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“Phonics works”

Sounding out words when learning to read has a dramatic impact on the accuracy of reading aloud and comprehension, according to a report.

Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit found that teaching phonics is more effective than educating students to recognise whole words.

In the experiment, adults were taught a new language, printed in unfamiliar symbols, and then put through reading tests and brain scans.

“The results were striking,” said Professor Kathy Rastle, head of the psychology department at Royal Holloway, in the TES. “People who had focused on the meanings of the new words were much less accurate in reading aloud and comprehension than those who had used phonics, and our MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading.”

In 2016, 81 per cent of pupils reached the expected standard of 32 correct words in the phonics screening check, compared to 77 per cent in 2015. The check is a test devised by the Department for Education that consists of reading aloud 40 words, including 20 non-words. But it has provoked debate since it was launched in June 2012.

“It has been felt that the test implies that there is only one way that children can learn to read, and this is through phonics methods only,” said speech and language therapist Fiona Barry in The Telegraph. “However, many teachers and parents will be able to testify that, in fact, students learn to read through a combination of methods with phonics being just one of a set of tools they have at their disposal.”

Professor Rastle acknowledges that it’s a contentious area, but she firmly promotes phonics. “There is a long history of debate over which method, or mix of methods, should be used to teach reading,” she said.

“Some people continue to advocate using a variety of meaning-based cues, such as pictures and sentence context, to guess the meanings of words. However, our research is clear that reading instruction that focuses on teaching the relationship between spelling and sound is most effective. Phonics works.”

The results are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

David Collins

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