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.
There is a widespread consensus in the research community that early reading instruction in English should emphasize systematic phonics. That is, initial reading instruction should explicitly and systematically teach letter (grapheme) to sound (phoneme) correspondences. This contrasts with the main alternative method called whole language in which children are encouraged to focus on the meanings of words embedded in the meaningful text, and where letter-sound correspondences are only taught incidentally when needed (Moats 2000). Within the psychological research community, the “Reading Wars” (Pearson 2004) that pitted whole language and phonics is largely settled—systematic phonics is claimed to be more effective. Indeed, it is widely claimed that systematic phonics is an essential part of initial reading instruction.
The evidence for this conclusion comes from various sources, including government panels that assessed the effectiveness of different approaches to reading instruction in the USA (National Reading Panel 2000), the UK (the Rose Review; Rose 2006), and Australia (Rowe 2005), 12 meta-analyses of experimental research, as well as nonexperimental studies that have tracked progress of students in England since the requirement to teach systematic phonics in state schools since 2007. The results are claimed to be clear-cut. For example, in his review for the English government, Sir Jim Rose writes
“Having considered a wide range of evidence, the review has concluded that the case for systematic phonic work is overwhelming …” (Rose 2006, p. 20).
Similarly, in a recent influential review of reading acquisition that calls for an end to the reading wars (in support of systematic phonics), Castles, Nation, and Rastle (2018) write
It will be clear from our review so far that there is strong scientific consensus on the effectiveness of systematic phonics instruction during the initial periods of reading instruction.