Opinion: Phonics lessons aren’t working - here’s a better way to teach children to read and write

Dominic Wyse
Dominic Wyse

Research proposing a new model of reading called the "Double Helix" is a better alternative to phonics when teaching young children to read and write, explains Professor Dominic Wyse (Ioe, UCL’s Faculty of Education & Society) in The Conversation.

Since 2010, five and six-year-old children in England have been taught to read using a particular variant of "systematic phonics". 

"Phonics" describes methods of teaching reading that emphasise teaching how phonemes - the smallest sounds in the words of oral language - are represented by letters. In England, the type of phonics teaching is best described as "narrow synthetic phonics". 

This is because England’s curriculum policies and guidance have restricted phonics lessons to an overwhelming emphasis on phonemes and letters at the expense of other aspects of reading, and writing, that are not to be covered in phonics lessons. Phonics is taught using special "decodable books", rather than real books. 

Aspects such as comprehension, engaging with real books, and writing activities, are all to be taught in different lessons. Yet my research and other studies have found that a more effective way of teaching reading would see phonics and decoding taught with these other main elements, in lessons that should focus on reading and writing at the same time. 

One consequence of England’s synthetic phonics is that children are likely to be less motivated to read because synthetic phonics lessons are not focused on motivation and real purposes for reading. 

Models of reading

The way reading is taught in England stems from the interpretation of an influential theory known as "The Simple View of Reading". This proposed that reading comprises two elements: decoding and comprehension. In England, this has led to the separation of the teaching of decoding from other parts of the curriculum subject of English. 

In spite of some positive aspects, the main limitation of the Simple View of Reading - and some other, similar models for learning to read - is that the original evidence base was research done with children who struggle with reading, rather than research done with more typical readers. 

What’s more, the models do not include various elements that are important for effective teaching because they are more focused on a limited range of elements of children’s learning. For example, the different languages and dialects that children may speak are not accounted for. 

My new research with colleague Charlotte Hacking proposes a new model of reading, which we call the "Double Helix".

The starting points for teaching inspired by our Double Helix model are children, their languages, their experiences in homes and communities, and the texts that they have encountered. Lessons focus first and foremost on motivating children through the use of real books - standard books written for children rather than texts specially produced for phonics schemes. 

The lessons integrate the teaching of reading and writing. All lessons are driven by the need to motivate children and to ensure that the purposes of reading and writing, to comprehend and compose texts, are first and foremost.

Phonemes and letters are taught, but this teaching is integrated with other vital components of reading. For example, lessons should always use whole texts - books with stories rather than decodable books - to stimulate children’s interest. A focus on a particular phoneme to be taught is done by selecting a word and sentence in the text and then identifying how the letters in the word represent the phoneme. A range of other discussions and activities are also part of this phonics teaching. 

During a lesson using this approach, children would be asked to comment on all kinds of questions about the pictures and the story, not just questions about phonemes and letters. They would do writing in the lesson. Phonics teaching would be part of the new approach to teaching, but balanced with all the other elements, so that reading and writing made sense. 

There is an international trend towards an increasing use of synthetic phonics, seen in Australia, provinces of Canada and the USA. In some countries, this trend has been influenced by the narrow approach to synthetic phonics in England that intensified from 2010 onwards. 

But as an expert in reading education, I think that this trend is not backed up by a balanced and rigorous appraisal of the evidence of what works in the teaching of reading and writing. There are other, better ways than England’s focus on synthetic phonics.

This article first appeared in  The Conversation  on 28  May 2024.

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