Synthetic Phonics and the Commercial Hype, Is It Harming Students?

The naychure of this artekal iz to looc at the teeching ov fonix in the classroom. Shood children lurn a sinthetik way, or annalitik way, and is any damidge being dun?

What we see in this opening statement of inquiry is a question that has been at the very forefront of teaching in recent years for several reasons. It also, ironically, sheds light and question on the whole debate as the sentence can be read correctly by children if broken down into phonemes as the currently fashionable way to read suggests. With schools across Australia being sold a phonics system that can confuse and hinder more than help, why are we so keen to accept a system that may provide fun activities for early learners and allow them to spell a few words, but then leaves them struggling to make sense of words beyond an early childhood level?

According to Kristy Scott, schools all across the UK, and now in much of Australia, are systematically teaching the synthetic phonic method of reading. It is systematic in that most schools are following a commercially bought program, at great expense, step by step, as the teacher handbook tells them to (Scott, 2010). This isn’t because it has been proved to be the best way of teaching children to read, rather that governments and publishers are telling schools and teachers to do so (Primary National Strategy, 2006). So much so, says Eaton (2016), that professional development courses, funded by commercial companies, sponsored literature, and school subsidies contribute to the increased pressure of high-stakes testing and accountability, and everyone jumps onboard (Burkard, 1999).

Lyle (2015) strongly advocates that the teaching of reading by phonics alone is incredibly flawed, and the handbooks leave the teacher on their own with a major part of the English language that isn’t covered at the sales-pitch seminar. The current major player in the market is Jolly Phonics. So named not for the fun, jovial, light-hearted way that it is said to be implemented, but rather egotistically after the publisher, Oliver Jolly, who put his name to it. Oliver Jolly bought the idea of phonics teaching from two teachers in England, who had some success with the system (Lloyd, 1992). Not mainstream success, but rather with special needs children, specifically with dyslexia (Griffiths & Snowling, 2002). In the UK where education standards were seen to be dropping, Jolly further developed the idea and targeted it at mainstream children and a multi-million dollar empire was born.

To discuss the problems with the system, we first have to ask the question, ‘What is Phonics?’ Phonics is the relationship of phonemes and graphemes, sounds and letters in our English writing system. We use a total of 44 phonemes in our language, being a combination of sounds made up of the 26 letters in the alphabet. In the UK and Australia, synthetic phonics is the preferred way of teaching. It requires the learning of sounds of both the 26 individual letters and the 44 phonemes. Children are required to ‘sound out’ the letters in words and then to blend the sounds. In an ideal world, where the letters make the same sound every time, to teach reading by phonics would make sense. Unfortunately, the English language is one of the most irregular languages in the world and offers many opportunities for the reader to struggle with it in the systematic world of phonics.

The work and papers of Steven Strauss (2005) go far to prove how many of the irregularities in the English language fail children from a very early age, and that how phonic teaching falters with even the shortest of words to read. We are all aware of CVC words, consonant-vowel-consonant. With these easy words and most basic of spellings, children can learn ‘cat’, ‘mat’, ‘sat’, ‘pin’, ‘pan’, ‘pen’, and so on. In fact, the Dyslexia SPELD Foundation also has a system similar to Jolly Phonics, although it has been around a lot longer but attracted less media attention (DSF, 2017). They use a ‘satpin’ system, based on the fact that the letters ‘s-a-t-p-i-n’ are the easiest, and therefore the first, to learn. Many books from the foundation are written using these six letters, before introducing a few more letters in each of the following stages. Again, the system does show some early success for beginning readers, but, again, falters on longer words and even short words. The system is really meant for children with specific learning disabilities, not for mainstream readers.

Back to our CVC words, which work well for words such as ‘cat’, ‘car’, ‘fit’, and ‘sit’, but not so well for words such as ‘fir’ and ‘sir’. This is because, as we know with phonemes, the sound of some letters is controlled by the presence of others. In the word ‘fir’, above, the ‘i’ is controlled by the ‘r’. We could teach this as an exceptional rule, only it is not exceptional. The English language, and phonics in particular, contains more exceptions than basics. We also have the y-controlled rule that will change the short /a/ sound to an /ai/ sound, as in ‘day’ and ‘hay’. Due to the fact that we have these long and short letter sounds, simply ‘sounding out’ letters does not allow the student to know when to use the correct sound (Dufva, Niemi, & Voeten, 2001).

While not technically a phoneme, a ‘magic e’ can also change a letter from a short to a long sound, while remaining silent itself. ‘kit’ becomes ‘kite’, ‘bit’ becomes ‘bite’, ‘can’ becomes ‘cane’, and so on. While teachers teach that ‘magic e’ is an exception, it in itself becomes more complicated. If there are two consonants before the magic e, the vowel can be either short or long. Double consonants such as ‘th’, and ‘st’ will produce a long vowel sound, while ‘nc’, ‘ns’, ‘rc’, ‘rg’, or ‘rs’ can produce a short vowel sound. Added with ‘ng’ which can make a vowel sound either short or long depending on the word it is in, these ‘exceptional rules’ throw a spanner in the works if we are to believe what we are told; that there is a simple letter-sound correlation.

Not only are there many rules contrary to the ideology of phonics, but the rules themselves have to follow rules; with some rules having precedence over other rules. If our word contains ‘ie’, which would normally be pronounced long if it is proceeded by a double consonant before the magic e, then the long vowel sound takes precedence over a short vowel sound. Not forgetting that if there is an ‘e’, ‘i’ or ‘u’ in the word, immediately before ‘r’, then the r-controlled pronunciation takes precedence over a long vowel sound. These rules are hard enough for teachers to master, let alone young children. But if you really want to confuse the student, teach him the ‘ough’ phoneme as found in ‘dough’, ‘drought’, ‘plough’, ‘cough’, hiccough’, and ‘fought’.

There are many more exceptions that could be shown here, but the point has been made. Even the Teacher’s Handbook shows that Jolly Phonics itself cannot keep up, as it tells the teachers to instruct the students that some words in the spelling list do not conform to the phoneme being taught and that the teacher must try to explain these ‘tricky words’ at a later stage. Actually, these words are not tricky at all if we apply and teach the exceptions. You also need to realise 50% of English words would be considered ‘tricky’ to Jolly Phonics. There are too many mistakes with the Jolly Phonics system to detail here, but if we are to believe what we are told, that if children learn an alphabetic system of systematic phonics then they will be able to read, we must expect that there is a wealth of scientific evidence to support what government are telling us to implement. The truth is, again turning to Strauss, there is no such strong evidence (Strauss, 2005).

From the fundamental principles of teaching, we know that the most important part of reading for children is the fact that they make meaning from the text. The following two sentences illustrate this point; ‘The bandage was wound around the wound.’ ‘The insurance policy was invalid for the invalid and the infirm.’ We can read these two sentences because our brains make meaning from the text, rather than decode the words using phonics. Tompkins says that we look at the words around a word to make meaning of it (Tompkins, 2006). In early readers, we see that they will use the picture on a page to make meaning of a word they do not yet know, or they will use words surrounding it to aid their reading.

I learned to read in London, England, in the early 1970s when the reading technique at the time was ‘whole word reading’. The reading scheme in Pre-Primary to Year Three was the Ladybirds Books Keywords Reading Scheme. Readers follow the adventures of Peter and Jane, their parents, dog and friends through a series of books in 12 stages, with three books to a stage. The first book in each stage, the ‘a’ book, introduces new words to the reader and repeats new words. The second book, the ‘b’ book, uses the same words but in a different story, different context, and with different illustrations. The third book, the ‘c’ book, introduces reading using phonics, word formation and recognition while allowing the students to write the words as well and also has comprehension tasks. As the stages progress, the books get longer, the font smaller, and the words harder. The idea is that they build on previous words and phonemes to introduce new words. These books, dating back to the 1960s, use the Keyword approach, what we now teach as ‘Sight Words’, or ‘Fry Words’. The whole word approach is based on the fact that just 12 words in the English language make up one-quarter of the words we read and write every day, and that 100 words in the English language make up one-half of the words we read and write every day (Stuart, Dixon, Masterson, & Gray, 2003). Repetition in the books ingrains the words in children, giving them the confidence that they can read them more proficiently each time they read them. The author of this assignment has been using the Ladybird Keyword series for the last four years in schools to great success; raising the reading age of students but an average of two years in six months.

Australian children’s author and literacy educationalist Mem Fox, author of Possum Magic, Guess What?, Time for Bed, etc. and Member of the Order of Australia for services to children’s literature, says that ‘Learning to read is much more about learning language than it is about making sounds from the letters on the page.’ Fox goes on to say that reading is ‘making meaning, not sound, from the marks we see on the page (Fox, 2017).’ Fox is correct, as illustrated in the following sentence; ‘There was a tear in his…’ It is impossible to sound out the word ‘tear’ correctly if we cannot decode its meaning within the sentence. Using phonics to sound out ‘t-e-a-r’ fails the student. In two possible conclusions to the sentence, we see that the word changes. There was a tear in his eye. There was a tear in his shirt. We can see that the all-important part of a word, is its context (Clark & Rumbold, 2006).

According to McGuinness (2004), advanced readers do not use phonics unless we come across a difficult word that we cannot make sense of by any of our learned means. We are more likely to use phonics when we write, not when we read, as sounding out the syllables helps us better. We can read without phonics, but we can’t write without phonics, which is why writing should be taught with reading and vice versa. As the very first two sentences of this article prove, correct sounding out of words does not amount to reading.

Almost one-third of the world’s population lives in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Their reading standard is very high, often beating Australia and the UK in childhood literacy rankings. Yet of these two billion people, their language contains not a single phoneme (Fox, 2017). Instead, their languages use pictographs. Children are told what the pictograph means, and they memorise it. In contrast, the United States consistently fall down the rankings and are one of the most illiterate countries in the world. Their phonic system of reading has now proven to be so poor, that they employ teachers from Australia and New Zealand. What a shame, therefore that Australia and the UK have now followed the US and their reliance on phonics teaching. Again, governments and principals are sucked into the hype created by the multi-million dollar publishing companies and their pseudo-research. If any further proof is needed that we do not need to rely so heavily on a phonic approach, read the following paragraph.

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteers are in the rghit pclae: the rset can be a toatl mses but you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae we don’t raed ervey lteter, but the word as a wlohe. So waht does this say abuot the improtnace of phnoics in raeidng? Prorbalby that phonics ins’t very imoptrnat at all.

Scholarly academic Andrew Davis purports that the ‘synthetic phonics check isn’t an appropriate way to teach or assess reading among primary students.’ The synthetic phonics check is a test conducted in the UK, given to students to see how well the system is working. Students are given nonsense words amongst regular words, to see if the nonsense word can still be read. With synthetic phonics, a word like ‘voc’ can still be read if the phoneme rules are followed. There is much debate in the UK as to why this test needs to exist, and indeed what purpose it serves other than to confuse the students. One word, in particular, caused much outcry amongst teachers and parents; the word ‘strom’. Being a nonsense word, students were expected to be able to use phonics to pronounce it. Unfortunately, due to the way the brain works, as seen in the previous paragraph, we look at the word as a whole, and as long as the first and last letters are in the correct place, we can read the word. Children were, therefore, reading the word as ‘storm’, and not the intended ‘strom’ (Davis A. , 2014).

Research has shown that while, as stated earlier, phonics may be a good way to assist the learner reader, giving confidence while starting to read and the success of being able to read a few short words, this breaks down quickly by Year One or Two when words get harder and simple phonics do not work without knowing a multitude of rules all at once (McGuinness D. , 2005). In Scotland in 1997, synthetic phonics was introduced in a bid to boost literacy levels. The program showed success in students up to Year One, and was hailed as the way forward. Within ten years, the UK had adopted the phonic approach into primary schools around the country, albeit to much scepticism. The Rose Report (Rose, 2006), commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education for England, recommended in March 2006 that early reading instruction must include synthetic phonics (Wyse & Styles, 2007). This was one in a series of biased reports aimed at getting synthetic phonics imposed on schools and children. It was soon discovered though, that the results stagnated around the Year 2 level, and students did not perform any better after that age (Grant, 2014). This would later be found to be due to the aforementioned reason that phonics fails after a few simple words. David Reedy, president of the UK Literacy Association (2012), says that “while it would be wrong to use the Key Stage 1 results to suggest that phonics is not working, the jury is still out. I think we have to say it is inconclusive at the moment, really. More attention needs to be paid to the other elements of what it means to become a reader as well as the phonics element. Phonics is necessary, but it is not sufficient to become a reader in a rounded sense.”

In a survey of primary school teachers in the UK, following the implementation of a synthetic phonics system, 61.3% of infant teachers questioned said that there has been no impact or negative impact on pupils’ comprehension, while only 33.7% think the effect on comprehension has been slightly, moderately or highly positive. A similar proportion (54.6%) of infant teachers think that higher-order reading has shown no change or has actually been negatively affected. 56.7% of junior teachers report no effect or negative effect on comprehension and 51.8% report no effect or negative effect on higher order reading (Hodgson, 2016).

To put some experience into this, I used to work in a school where synthetic phonics is used in a Pre-Primary to Year Two mixed-age classroom (Davis A. , 2014). When the students entered my classroom of Year 3 to Year 6 students, it was clear that students struggled immensely in the literacy jump between Years Two and Three, often to the point of almost not being able to spell or read correctly at all, or at least phonetically but incorrectly. This is also discussed as apparent by Brooks, Pugh and Schagen (1996) when they state that ‘their phonemi’ knowledge lets them down in reading and spelling words.’ The most common of these mistakes, is the word ‘said’, If students are taught that the letter ‘e’ makes the /e/ sound, it is no wonder that ‘said’ becomes ‘sed’.

In Scotland, the phonics system is now also in question as although 27 out of 32 local authorities use a phonics system in one form or another, a study by the literacy commission has shown that 18.5% of children in Scotland left primary school ‘functionally illiterate.’

 To conclude, it seems that from all the literature accessed, it can be extrapolated that while there is a place for a synthetic phonic approach for very beginner readers, and children with specific learning difficulties, a more balanced approach needs to be adopted for other readers. Teachers need to be still able to teach all of the spelling rules, rather than just let children read and sound out difficult words. We should not be so keen and willing to blindly follow results from pseudo-science and research sponsored by publishing houses for their own financial gain, we should find out who is conducting said research, and who gains from it. In researching this, I spent much time accessing the wealth of information found in various databases and was surprised to find so much information that was not in support of a synthetic phonic system. It has long been my point of view that children were not being taught correctly, so this research has provided a rich opportunity to look further into the area. It became clear from the outset, that that there is much bias in the positive results found for systems like Jolly Phonics. Stakeholders were found to be big players in the research that backs the system. I was also fortunate to have access to a school where observations have been carried out over a number of weeks in Jolly Phonic instruction in younger years, and seeing how the system fails older students.

The one part that became very clear, is that if a school is to adopt a synthetic phonic approach, it needs to ensure that there are a variety of other measures in place where they can all complement each other.


Brooks, G., Pugh, A., & Schagen, I. (1996). Reading Performance at 9. Slough, UK: NFER.

Burkard, T. (1999). The End of Illiteracy? London: Centre for Policy Studies.

Clark, C., & Rumbold, K. (2006). Reading for Pleasure: A Research Overview. UK: The National Literacy Trust.

Davis, A. (2014, 03 4). Reading lessons: why synthetic phonics doesn’t work. The Guardian .

Davis, A. (2014). To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy , 20.

DSF. (2017). Retrieved 03 20, 2017, from DSF Literacy and Clinical Services:

Dufva, M., Niemi, P., & Voeten, M. (2001). The role of phonological memory, word recognition,and comprehension skills in reading development: From pre-school to grade 2. Reading and Writing , 14, pp. 91-117.

Eaton, C. (2016, 11 27). The Phonics Versus Whole Language Controversy. Language Debates .

Fox, M. (2017). The Folly of Phonics. Retrieved 03 21, 2017, from Mem Fox:

Grant, D. M. (2014). Longitudinal Study from Reception to Year 2 (2010-2013). . The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Program on Reading, Writing and Spelling , 2-24.

Griffiths, Y., & Snowling, M. (2002). Predictors of exception word and non-word reading in dyslexic children: The severity hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology , 94, pp. 34-43.

Hodgson, J. (2016). Phonics instruction and early reading: professional views from the classroom. London: NATE.

Lloyd, S. (1992). The Phonics Handbook. Chigwell, UK: Jolly Learning.

Lyle, S. (2015). The Limits of Phonics Teaching. School Leadership Today , 5.5, 68-74.

McGuinness, D. (2004). Early reading instruction: What science really tells us about how to teach reading. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press.

McGuinness, D. (2005). Language development and learning to read: The scientific study of how language development affects reading skill. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Primary National Strategy. (2006). Primary Framework for Literacy and Mathematics: Supporting Guidance for Headteachers and Chairs of Governors. Nottingham: DfES Publications.

Rose, J. (2006). Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Nottingham: DfES Publications.

Scott, K. (2010, 01 19). Phonics: Lost in Translation. The Guardian .

Strauss, S. (2005). The Linguistics, Neurology, and Politics of Phonics. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Stuart, M., Dixon, M., Masterson, J., & Gray, B. (2003). Children’s early reading vocabulary: Description and word frequency lists. British Journal of Educational Psychology , 73, pp. 585-598.

Tompkins, G. (2006). Literacy for the 21st Century. Australia: Pearson.

UKLA. (2012). UKLA Analysis of Schools’ response to the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check. London.

Wyse, D., & Styles, M. (2007). Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading: the debate surrounding England’s ‘Rose Report’. Literacy , 41 (1), pp. 35-42.



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4 Comments on “Synthetic Phonics and the Commercial Hype, Is It Harming Students?

  1. Phonics is never used in isolation. Phonics is not ALL to literacy learning. However, doing all other things but synthetic phonics in learning English, is a costly mistake.

    Synthetic phonics is a powerful tool to help children to make sense of the letters in front of them. Phonics helps you to read 40-50% of the English words. Is there a better system to help you learn this language? Plus, Jolly Phonics teaches tricky words – being aware of high frequency words that cannot be decoded.

    I have used Jolly Phonics in preschool for a long time and found no better way to teach children to read at the beginning stage than synthetic phonics. Jolly Grammar 1 is a great extension to Jolly Phonics because it helps children to grapple with writing. So it is a system that brings you through from sounds to reading and writing – it does what is claims.

    However, to continue to use a phonics program beyond that, I would say its the irresponsibility of the school. They forgot the point of literacy. Synthetic phonics is there to help on read and write and not “worship” and stick for life.

    Once a child, is able to read and write, it is time to soar. Enjoying stories, writing variety of genres, theatre appreciation and acting etc.

    Lastly, if a system can work for children with difficulties, it will definitely work with typical children! 🙂 It is an extra stamp that “it works”. Montessori began for the disadvantaged children, so did High Scope method. Are we not also enjoying these education systems in mainstream too?

    1. Hi Esther,

      I couldn’t agree with you more. As I stated, it a great system to use in the early stages and I agree with you that “to use a phonics program beyond that… [is] the irresponsibility of the school”. That is exactly what I have seen that promoted this post. My point was that I have seen this system used above anything else, and schools just don’t seem to see the problems caused in mid- to higher- primary years. The students’ reliance on phonics then lets them down, as I stated. I feel that the school then points the finger to the child as being ‘slow’, or ‘just not getting it’. We reap what we sow.

  2. This article is extremely flawed, as you have not truly understood that the alternative ways of spelling sounds are taught systematically, hence the term systematised synthetic phonics. The principles of which supporr children with learning diifficulties to read. In addition children who have a good visual memory learn un an accelerated capacity as the learning of phonics to decode in a multi sensory approach aids recall of sounds in words. The impression this article gives is that childrdn are ill equipped to read when taught using systematic phonic approaches when actually this approach is thorough.
    The ownee of Jolly Phonics is Christopher Jolly and furthermore there are many systematic schemes and Jolly Phonics would hardly be classed as expensive. In my 16 years of teaching synthetic phonics has been the most effective method of teaching children to read.

    1. Hi Heather,

      Thank you for the time you took to read the article and the further time out of your day to comment. I agree with you that there is definitely a place and purpose for synthetic phonics, and does show great results in early years and with those with learning difficulties. My main point is, really, with the schools that I have seen that take it as the ONLY way to teach students; then, they are truly let down when that cannot use the ‘rules’ to read words that don’t follow the rules, as most words don’t. I have seen many schools that then point the finger to the child as if to say, “Well, we taught them phonics, it must be there fault now”. Surely these are schools that are letting the children down.

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