The Research Behind Phonics Hero

Across the English-speaking world, literacy rates aren’t what they should be. In the USA, Australia and the UK there are significant numbers of children underperforming in reading – 38%, 20% and 20%, respectively.

With up to a third of the population not able to read a basic paragraph, it is understandable why these governments see the importance of research on the basis of good reading and spelling.


Australia’s National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy recommended a systematic phonics approach – also known as synthetic phonics!

The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency.”

National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005

Furthermore, the Australian National Curriculum has phonics at the core of its language strand of the literacy curriculum.

NSW Board of Studies

The Education Department put out their stance on phonics:

Phonics is a key skill in the teaching of reading. We want to ensure it is treated as a ‘must do’… The clear verdict of international and national research supports the teaching of phonics”.


In 2005, the Rose Report reviewed how children were taught to read and write in England. The evidence for synthetic phonics was so overwhelmingly positive that the English government made it mandatory; now schools must use synthetic phonics to teach reading.

Synthetic phonics offers the vast majority of young children the best and most direct route to becoming skilled readers and writers.”

The Rose Report, 2006

If a school fails to apply synthetic phonics to teach reading, they will fail their government OFSTED inspection.

The United States

The US researched every major approach to teaching children how to read and concluded a systematic phonics instruction works best:

Systematic phonics instruction [synthetic phonics] produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read.

The National Reading Panel, 2006

Common Core State Standards

The Common Core specifies a set of standards each state should expect of its students K-12. The English Language Arts (ELA) standard includes six strands: Literature, Informational Text, Foundational Skills, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language. The Foundational Skills strand has phonics at its core – read about the expectations for Kindergarten and Year One.

Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words.

Kindergarten and Year One Outcome

Additional Research

Seven-Year Improvements to Reading and Spelling

In their study ‘A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics‘, researchers Johnston and Watson tested a synthetic phonics approach to learning with the children of a county in Scotland. The results?:

The synthetic phonics program was by far the most effective in developing literacy skills. It led to children from lower socio-economic backgrounds performing at the same level as children from advantaged backgrounds for most of their time in primary school. It also led to boys performing better than or as well as girls.”

A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment, Johnston & Watson, 2005

The authors went on to look at the long-term consequences of a foundation in synthetic phonics. The children taught to read using synthetic phonics were, 7 years later, still dramatically ahead in both reading and spelling!”

It can be seen that the gains made in word reading in Primary 1 had increased 6 fold by the end of Primary 7, going from 7 months to 3 years 6 months ahead of chronological age. The gain in spelling was 4.5 fold, going from 7 months to 1 year 9 months ahead of chronological age.

A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment, Johnston & Watson, 2005

How Phonics Wires the Brain for Reading Success

A fascinating study by Stanford University, has shown that people who are taught to read with a phonics approach show increased activity in the ‘skilled reader part of the brain’. Whereas those taught to memorise whole words show little activity in this crucial reading development area.

In other words, to develop reading skills, teaching students to sound out ‘C-A-T” spark’ more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word ‘cat.'”