy skills across fifty countries around the world conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) every five years, in which England was ranked joint 8th and received its highest average yet, up from 19th in 2006.

On the other hand, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the NEU teaching union, believes that the PIRLS data is not an endorsement of the phonics teaching method. He points to the improved scores in England being only half that of the improvement in Ireland and Northern Ireland - countries that do not use the phonics teaching method, and which both out-performed England in the final rankings. He says, "A sober reading of these findings might have concluded that England may have something to learn from other countries with different approaches and better success."

For more on how children’s reading is assessed, see the Phonics Screening Check

Reviewed: June 2019

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