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What works for teaching phonics, reading and writing?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 12 October 2023

Mixed ethnic background group of children reading a digital tablet in a library.

Credit: Vectorfusionart / Adobe

Dominic Wyse.This is the third of three blog posts about the teaching of phonics, reading and writing. The approach of this blog series is characterised as ‘A Balancing Act’:

  1. Understanding the PIRLS 2021 results;
  2. England’s narrow approach to phonics teaching;
  3. What works for phonics, reading and writing.

The Balancing Act: Part 3

Research published to date strongly suggests that the most effective way to teach phonics, reading and writing is a balanced approach – one that carefully combines different aspects of reading and writing in all reading and writing lessons. For example, when children are age five to six there would be a clear emphasis on phonics, but this would not be taught as separate synthetic phonics lessons, nor would the emphasis on phonics unduly dominate the other important aspects of teaching reading such as comprehension, motivation for reading, engagement with real books more than decodable books, etc. A balanced approach to teaching reading and writing is not the same as the synthetic phonics-led approach currently enforced in England (see part 2 in this blog series).

It is important to be clear what a balanced approach is and what it is not, because some people may seek to discredit a balanced approach as somehow lacking attention to phonics, or even trying to suggest it is the same as ‘whole language’ teaching. However, although we have seminal accounts of the balanced teaching of reading, we lack a contemporary account built on the latest research, that proposes new theory, and that clearly shows how this would work in the practice of primary school and early years classrooms. In June 2024, I and Charlotte Hacking from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) will publish The Balancing Act: An Evidence-Based Approach to Teaching Phonics, Reading and Writing, which will be a unique new account of the most relevant research and the details of exemplary teaching.

One of the features of the book is the particular author collaboration that brings together our decades of expertise in research and in professional development for teachers, including leading publications for teachers such as Reading and Writing Scales and the new edition of Teaching English, Language and Literacy (2023). Crucially, this kind of research expertise includes our experiences as teachers – what has been called ‘close to practice’ expertise, which is a hallmark of research carried out in university education departments, and brings something unique to building educational knowledge from research. By contrast, accusations about education researchers as ‘progressives’, or, as former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, put it, ‘the blob’, are as unhelpful as they are misleading.

The aforementioned ‘Balancing Act’ book proposes a completely new integrated theory of the teaching of reading and writing that draws metaphorically on the genetics of DNA. The new theory was created through analysis and critique of existing models (including the ‘simple view of reading’), and extensions of the syntheses of research in the “landmark study” by Wyse and Bradbury – through, for example, a new analysis of what works with children with reading difficulties.

The book will address the politics and media engagement with the debates worldwide about teaching young children to read and write. A recent example of  what has been called the ‘reading wars’ in the USA is Emily Handford’s Sold a Story, which we critique. The trend towards narrow forms of synthetic phonics in some countries will be highlighted, and alternatives proposed. Most important of all, the book will clearly show, with a detailed account of inspirational classroom lessons, how teaching and policy in England and other countries could change for the better.

Literacy learners need robust, research-based teaching of reading and writing, built through genuine collaboration between researchers, practitioners and policy makers, over sufficient time scales. They do not need ‘obsession’ with synthetic phonics. Many of us eagerly await political manifestos that will have the vision to make changes to the primary curriculum in England so that breadth, balance, and creativity are restored, not least because that is what the research evidence shows is needed.

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