Early Reading Instruction: You can choose to ignore the research, but you cannot deny it is there.

When it comes to early reading instruction, the gap between what we know and what we do is wide. We have detailed reports (see here, here, here and here) outlining what good early reading instruction looks like, yet these findings are rarely reflected in practice and often denied by those in powerful positions. 

There is a significant amount of research on early reading instruction because of fierce disagreement. The reading wars have raged for many years. Whole language advocates favour an approach to early reading instruction that introduces students to language through context (picture books and stories). The approach is aligned with the constructivist philosophy whereby students construct their knowledge with guidance from a teacher. In this approach, phonics instruction is embedded in other experiences. In recent times, faced with the mounting evidence against whole language, the approach has been morphed into balanced literacy. Balanced literacy is still constructivist in nature and does not align with what we know is effective. It teaches phonics through context.

In the last 10 years, a swing back to explicit models of reading instruction has taken place. The shift toward the explicit model has been informed by a large body of research which indicates this approach is most effective. Explicit models of early reading instruction emphasise the systematic, explicit and intensive teaching of the alphabetic code. The National Reading Panel identified 5 elements which need to be taught explicitly to ensure all students gain the most from early reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. The findings are reflected in Australia’s own report, the National Inquiry Into the Teaching of Reading (2005) which says that:

“The incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based reading research is that children during the early years of schooling must first master the alphabetic code via systematic, explicit and intensive instruction in: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies.” 

The most controversial element is the teaching of phonics. Phonics teaching in the early years requires special attention as this is the area in which early readers are most deficient. Phonics instruction teaches students about the relationship between letters and sounds. Understanding this relationship is critical because English represents individual units of sound (phonemes) with corresponding single letters and groups of letters (graphemes). Mastery of the relationship between letters and sounds ‘unlocks’ print for early readers.

There are a number of approaches to teaching phonics, and not all are equally effective. Effective approaches to phonics instruction are systematic and the most effective systematic approach is synthetic phonics. Its efficacy is endorsed in the UK’s 2006 Rose review:

“The evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly for those at risk of having problems with reading.”

Synthetic phonics is superior to other systematic forms of phonics instruction. The Clackmannanshire study investigated the relative effectiveness of synthetic phonics and analytic phonics – a form of systematic phonics instruction whereby letter-sound correspondences are embedded in context. At the end of the study, students taught synthetic phonics were reading 7 months in front of the analytic phonics group. When the researchers followed up the progress of the students 7 years later, they found that the students taught synthetic phonics had not only maintained their advantaged but it had increased over time. It is clear that systematic synthetic phonics instruction has benefits for the long term.

The research evidence is clear. Early reading instruction needs to be taught explicitly and not implicitly. Phonics needs special attention in the early years as this is the area in which early readers are most deficient. Synthetic phonics – whereby letter-sound correspondences are taught in isolation from context – is the most effective way to teach phonics. Teachers can choose to ignore the evidence, but they cannot deny it is there. I encourage all teachers to go and review the research and let evidence guide your practice.


I’ve embedded all my references in the post. The reports are large meta analyses with extensive reference lists for further reading. 


4 thoughts on “Early Reading Instruction: You can choose to ignore the research, but you cannot deny it is there.”

  1. The Clackmannanshire studies have been heavily criticised for lack of basic controls (e.g. Goswami’s work) and the Rose Report is not actual research: it is a government-commissioned report that openly chose to ignore the input of researchers criticial of synthetic phonics, in favour of observations and anecdotes. Clackmannanshire’s results have appeared in only one peer-reviewed journal; the rest was put out by the Scottish government and in particular longitudinal data has never been subjected to peer-review. Are you aware, furthermore, that the Rose Report’s acceptance of Clackmannanshire is bases on an experiment in which only 30 children in one area of the UK were given synthetic phonics? That none of those children were second-language users? Or that the experiments were done in parallel to regular classes, not exclusively? I could go on.

    The actual balance of research evidence is that synthetic phonics is helpful for struggling readers, i.e. those that lack phonological awareness. There is no evidence it is better than analytic phonics for other groups in the long-term. Furthermore, pre-school phonological awareness training, before children start to read, can be helpful in avoiding early reading problems (see research by Hulme and Snowling), meaning that synthetic phonics is even less necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your final line is: “I encourage all teachers to go and review the research and let evidence guide your practice.” i do hope teachers read the research, but in my local US school district, and in many US states, teachers cannot decide their practice, because they cannot choose their curriculum materials. The district or the state decides what materials will be purchased for classroom use. It is difficult to teach any kind of systematic anything, but especially reading and math, without textbooks that support that type of instruction. Under this system, people far above the classroom place heavy constraints on how teachers can teach. Teachers are held accountable but lack authority in key areas that determine outcomes. Without authority, being held accountable is hardly fair, another reason so many teachers leave the field.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep I totally agree that’s a poor model. I think schools should be making the decisions with some input and support from the system at large. The only way for that model to work, however, is to ensure all teachers and school leaders are adequately informed, which often is not the case.


  3. I think it`s suspicious that the research is ignored by administrators.
    Even with research,they don`t want to hear it.Hell,the research is everywhere!

    There is more to it than ideology,what it is I don`t know but I sense it could be lobbying and corporate liaison of some sort.


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