Moderate impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence.

Cost Per Pupil Cost estimate: Less than £80 per pupil per year. cost per pupil
Evidence Rating Evidence estimate: Three or more rigorous meta-analyses. evidence rating Average impact: + 4 additional months. Impact +4 months

What is it?

Phonics is an approach to teaching reading, and some aspects of writing, by developing learners’ phonemic awareness. This involves the skills of hearing, identifying and using phonemes or sound patterns in English. The aim is to teach learners the relationship between these sounds and the written spelling patterns or graphemes which represent them. Phonics emphasises the skills of decoding new words by sounding them out and combining or ‘blending’ the sound-spelling patterns.

How effective is it?

Phonics approaches have been consistently found to be effective in supporting younger readers to master the basics of reading. The approach tends to be more effective than other approaches to early reading (such as whole language or alphabetic approaches), though it should be emphasised that effective phonics techniques are usually embedded in a rich literacy environment for early readers and only one part of a successful literacy strategy. 

Research suggests that phonics is beneficial for younger learners as they begin to read (4-7 year olds). It is less likely to be helpful for older, less successful learners. For older readers (above Year 5) who are struggling, phonics approaches may be less successful, producing less or no impact and other approaches such as comprehension focused methods may be more effective. In particular, using age appropriate material is likely to be more successful. Upper primary and lower secondary readers may benefit more from strategy instruction or Meta-cognitive and self-regulation strategies to improve their reading skills. 

Qualified teachers tend to get better results (up to twice the effectiveness of others), suggesting that their expertise is a key component of successful teaching of early reading.

How secure is the evidence?

There have been a number of studies, reviews and meta-analyses which have consistently found that the systematic teaching of phonics is beneficial. There is some evidence that particular approaches such as synthetic phonics may be more beneficial than analytic approaches, however the evidence here is less secure and it is probably more important to match the teaching to children’s particular needs and systematically teach the sound patterns with which they are not yet confident. 

For full references, please click here.

What are the costs?

There are some costs, as specific resources are needed for teaching phonics. Evidence suggests that the effectiveness of phonics is related to the pupil's stage of reading development, so it is also important that teachers have professional development in effective assessment as well as in the use of particular phonic techniques and materials. Costs for materials and professional development are estimated at £1,200 per teacher or £48 per pupil and therefore very low.

What should I consider?

  • Phonics can be an important component in supporting the development of early reading skills, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, it is not a panacea and it is also important that children are successful in making progress in all aspects of reading including vocabulary development, comprehension and spelling, which should be taught separately and explicitly.

  • The teaching of phonics should be explicit and systematic to support children in making connections between the sound patterns they hear in words and the way that these words are written.

  • The teaching of phonics should be matched to children’s current level of skill in terms of their phonemic awareness and their knowledge of letter sounds and patterns (graphemes).

  • Phonics improves the accuracy of the child's reading but not the comprehension. How are you planning on developing wider literacy skills such as comprehension?

  • How are you planning to develop the child's understanding of what they are reading once they have become competent in phonics?