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Phonics should go hand-in-hand with reading and writing to achieve true literacy and love of reading

Professor Dominic Wyse (UCL) and Charlotte Hacking (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) present their rationale for a new ‘Double Helix’ model that would provide an effective, balanced approach to teaching reading and writing, and an alternative to synthetic phonics.

Boy choosing a fiction book from school library shelves

Their model, termed "The Double Helix of Teaching Reading and Writing," advocates for an integrative approach that combines systematic phonics instruction with rich, engaging reading and writing activities. This method aims to foster a love for reading while ensuring that children develop essential literacy skills. 

They argue that the current emphasis on ‘synthetic phonics’, which is required by the national curriculum in England, focuses too narrowly on decoding words at the expense of broader literacy skills. Professor Wyse says: “When children in England are about age six (Year 1) they must all sit a national test to decode a list of individual words that includes nonsense words. In 2023 21% of children did not achieve the expected standard – this is despite more than a decade of this synthetic phonics approach. Clearly, it isn’t working.” 

Wyse and Hacking say that while phonics is an important component of early reading instruction, it should not be the sole focus. Instead, it should be integrated with other literacy activities that promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of reading and writing. 

Their ‘Double Helix’ theory of reading and writing is underpinned by research published earlier this week in the peer-reviewed journal Literacy. Summarised in the paper, the theory is built on new evaluation of existing influential learning models. In the paper, Wyse and Hacking present seven components that are central to teaching reading and writing derived from social, cultural and cognitive research and theory. They explain: “The balanced approach is about understanding the structure of words and language as a whole.” 

Wyse and Hacking’s forthcoming book, The Balancing Act, to be published by Routledge in June 2024, further expands on how the new ‘Double Helix’ approach is more effective than narrow phonics approaches, as supported by Professors Wyse and Bradbury’s 2022 examination of the evidence, curriculum policy and teacher’s practices, published in the BERA Review of Education. 

While synthetic phonics schemes are now being used in many classrooms internationally, the authors explain how teachers in England face a unique set of pressures to adopt synthetic phonics as the only approach, even though the wider evidence base showing that multiple effective ways to teach reading and writing exist.  

Although the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework does not prescribe a specific synthetic phonics programme, it does require one to be introduced from Key Stage 1 and many schools purchase commercial programmes. They are further held to account by Year 6 phonics test results which enter the national pupil database. Wyse and Hacking call for a shift in policy to support a more balanced approach. 

Critics of the synthetic phonics approach argue it also leads to a mechanical and disengaging learning experience for children, potentially dampening their enthusiasm for reading. 

Wyse and Hacking say that motivating children to read and write begins with engaging children through high-quality books. “Delighting in real books brings learning to life. This engages children and sustains their motivation to read and write for real purposes and for pleasure,” they explain. 

Under synthetic phonics schemes, children are usually given formulaic ‘decodable’ texts using a limited number of simple words designed to repeat a certain sound. They argue that these resources, “children miss out on the art of outstanding illustrators, authors, puns, wordplay, imagination, curiosity, creativity and so much more. Our approach is a far cry from narrow synthetic phonics lessons, which even when taught expertly simply haven’t the same appeal for children.”  

“Meaning drives our approach to teaching reading and writing. It is the essence of human language, hence it should be the essence of teaching,” Hacking continues. “Teaching about sounds is meaningless unless it is contextualized in words, sentences and whole texts.” 

The Balancing Act: An Evidence-Based Approach to Teaching Phonics, Reading and Writing is available to pre-order from 30 May and will be published by Routledge in June 2024.



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