Last reviewed 28 January 2022

The current emphasis on synthetic phonics to teach reading is failing children, according to new research by UCL’s Institute of Education.

The UCL researchers say the current emphasis on synthetic phonics is not underpinned by the latest evidence and it is less successful than other methods. The researchers are among 250 signatories of a letter to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, calling on the Government to use a wider range of approaches to teaching reading, which would allow teachers to use their own judgment about which is best for their pupils.

The research suggests that teaching of reading has been less successful in England since the use of synthetic phonics was adopted and is based on experimental trials, data from international assessment tests such as PISA, and a survey of 2205 nursery, Reception and Year 1 teachers.

The majority of teachers surveyed said that synthetic phonics was their main focus for teaching reading due to feeling pressured by the Government’s phonics screening test for all children at age five or six to check pupil progress. The open letter says that teachers should be encouraged to focus “first and foremost” on pupils making sense of texts, and that phonics teaching should be carefully linked with reading of whole texts.

Prof Dominic Wyse, co-author of the UCL study, said:

“Teaching children to read and to make sense of texts is crucial to improving their life chances and is one of the most important tasks of primary schools and early years settings.”

“Although there are some strengths to England’s current approach to teaching reading, our new research shows that the Government’s policy is uninformed because it is not underpinned by the latest robust evidence.

“For the first time in more than 100 years we see that a balanced-instruction approach to the teaching of reading is no longer the norm in England. The majority of teachers are now reporting the more frequent use of the narrower synthetic phonics approach. Our view is that the system doesn’t give teachers enough flexibility to do what they think is best for their pupils, nor to encourage pupils to enjoy reading.”

The UCL research is available here.