Phonics helps disadvantaged pupils but has no long-term benefits for the average child, major new study finds

Teaching reading through ‘synthetic phonics’ had no measurable effect on pupils’ average reading scores at the age of 11, a major new study has found.

But the method – which teaches children to say the sounds made by letters or groups of letters and then blend them to make words – does help children from poorer backgrounds or those who do not have English as a first language, according to new research from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics.

And researchers Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally and Martina Viarengo conclude that the effect on children claiming free school meals and non-native English speakers is “impressive” and add: “Without a doubt it [the effect] is high enough to justify the fixed cost of a year’s intensive training support to teachers.”

The CEP research paper, published today, tracked the progress of more than 270,000 pupils. The researchers found that those taught to read using other methods lagged behind at age 7 but caught up later.

The synthetic phonics programme was introduced as a pilot in 18 local authorities in England in 2005, after a small-scale study in Clackmannanshire, in Scotland, showed that the method could bring very significant benefits.

The following year, after an independent review under former schools inspector Jim Rose, teachers in a further 32 local authorities were given intensive training in the method. The paper compares the progress of children in those 50 local authorities with those in 100 others that introduced the change in the 2008/09 and 2009/10 academic years.

The study provides the first large-scale analysis of the effects of the policy change, looking at the effects at age 5, 7 and 11.

It found that pupils in schools where there had been phonics training showed largely positive effects, on average, at the age of 5 and 7, but these had disappeared by age 11, probably because most children learned to read eventually, regardless of teaching method.

But those who were at risk of struggling with their reading – those who came from poor family backgrounds or who did not speak English as a first language – received significant long-term benefits from synthetic phonics.

The researchers note that local authorities were responsible for implementation of the programme and will not be able to play a similar role after all schools are converted into academies, as is planned by the end of 2022.

Co-author Professor McNally, who is director of the education and skills research programme at CEP, said: “Local authorities were the drivers of this policy as it was rolled out nationally. When all schools become academies, it will not be possible to implement a policy in this way because the role of local authorities in education will either be greatly diminished or non-existent.”

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