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Alphabetic writing systems: The importance, and limits, of phonics

Written By: John Bald
8 min read
John Bald (FCCT) Independent educational consultant. Former tutor in charge, Reading and Language Centres, Essex Education Department.


Controversy over methods of teaching reading and spelling began with the spread of state primary education in the nineteenth century, and soon occupied similar ground to that of today (Parker, 2021). Should children be taught to recognise whole words, or should they build them by blending the sounds indicated by letters (phonics, now generally known as synthetic phonics)? These issues dominated professional discussion until the late 1960s, when two American writers, Professor Kenneth Goodman (1968) and the magazine journalist Frank Smith (1973), developed an approach using the new academic discipline of psycholinguistics in which they argued that readers do not pay attention to individual words as they read, but lightly sampled the text, checking that they were making sense, and using clues (or cues) from context in order to identify words. I will argue these approaches are based on misconceptions and a misunderstanding of the operation of the alphabetic system, and will offer another, based on accurate presentation of the use of letters and of phonic correspondences in English.


The alphabet and the English language

The key feature of alphabetic writing, developed in ancient Greek and Latin, is the representation of sounds by letters. This distinguishes it from pictographic systems. The movement from left to right as we write probably also reflects the fact that most people are right-handed, so that the hand holding the pen or stylus does not obscure the writing and people can see what they are doing. Latin and Greek have, as far as can be determined without recordings of ancient speech, a high degree of phonic regularity, which is reflected in the direct letter-sound correspondences in most longer words derived from them, a feature that I called phonics’ ‘second wind’ in my first book, The Literacy File (1997).

The use of the Latin alphabet in English is, however, complicated by our history. In the 300 years following the Norman Conquest, English was flooded with French. This has continued over centuries. The computerisation of the Collins-Robert French-English dictionary showed that around thirty per cent of English words, many of them very common – table, fruit, garage, centre – are either identical to French or very nearly so, though their pronunciation is different. These words are phonically regular in French, but not in English. I discussed the issue with the Finnish ambassador at a conference last October. He asked me if I thought English would be regular, as Finnish is, without the Norman Conquest. An excellent question. David Crystal (2012) has shown that old English writing has a high degree of phonic regularity, but there are also influences from Northern European languages, in words like ‘answer’, that show that English spelling is, and always has been, a hybrid. The thread of sound-symbol correspondence runs through it, but with significant variations.

Handling this has dogged the teaching of reading and spelling since the late nineteenth century. Earlier practice had been simply to present the material without explanation and have children learn it by heart, with rewards for successful memorisation and punishment for failure. An early protest against this approach was appropriately titled, ‘The Futility of the Spelling Grind’ (Rice, 1908). In the 1920s, whole word recognition approaches emerged, with the idea that children might learn to read through its shape – e.g., in French, écureuil, squirrel, has an unusual shape and could be supported by a picture. Whole word approaches, supported by flash cards, became widespread in the fifties, notably, in the UK, with Ladybird Key Words and the Janet and John series. The most recent challenge to phonics has come from ‘psycholinguistic’ theories (Goodman, 1968; Smith, 1973), which presented reading   as a ‘guessing game,’ in which readers made predictions based on light sampling of text, rather than paying attention to each word. Variations on these are ‘multicue’ and ‘Searchlights’ theories, in which children are encouraged to guess at words from ‘cues’ in context and pictures.

These theories were shown to be erroneous by research, beginning with Schatz and Baldwin’s (1986) demonstration that context clues did not help accurate word identification, continuing with the Clackmannanshire research (Johnston and Watson, 2005) that proved the benefits of early phonics and perhaps culminating in   Castles et al. (2018) showing the importance of early phonics in establishing the ‘alphabetic principle’– that we read by using the information contained in letters, and not by guessing.

A final point is a personal observation by Ruth Miskin that around half of all children are likely to learn to read, whatever approach is taken. My experience supports this view and research – notably, but not only, Clay (1965) has shown that some children who read early see patterns for themselves with minimal support and quickly learn to spot and correct their own errors. Others require much more explicit instruction before they can do this.


Initial phonics and whole phonics

Initial phonics teaches children to blend the sounds of individual letters from left to right in order to read words. This is essential, and the Ditties in Read Write Inc (Miskin, 2016) provide an excellent introduction, as their construction ensures that the approach works with them all the time. Problems begin when it doesn’t work – e.g., that ‘t’ no longer represents the sound ‘t’, as in ‘top’, when followed by ‘h’, or table, where the last two letters represent the order of sounds in French, rather than English. We also have around 25 voice (vowel) sounds in English and only seven letters – aeiou, ‘y’ (an alternative to i, known as ‘Greek I’ in European languages) and ‘w’, which can operate as a companion vowel. Whole phonics lists the alternative ways of representing a sound – e.g. sum, come – and expects the child to learn these.

This approach is cumbersome and confusing. A child approaching an unknown word does not know which variation or combination applies. They can’t use what the teacher has taught them – blending from left to right – because it won’t produce a word unless they pick the right variation or combination. They don’t know what this is unless they’ve already learned the word. Home and come – words children will hear every day – use the same combination. Only by learning which applies can the child learn the word, or they are in two minds, and hence lost. 

Blakemore and Frith (2007) explain what is happening in the brain. The activation of the phonic processing area of the brain is sufficient when reading Italian, which is phonically regular. Reading English requires the use of the ‘wordform’ area of the brain, dedicated to interpreting the information contained in letters as we read. Put simply, reading in English puts particular demands on the brain, which it develops in order to meet them. To understand the information contained in letters when reading in English, we must know how they are used in English. This requires knowledge of language, as well as – not instead of – phonics. The wordform area is less active in people assessed as dyslexic, which will be the subject of a later paper.   


Explaining English spelling and grammar without jargon

There is very wide variation in the language knowledge and experience of children starting school. Some can handle new technical vocabulary, such as grapheme, phoneme and correspondence with little difficulty, while others have almost no spoken language at all. All need to learn to read. It is easy to explain to children, in terms of their own experience, that letters sometimes operate on their own, and sometimes work in groups. They know that they are likely to behave themselves most of the time, but not all the time. This is human. Letters are human constructs, and similarly do not always behave as we might expect. Saying that letters help us most of the time is accurate. Saying, or implying, that they always tell us all we need to know is not. Simple qualifications such as this allow us to teach initial phonics without setting up false expectations. They enable children who are already having difficulty with reading to adjust their thinking so as to handle variations in spelling in the same way that they adapt to variations in people. I have extensive case study evidence of the effectiveness of this approach in reading and spelling, including a 16-year-old girl, assessed as dyslexic, for whom it removed a writing block that was preventing her from expressing herself properly in English. After two telephone lessons, this student’s English grades improved to A* in English language and literature. I used this case as evidence for my fellowship of the Chartered College of Teaching, and have many more.

While this paper is concerned with phonics, similar considerations apply to the teaching of grammar. The principles of sentence construction can be explained with a very few technical terms, and without the language of academic linguistics, which is completely foreign to the experience of most children, and indeed most teachers.



Making phonics the basis of teaching initial reading, backed by the phonics check, has improved provision and reduced the numbers of children unable to read. This is the evidence on which current and previous government initiatives has been based, and is summarised in Castles et al (2018). Phonics, on the other hand, must be presented in a way that is clear and understandable to children. Teaching children to blend from left to right, as every initial scheme must, needs to be accompanied by telling them, right from the start, that this works most of the time but not always. Children don’t behave perfectly all the time, and neither do letters. 

I have been making this point for almost thirty years – see Sue Palmer’s TES article on teaching her daughter (1996), and Slimmed Down Spelling (2002), but it has made no impression on either of the two opposing camps, which cling to their respective views that phonics is the whole story or next to useless. The outcome of this conflict, which now spans a century and a half, is that learning to read is more difficult than it should be, and for a significant minority of pupils almost impossible. These pupils’ difficulties, whether or not they are assessed as dyslexia, affect the whole of their school work, causing anxiety at best, truancy – why go to school if you can’t learn – and, at worst, serious psychological and behavioural problems. 

The two TES articles (Palmer, 1996; Bald 2003), and material on my website,, show how to make immediate and significant impact on such problems by means of clear and simple explanation of the way the alphabet operates in English and the reasons for its variations. Doing this from the beginning, teaching children that they should not expect the language to be perfectly consistent, but should use its consistent features while being ready for letters not always to behave as we expect, would conserve the benefits of the phonics first policy, and avoid some of the problems it has encountered.  


Note. This article is an amended version of a paper originally written for presentation to the UK Department for Education, under the title: Technical Paper: Whole Phonics, or Phonics + Knowledge and Understanding of Language?

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Elizabeth Esther Rosenbaum

Interesting article.

Emma Harris

An interesting article and I agree that the teaching of phonics has reduced the number of children who are unable to read over time which is significant. However, children learn to read in different ways such as pattern / word recognition. The delivery of phonics is skilful and has to be interactive and engaging for the children.

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