Is phonics the only way? Different approaches to teaching reading

Is phonics the only way? Different approaches to teaching reading

As children start their formal education, they will be learning how to read. Although some children may already be early readers, or have learned basic literacy skills at preschool, others may require extra support to get started on their reading journey. As teachers, we need...


As children start their formal education, they will be learning how to read. Although some children may already be early readers, or have learned basic literacy skills at preschool, others may require extra support to get started on their reading journey. As teachers, we need to choose the best approach to help children advance their reading skills, whatever their level or ability.

Whether you’re an experienced teacher or you’re just starting your teaching career, it’s worth going back to basics and reviewing some of the different ways we can teach reading and exploring whether phonics really is the best approach.

We’d love to hear what you think too, so don’t forget to leave a comment at the end.

What is reading? 

At a basic level, reading is decoding. It is understanding how the symbols on the page, i.e letters and their combinations, form words which we know and understand. When a child encounters a known word in a text, he/she first decodes it, then names or recognises it, and finally applies meaning to it. At phrase or sentence level, readers use the co-text – or surrounding words – and the non-linguistic context to understand meaning.

Early literacy skills

In order to read, we need to understand the relationship between letters and sounds. Before we can even start to think about teaching reading, children need to have knowledge of the language we are expecting them to read. They need to be familiar with the sounds of that language and be able to distinguish them in words, known as phonemic awareness.

It is also helpful for pre-readers to recognise features of books, such as the relationship between pictures and meaning, that books have a title, a front cover, and so on. They should be listening to stories and following narratives, noticing print in the world around them and have some level of oral language competence.

For more information about when to start introducing reading, check out our post Getting literacy right in international schools.

A systematic approach

The relationship between letters and sounds needs to be taught explicitly to children. In international schools, students also need to understand that English and their mother tongue may have different graphophonemic systems. This is where the teaching of phonics comes in. Phonemic awareness and knowledge of the alphabet can help children get to grips with phonics more easily.

With explicit phonics teaching, children learn that letters represent the different sounds of the language.

How does it work?

Children are taught to read and write combinations of letters by sounding out the individual sounds in a word and blending the sounds to form words, to which they attach meaning.

Synthetic phonics is the approach favoured by the Department for Education (DfE) in the UK. This type of phonics instruction is demonstrated to benefit students with learning disabilities and low-achieving students, and has also had excellent results in international schools and mainstream education in countries where English is taught as a Foreign Language.

Why teach phonics?

Synthetic phonics gives children the basics to be able to quickly read simple words. Once they have learned the relationships between letters and sounds, children can then use this knowledge to read unknown words.

Phonics teaching is about providing children with the skills and knowledge to crack the reading code, allowing them to access to a whole new world of written texts.

However, for children whose first language is not English, phonics also encourages them to hear and pronounce those sounds that may be different in their mother tongue. The earlier you start with phonics instruction, the easier it will be for your students to get to grips with the sounds of the language, and notice the differences between English and their L1 in both the sound system and it’s written form.

Alternative approaches

  • Analytic phonics refers to the method of teaching reading through whole words, which students then break down into their parts or phonemes. As this approach is not systematic, it may not, on its own, provide children with the necessary knowledge and strategies to be able to read independently.

  • Another technique that is sometimes used alongside systematic phonics teaching and whole word teaching is to focus on word shape. Children learn to recognise the shape of the word, paying attention to the different sized letters. Nevertheless, relying on word shape alone is not an effective reading strategy, since there are many words with the same shape.

  • English has a complex sound system and many high-frequency words do not ‘follow the rules’. Children can’t use their knowledge of individual sounds and letters to decipher these words so a different strategy is required. The most common way of dealing with irregular spellings in high-frequency words is to teach them as sight words and give children enough exposure to and practice of the words and their forms to memorise them.

Literacy skills

Reading is not only identifying words. It also means making connections between sentences and parts of the text, using our knowledge of the world and the context to make inferences. It is about understanding what we are reading.

  • Vocabulary is the key to reading, since a reader needs to know what most of the words mean in a text in order to fully comprehend it. Working on extending students’ vocabulary will improve their reading skills. This is especially important for students for whom English is a second language since they will only be able to decode and extract meaning if they already know a word.

  • Spelling goes hand in hand with phonics teaching. Children who learn to read with synthetic phonics (accompanied by high-frequency sight words) will be able to use their knowledge to spell correctly.

  • After reading comes writing. Being able to write gives children a new way to express themselves. You can get students writing letters and simple words early on in a phonics programme.

Advancing reading skills

With regular practice and opportunities to apply what they have learned in their phonics instruction, children will start to recognise words automatically, skipping the decoding stage. To help our students reach this stage we should:

  • provide repeated opportunities for rereading, including individual reading, the use of flashcards, and whole class teacher-led reading e.g. with big books.

  • Use phonics programmes with decodable readers such as Bug Club as early as possible to promote reading and provide a sense of progress.

  • Vary the dynamics of reading practice with choral reading, pairwork, peer reading and well as offering time for individual reading through a reading corner.

  • Involve parents and allow students to take books and practice materials home.

So, is phonics the only way?

Synthetic phonics may not be the only way of teaching reading, but it is likely to make up a significant part of your reading programme at Foundation and Key Stage 1. Phonics training will help your students develop the key knowledge and strategies they need to become independent readers.

And don’t forget to make reading fun! To encourage early readers we need to make reading a pleasurable activity. With Bug Club children will improve their reading skills with fiction and non-fiction books they really want to read!

Find samples of some of our Bug Club titles: Take a tour of Bug Club Phonics.



Castles, A., Rastle, K. & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert

Clackmannanshire Report: The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment


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