Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?

Mar 15, 2017 | Effective Practice, Literacy Leadership, Whole School Literacy

A recent TES article headlined “Call for researchers to highlight negative ‘side effects’ of methods like phonics” drew a predictable response. Though the article supplied not one piece of evidence to support the assertion that phonics had “negative side effects”, and despite the academic quoted having zero background or expertise in reading science, tweets and comments celebrated this damning of the barbaric practice of phonics in schools.

Both the article and the responses illustrate the strong prejudices that have to be overcome before early reading instruction is universally of sufficient quality to ensure that we really are a literate society – i.e. one in which all school leavers have good, not just functional or non-functional, reading and writing skills. But – does phonics help or hinder comprehension? Is it merely, as Michael Rosen and his followers have characterised it, “barking at print”? It seems to me that this question is at the heart of much resistance to phonics. Many people seem to believe that phonics in reading means that other aspects of reading are not taught, or that phonics will actually interfere with students’ enthusiasm for reading, or that phonics will hinder students’ comprehension.

For the avoidance of doubt, the initial purpose of phonics is not comprehension but accurate decoding, i.e. accurately identifying the words on the page. According to the widely-accepted Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) it is reasonable to then expect that decoded words which fall within the child’s oral language abilities will be understood. So reading comprehension is, of necessity, going to be one or more steps removed from phonic knowledge. But does phonics hinder this process? Or does it support understanding? Here is a brief survey of some relevant findings from the literature on the links between phonics and reading comprehension.

An analysis of the longitudinal Clackmannanshire study by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, in which a synthetic phonics programme was introduced in Year 1, found that in the second year of primary the children had an average advantage in reading comprehension of seven months compared to the general population – a significant gain. Tellingly, there was still an advantage (though not so strong) at Year 7. Clearly, being taught using synthetic phonics did not disadvantage these children’s ability to understand text (Johnston & Watson, 2009).

In one of the largest educational studies in history, Project Follow Through, the clear winner out of nine main approaches was Direct Instruction, authored by Siegfried Engelmann and Carl Bereiter. Direct Instruction used a phonics-based approach to teach early reading. The study found that this method produced superior results not only in the domain of ‘basic skills’ but also in problem-solving and self-esteem (Barbash, 2012). Apparently, the thousands of children taught using an explicit phonics focus were cognitively and emotionally advantaged, not damaged, by the experience.

Professor John Hattie is well known for his meta-meta-analysis of educational research, Visible Learning. In his section on reading comprehension, he writes: “the support from this form of [synthetic] systematic phonics appeared to be strong: that is, the synthesis of separate sounds associated with letters appears to be superior to many other methods.” Hattie concludes: “Overall, phonics instruction is powerful in the process of learning to read – both for reading skills and for reading comprehension” (Hattie, 2009).


Professor Jean Stockard analysed the achievement of students across a US school district, where those taught to read by Direct Instruction were compared to students taught using other methods.

“At the outset of the study, the first grade students in the DI schools had lower vocabulary and comprehension scores than students in either of the two treatment groups. By fifth grade, however, the DI students had the highest vocabulary and comprehension averages – averages that exceeded the fifth grade national average” (Barbash, 2012).

Clearly, the use of a synthetic phonics approach, at least delivered through Direct Instruction, did not disadvantage these children with respect to comprehension; it appears that they were advantaged by it.

In her seminal paper, Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, Professor Louisa Moats summarises essential information for teachers to know about reading acquisition. With respect to the link between decoding and comprehension, she explains:

“Research has shown that good readers do not skim and sample the text when they scan a line in a book. They process the letters of each word in detail, although they do so very rapidly and unconsciously. Those who comprehend well accomplish letter-wise text scanning with relative ease and fluency. When word identification is fast and accurate, a reader has ample mental energy to think over the meaning of the text. Knowledge of sound-symbol mapping is crucial in developing word recognition: the ability to sound out and recognize words accounts for about 80 percent of the variance in first-grade reading comprehension and continues to be a major (albeit diminishing) factor in text comprehension as students progress through the grades” (Moats, 1999).

The eminent reading researcher, Professor Keith Stanovich, explains how reading comprehension fails to develop in students with weaker decoding:

“ . . . less-skilled readers often find themselves in materials that are too difficult for them (Allington, 1977, 1983, 1984; Gambrell, Wilson, & Gantt, 1981). The combination of deficient decoding skills, lack of practice, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences that lead to less involvement in reading-related activities. Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to comprehension. Thus, reading for meaning is hindered; unrewarding reading experiences multiply; and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement” (Stanovich, 1986).


Professor E D Hirsch, writing about the importance of developing reading comprehension, emphasises that it is built upon an early foundation of strong knowledge of letter-sound correspondences:

“Experiments show that a child who can sound out nonsense words quickly and accurately has mastered the decoding process and is on the road to freeing up her working memory to concentrate on comprehension of meaning. Decoding fluency is achieved through accurate initial instruction followed by lots of practice” (Hirsch, 2003).

Assistant Professor David Kilpatrick, in his recent book Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, summarises large tracts of the most up-to-date research on reading. His central theme is that children become skilled (i.e. fluent, comprehending) readers when they develop facility with ‘orthographic mapping’, brought about through a complex combination of skills. One of these essential skills is letter-sound knowledge, including blending (the ‘synthetic’ part of synthetic phonics) (Kilpatrick, 2015, p.92).

Why is letter-sound knowledge so important? It forms a bridge between the language that we know from speech and the written code that represents it. In this recent post, Professor Mark Seidenberg, author of Reading at the Speed of Sight, comments on:

“ – studies of skilled readers showing they cannot inhibit using phonological information.  We can set up reading experiments in which the use of phonological information interferes with performance (such as the Van Orden and tongue-twister experiments).   The reader would do better if they could suppress phonology, but they can’t:  it’s not a switch that can be turned on or off.

“ – the brain evidence shows why:  orthography and phonology become integrated in the neural system that supports reading and spoken language.  The spelling area, for example, is thoroughly penetrated by knowledge of phonology.   The phonology we’ve learned from using spoken language gets changed by exposure to print.  (‘Phonemic awareness’ results from this.)”

In other words, phonological knowledge is so closely integrated with other reading skills that if you try to suppress the use of this knowledge, it makes reading more difficult.

Far from hindering comprehension, good phonic knowledge is essential to (though not sufficient for) becoming a skilled, comprehending reader. Becoming a successful reader is the single most powerful contribution that education can make to a child. So, why the opposition to phonics?


I would suggest that there are three main reasons:

The empirical evidence for phonics, and its insistence on a systematic body of knowledge, is at odds with romantic tenets of learning:

  • Truth is relative
  • We all construct our own meanings from experience (including text)
  • Learners are autonomous individuals
  • Self-actualisation is the aim of education
  • It is not really possible to teach, only to facilitate learning.

Secondly, in the face of the clear advantage that phonics provides over whole language approaches, it has become necessary for proponents of the latter to misrepresent phonics teaching practices. They are portrayed as robotic, mechanical, authoritarian, and soulless, killing the love of reading. The romantic view in the previous paragraph explains why systematic teaching will inevitably be viewed in this way; the resistance to matters of fact and reason appears to be a part of the phenomenon where we cling more tightly to our beliefs when they are challenged.

Thirdly, and I think crucially, many people’s understanding of phonics teaching is based on poor quality teaching. Where people observe a soulless, mechanical lesson, they generalise this to a judgement about phonics teaching in general. The quality of teaching of phonics is a matter of the utmost importance; done well, it is a powerful, cost-effective and time-efficient strategy for improving reading levels. As with any content, delivered badly, it is confusing, demotivating and more expensive in the long run. Given the necessity of good phonic knowledge, the need for systematic and explicit teaching amongst a significant proportion of children, and the access we have to well-designed phonics curricula, the teaching profession has an obligation to ensure that we deliver phonics well – as part of a rich, stimulating diet of language and literature.


Imagine the alternative. Imagine what it is like for a struggling reader to be told to look around the page, think about what they have read, guess from the first letter what word might fit in this sentence. The way in which the curriculum gradually moves further and further out of reach. The way the child learns to mimic the behaviours of other students who can read, to mask their own inability. The way they give up on themselves. The anti-phonics, whole language approach is a travesty that is crippling reading for thousands of children, and then excused by ‘disability’ labels, social disadvantage or the alleged poor character of the child (or their parents).

The evidence is in. Give children effective, systematic, explicit instruction in the letter-sound code early on and prevent a myriad of problems later – problems which can persist throughout the lifetime of a person with low literacy: problems like poorer health, lower earnings, higher risk of unemployment, higher risk of criminality, alienation, low self-esteem and mental health problems (see p.14 onwards in this report). Teaching reading effectively is one of the cheapest, most useful things we can do as a society. It is central to social justice.


You may also be interested in:

No Excuses Left

Looking Past the Masks

Seven Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?


Barbash, S. (2012) Clear Teaching. Education Consumers Foundation.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986) Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7 (1) 6-10.

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. OX: Routledge.

Hirsch, E. D. (2003) Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge – of Words and the World. American Educator, Spring.

Johnston, R. & Watson, J. (2005) A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment. Insight, Scottish Executive Education Department.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015) Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. NJ: Wiley.

Moats, L. (1999) Teaching Reading is Rocket Science. American Federation of Teachers.

Stanovich, K. E. Romance and Reality. The Reading Teacher 47 (4) Dec 1993/Jan 1994.


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