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, with an average impact of an additional four months’ progress. Research suggests that phonics is particularly beneficial for younger learners (4-7 year olds) as they begin to read. Teaching phonics is more effective on average 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 are only one part of a successful literacy strategy.

For older readers (above Year 5) who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as reading comprehension and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach once they have reached Year 6 or Year 7, or that they have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics does not target. However, it may be that older pupils initially received poor-quality phonics teaching and they haven’t been given a good opportunity to learn phonics so far. It is therefore important to carry out careful diagnosis of the reasons why an individual pupil is struggling before deciding on an approach. 

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 approaches informed by synthetic phonics (where the emphasis is on sounding out letters and blending sounds to form words) may be more beneficial than analytic approaches (where the sound/symbol relationship is inferred from identifying patterns and similarities or after a word is known). 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. A recent evaluation of an intensive 10-week programme,  Switch-on Reading, that taught phonics showed that the average positive impact of phonics programmes can be replicated in English schools. 

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What are the costs?

Overall, the costs are estimated at £1,200 per teacher or £48 per pupil and are therefore very low. The costs associated with teaching phonics arise from the need for specific resources and professional training. 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. A recent UK evaluation estimated costs at £627 per pupil (moderate). This included resources (£77 per pupil), direct salary costs of additional teaching assistant support (£500), initial training for staff (£32) and on-going monitoring and support (£18).

What should I consider?

  • Phonics can be an important component in the development of early reading skills, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, 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?