Phonics was the preferred method for teaching of reading until the 1960s when it fell out of favour. But what does it mean and how will its teaching make a difference.

What is phonics?

Synthetic phonics is often described as a “back to basics” system of teaching children to read and is based on the 44 sounds made by letters or small groups of letters (phonemes) which comprise the English language

It teaches pupils to recognise the sounds of individual letters, and then blends of letters such as “sh”, “th” and “ee”.

Pupils build up gradually toward “decoding” whole words from their constituent parts, for example “s-t-r-ee-t”.

Phonics was the dominant teaching system until the 1960s when new methods arrived, such as teaching children to learn whole words without mastering the alphabet “by rote”

Those in favour of the more traditional system say it teaches children very quickly how to read almost any word they encounter.

But critics of the method have argued that while children can read individual words, they often do not understand what the words mean.

Why did it fall out of favour?

In the 1960s, phonics teaching was replaced by what were considered more child-friendly methods such as “look and say” or “whole language” learning.

These encouraged whole-word recognition in the belief that children would learn to read without having to learn the alphabet by rote.

This method has increasingly been dismissed by critics as “look and guess” because some children use other clues from the page or memorise the stories which they then purport to read.

Will it work?

The success of a seven-year trial of synthetic phonics involving 300 schoolchildren in Clackmannanshire, Scotland is often cited as proof that phonics is effective.

The research, conducted by St Andrews and Hull universities, showed that 11-year-olds who had been taught to read and write using synthetic phonics were up to three years ahead of their peers in reading skills.

A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills later showed the research to be inconclusive but the Government has recently been encouraged by a small-scale trial of 16 primary schools.

A larger pilot project will be introduced in 300 schools this summer before a national roll-out in 2012.

While synthetic phonics looked “promising”, the evidence in favour of using it was still “relatively limited”, the researchers said.

According to the study, there was no conclusive evidence that the phonics method improved children’s spelling or their understanding of what they read.

What do teachers think?

The teaching unions have questioned the government’s reliance on a “one size fits all” approach, which may not necessarily suit all children. They say it should be left to teachers to judge how best to teach their pupils.

Those in favour of the system say it teaches children how to read almost any word very quickly. But critics argue that while children can read the words they often do not understand what they mean.

Others say it is turning the clock back to pre-1950s teaching. Advocates insist it must be taught to the exclusion of all else and that the current approach of combining it with other teaching methods is confusing.

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