Teaching Phonics Fails to Improve Reading Scores

Results from large study show only small, temporary gains

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 16, 2018 – A study involving more than 500,000 schoolchildren has found that using phonics to teach young children to read results in few if any gains in reading scores.

Phonics is the teaching of how sounds relate to letters, and has been thought by some researchers to be a key part of learning to read.

But in a re-analysis of test scores from a large phonics program in England, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, a researcher at the Center for Educational Development in Los Angeles, California, found that children taught phonics made only small gains in reading by age seven compared to those who do not receive phonics instruction.

By age 11, there were no practical differences in reading scores between children taught phonics and those taught with other methods.

“While a little phonics may help some children learn to read, large doses of instruction don’t seem to make much difference in the long run,” McQuillan said. “Rather than focusing on these small, temporary gains in the early grades, schools should look at things that are already proven to improve reading proficiency long-term, such as having well-stocked school libraries and time for recreational reading.”

Many U.S. school districts have invested heavily in commercial phonics programs and training in the past 20 years. In some states such as California, phonics teaching is mandatory in the early grades.

The new study, published in Teaching Initial Literacy, used data from a 2016 report on the effectiveness of England’s new phonics program. That earlier report, written by economists from the London School of Economics, included data on reading test scores at ages 5, 7, and 11 from two large cohorts of English schoolchildren.

In addition to examining the effects of the phonics program in England, McQuillan also conducted a review of previous “meta-analyses” – statistical summaries of a large number of individual studies – on phonics’ effectiveness.

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According to McQuillan, the results of previous phonics studies were strikingly similar to what was found among students in England: Phonics appears to have a small initial impact on reading scores in kindergarten and first grade, but those gains fade quickly, often in as little as one year.

If you would like more information on this study, please contact the study’s author, Jeff McQuillan, at 424-835-0088 or via email: jeff@learningexperts.com.

About the Center for Educational Development

Center for Educational Development (Los Angeles, CA) is a research institute specializing in language and literacy education. Jeff McQuillan (Ph.D., University of Southern California) worked for many years as a professor of education and applied linguistics at California State University, Fullerton and Arizona State University.

Original study available here: http://bit.ly/Phonics_Fails

Publication citation:

McQuillan, J. (2018). Is synthetic phonics working in England?: A comment on the “Teaching to Teach” Literacy Report. In Clark, Margaret (Ed.), Teaching initial literacy: Policies, evidence and ideology. Birmingham, UK: Glendale Education.

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