Authors: Bowers, Jeffrey S..

Article: Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction.

Publication: Educational Psychology Review (Springer US). 25 pages; First Online: 08 January 2020 | DOI: 10.1007/s10648-019-09515-y

[Full Text]


There is a widespread consensus in the research community that reading instruction in English should first focus on teaching letter (grapheme) to sound (phoneme) correspondences rather than adopt meaning-based reading approaches such as whole language instruction. That is, initial reading instruction should emphasize systematic phonics. In this systematic review, I show that this conclusion is not justified based on (a) an exhaustive review of 12 meta-analyses that have assessed the efficacy of systematic phonics and (b) summarizing the outcomes of teaching systematic phonics in all state schools in England since 2007. The failure to obtain evidence in support of systematic phonics should not be taken as an argument in support of whole language and related methods, but rather, it highlights the need to explore alternative approaches to reading instruction.


Nevertheless, despite this strong consensus, I will show that there is little or no evidence that systematic phonics is better than the main alternative methods used in schools, including whole language and balanced literacy.


[National Reading Panel] [T]he appropriate conclusion from this meta-analysis should be something like this:

Systematic phonics provides a small short-term benefit to spelling, reading text, and comprehension, with no evidence that these effects persist following a delay of 4–12 months (the effects were not reported nor assessed). It is unclear whether there is an advantage of introducing phonics early, and there are no short- or long-term benefit for majority of struggling readers above grade 1 (children with below average intelligence). Systematic phonics did provide a moderate short-term benefit to regular word and pseudoword naming, with overall benefits significant but reduced by a third following 4–12 months.


In sum, the above research provides little or no evidence that systematic phonics is better than standard alternative methods used in schools. The findings do not challenge the importance of learning grapheme-phoneme correspondences, but they do undermine the claim that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods that include unsystematic phonics (such as whole language) or that teach grapheme-phoneme correspondences along with meaning-based constraints on spellings (morphological instruction or structured word inquiry). There can be few areas in psychology in which the research community so consistently reaches a conclusion that is so at odds with available evidence.


In summary, despite the widespread claim that children are reading better in England since the mandatory inclusion of systematic phonics in state schools in 2007 and the introduction of the PSC [phonics screening check] in 2012, there is little or no evidence to support this conclusion. Indeed, the only noticeable change in performance is on the PSC itself, with no discernable effects on reading more generally.

Tagged as: phonics and phonics-based intervention

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