At the beginning of 2022, researchers from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society (The Department of Education, Practice and Society in the University College London), published a paper dismissing the use of phonics and reviving a hot debate - sometimes called the reading wars - in England.

The research about education policy and classroom practices for teaching phonics may be fascinating, but not everyone seems to be convinced by its conclusions. According to Julia Carroll, a professor of child development and education at Coventry University, deeper analysis is needed before writing off the use of systematic phonics.

The literacy wars revolve around the differences among the three most common approaches to learning, namely systematic phonics, whole language, and balanced literacy. There are, however, two issues that the authors of the study have failed to clarify or address. First, the authors don't make a clear distinction between early literacy teaching, which occurs during Year 1 and Year 2, and subsequent literacy teaching, which occurs during Year 3 onwards.

So the said research, which is focused only on Years 1 and 2, is confined to a period when there is a lot of phonics teaching and minimal comprehension since language learners have to be able to read individual words before being able to read whole texts. This is why it would be necessary to talk more about what occurs after Year 2 to really understand this controversy.

The second issue is that the authors completely forgot to address struggling and "at-risk" readers, which is precisely the group that can benefit the most from a systematic phonics approach. Typical students can "pick up" phonics quite easily, while at-risk readers benefit from clear, sequenced, and systematic teaching, exactly what happens in the synthetic phonics method. This approach does not harm learners' reading outcomes while helping those most at risk. This fact matters greatly because at least 20% of every class can be considered at-risk readers due to learning difficulties, having English as an additional language, and many other factors.

Picture: Phonics (Getty Images, w/Effects)