Phonics Schemes: What Next?

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Lynn How

Lynn is the Editor at Teacher Toolkit. With 20 years of primary teaching and SLT experience, she has been an Assistant Head, Lead Mentor for ITT and SENCO. She loves to write and also has her own SEMH and staff mental health blog: Lynn...
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Has your school felt any pressure to use a particular phonics scheme?

With a popular phonics scheme being under scrutiny this week, where does the future lie for the teaching of synthetic phonics?

Conclusions by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)’s (of an extremely popular phonics study) has been published this week. Here are the main findings.

Main findings

  1. Children aged four to 9 who participated in the Read Write Inc. Phonics (RWI) programme on a daily basis made, on average, an extra month’s progress in reading compared to children in control groups.
  2. Children aged nine to 13 who took part in Fresh Start (FS), a daily catch-up phonics intervention for those below their expected reading age made 2 months less progress.
  3. Disadvantaged pupils made, on average, 3 months more progress than their peers when participated in RWI.
  4. Older disadvantaged pupils typically fell 3 months behind their peers when they participated in FS.


Due to the issues faced during the (pandemic) research process, the EEF has stated that these outcomes should be interpreted with caution.

There were a significant number of pupils who were not included in the analysis due to many factors, including absence. In some instances, more than a third of schools offering the intervention did not deliver the programme at all. Unfortunately, EEF’s plans for a second trial had to be cancelled due to significant disruption.

Questions raised  from the research process

For me, other primary colleagues, as well as parents, this leaves a huge question mark over not only this scheme but also the successful delivery of all schemes. As a response to the findings, I would raise the following questions about the research process.

1. Is the report doing this particular scheme a disservice due to the gaps in the data? If pupils did not attend and some schools did not complete the intervention, is there a huge reliability issue?

2. Should the limitation due to the high absence rate of pupils involved be flagged as an area for investigation? Clearly, there’s an underlying foundational issue that needs addressing before any learning can take place.

3. With the limitation due to schools not actually delivering the intervention be looked into further? What were the issues causing this? If they were not doing this intervention, what were they doing to support their learners?

From experience, schools can be quick to state that something doesn’t work when actually, it hasn’t been implemented in the recommended way.

Further questions for phonics teaching

There are further questions raised about synthetic phonics in general if findings are indeed reflective of this intervention’s capacity for pupil progress.

1. What are the limitations of this scheme in comparison to the limitations of other similar government-backed schemes?

2. With the government stating there’s a further £24 million to boost children’s literacy this week, with a continued emphasis on government-backed schemes, how is this research going to be taken into account?

3. I am always disappointed to hear when schools feel ‘forced’ into choosing a government-backed scheme despite having good reading and phonics results. They are not statutory – schools should ‘stand their ground’ if their non-government-backed approach yields good results.

What next?

Synthetic phonics is only one way to teach reading.. Limiting your teaching to just one way of doing things, is not conducive to meeting all children’s educational needs. There are some who do not benefit from this approach.

I continue to encourage those schools who have tried teaching children (purely on a diet of synthetic phonics over a long period with limited impact), to look beyond phonics and try something else.

Furthermore, there is little point in spending all your time and resources on this ‘bottom-up’ approach if it is not taught with an emphasis on exposure to high-quality texts. Without these, there will be no love of reading.

Eventual progress and more importantly, an individual’s potential for a lifelong love of reading will suffer. This is most prevalent in the schools in areas where there are very few books at home – the areas the government target the most.

In light of this information, schools should continue to use their professional judgement to make the best decisions for their individual pupils and contexts?


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