The Balancing Act book Image - News story
Created: 20th May, 2024

Rigid approach to teaching phonics is ‘joyless’ and is failing children, experts warn

Today, sees the publication of a peer-reviewed research paper, promoting a new theory and model called, The Double Helix of Teaching Reading and Writing.

CLPE's Charlotte Hacking and UCL's Professor Dominic Wyse, have released robust research to show that phonics should be taught hand-in-hand with reading and writing to encourage true literacy and a love of reading, not through narrow synthetic phonics. 

The underpinning research of ‘The Double Helix of Teaching Reading and Writing’ suggests an overhaul of the current system is necessary to bring the 'joy' back into reading. The paper argues that motivating children to read and write is foundational to the balanced approach, and it begins with engaging children through high quality books. CLPE's 50 years of knowledge of high-quality books, teaching experience and research into what works in the classroom, has fed into this model and lies at the heart of our highly successful Power of Reading programme, as well as our wider portfolio of CPD and teaching resources.

This latest research will feature in an upcoming book The Balancing Act: An Evidence-Based Approach to Teaching Phonics, Reading and Writing authored by Wyse and Hacking. This publication is available to pre-order via Routledge from the 30th May.

About the research
There is widespread disagreement globally across academic and educational spheres about the best way to teach children to learn to read and write. Despite a growing international trend towards a narrow approach to synthetic phonics, experts suggest there is a ‘better way’ to teach reading and writing.

In England, the system is among the most prescriptive in the world with ‘synthetic phonics’ being the method required by government. Yet in England, in 2023 the national tests at the end of primary education showed that 27% of children did not meet the standard in reading and 29% did not meet the standard for writing.

“We know that being literate not only sets the foundation for better academic and socio-economic outcomes, but also that reading can support personal, social, and emotional development, enabling better mental health and greater capacity for empathy and critical thinking – we must stop letting children down,” authors [and education experts] Dominic Wyse and Charlotte Hacking explain. 

Synthetic phonics
Schools in England are required by the national curriculum to teach reading and writing using a system called ‘synthetic phonics’, which involves a narrow emphasis on learning about sounds (phonemes) and the letters that stand for those sounds.  

But Wyse and Hacking say these policies are in danger of harming children’s education and are ‘a product of political ideology not in children’s best interests’. 

Although synthetic phonics schemes can now be found in many classrooms across the world, the latest trend initially started in England. Wyse and Hacking explain how in England, teachers face a unique set of pressures to adopt synthetic phonics as the only approach.  

They outline how schools are very strongly encouraged by government Department for Education (DfE) policies to buy often expensive commercial synthetic phonics schemes, and the synthetic phonics policy is also enforced by the inspectorate Ofsted. Children aged 6 are tested in phonics and the results are entered into the national pupil database, with those data  used to hold the schools and teachers to account. 

Wyse explains: “When children in England are about age six (Year 1) they must all sit a national test to decode a list of individual words that includes nonsense words. In 2023 21% of children did not achieve the expected standard – this is despite more than a decade of this synthetic phonics approach. Clearly, it isn’t working. Our research shows a more effective way to teach reading and writing.” 

Previous research, laid out in the book, shows that the potential consequences for children not progressing sufficiently well in reading and writing are profound, and include being less able to access vital services in society; higher probability of poorer mental health, lower wages in life, and even of ending up in prison. 

“Despite a wealth of research and scientific evidence to show there are multiple effective ways to teaching reading and writing, the only way emphasised is a narrow approach to synthetic phonics,” Hacking explains. 

A balanced approach 
Hacking and Wyse, who have extensively examined the evidence, are now promoting a ‘balanced approach’, focusing on using beloved children’s texts to systematically teach the key elements that are vital to learn to read and write, including phonics.

This approach to teaching is explicitly built on new analyses of the most robust research studies undertaken to determine what are the most effective ways to teach phonics, reading and writing.  

They explain: “With this approach, the importance of comprehending and composing the meaning of written language is carefully balanced with the acquisition of a range of skills and knowledge. This enables pupils to see the real purposes for reading and writing. 

“Instead of focusing narrowly on the sounds that letters represent, this approach also prioritises the comprehension of text, the grammar of sentences, and teaching writing to help reading.  The balanced approach is about understanding the structure of words and language as a whole.” Contrary to a myth that some people have promoted, a balanced approach is not ‘Whole Language’ teaching in disguise.

Using ‘real’ books
Underpinning this balanced approach is the use of ‘real books’, which are of ‘outstanding quality, inclusive, and diverse in their representations of people and places’. 

Under synthetic phonics schemes, children are usually given formulaic ‘decodable’ texts designed to repeat a certain sound to encourage familiarisation with the sound and a limited number of simple words. In some stages of the synthetic phonics programme the reading of whole texts may even be discouraged, but Wyse and Hacking believe the emphasis should be much more strongly on comprehending and enjoying real whole texts.

“Delighting in real books brings learning to life. This engages children and sustains their motivation to read and write for real purposes and for pleasure,” they explain.

Wyse continues: “Instead of the drive to support money-making from synthetic phonics schemes our approach puts the work of authors of books for children centre stage. Otherwise, children miss out on the art of outstanding illustrator authors, puns, wordplay, imagination, curiosity, creativity and so much more. Our approach is a far cry from narrow synthetic phonics lessons, which even when taught expertly simply haven’t the same appeal for children.”

“Meaning drives our approach to teaching reading and writing. It is the essence of human language, hence it should be the essence of teaching,” Hacking continues. “Teaching about sounds is meaningless unless it is contextualised in words, sentences and whole texts.”