EEF Blog: Phonics - mastering the basics of reading

Learning to read is one of the most formative phases of a child’s school experience and it lays the foundations for so much more. Those who do not master reading at school go on to struggle with essential tasks of life, so children mastering the art of reading during their school years is vital.

Learning to read is a highly complex undertaking that is underpinned by two fundamental processes:

  • word reading through the recognition and decoding of words, and
  • comprehension of texts through a range of knowledge and skills.

It is the skilled combination of these two dimensions that facilitates all reading success.

To meet the statutory requirements of the National Curriculum, teachers are advised to develop pupils’ competence in both dimensions. In adopting a balanced approach, teachers combine the explicit systematic teaching of phonics alongside language and reading comprehension.

This twin track approach is analogous to when teachers combine reading and writing instruction. Writing about what you have read can improve comprehension because both learning processes draw upon a common body of knowledge.

Put simply, the two aspects of reading are given equal consideration, because they are complementary to one another when teaching children to read. 

What is phonics and how does it improve reading ability?

The explicit and systematic teaching of phonics aims to quickly ingrain word recognition and spelling by developing pupils’ ability to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes (the smallest unit of spoken language). It also teaches them the relationship between phonemes and the graphemes (written letters or combinations of letters) that represent them.


For example, in a phonics session, a child can be taught to recognise and segment the individual phonemes that make up the word dad. And, learn to blend the phonemes d-a-d in order to say the whole word.

The EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit finds that phonics approaches to teaching reading have, on average, a positive impact on pupil outcomes. This is the only 5 padlock finding in the Toolkit, so we can be sure that it can make a positive contribution to pupils’ reading ability.

There are different ways of teaching phonics: the most common of which uses a systematic synthetic approach. Systematic synthetic phonics approaches explicitly teach pupils a comprehensive set of letter-sound relationships in a pre-planned sequence. There is extensive evidence that this benefits Key Stage 1 pupils’ learning, and also older pupils who struggle to decode.

However, phonics teaching should not be thought of as a silver bullet. The way in which it is delivered plays an important role in determining its effect on learning. The Improving Literacy in Key Stage 1 guidance report suggests schools should consider the following features when selecting and implementing phonics programmes:

  • Training—ensure all staff have the necessary pedagogical skills and content knowledge, for example, sufficient linguistic knowledge and understanding.
  • Responsiveness—check if learning can be accelerated or extra support is needed and identify specific capabilities and difficulties to focus teaching.
  • Engagement—lessons engage pupils and are enjoyable to teach.
  • Adaptations—carefully consider any adaptations to the programme as they may reduce its impact.
  • Focus—a responsive approach to grouping pupils is likely to help focus pupil’s effort and improve teaching efficiency.

How does phonics provision work alongside other practices for teaching reading?

One of the EEF’s promising projects shows how some of the key considerations for implementing phonics can have a positive impact on pupil learning. The Abracadabra (ABRA) programme is a 20-week long sequence of lesson plans, along with structured training, was provided to teaching assistants leading the intervention.

The ABRA evaluation also shows the possible benefits of integrating a systematic approach to teaching phonics alongside the development of fluency and comprehension. To comprehend texts, pupils must recognise and decode words and combine the meanings of words to derive an overall understanding. It is for this reason that the EEF advocates for the Simple View of Reading, a concise structure that breaks down the importance of combining word reading and language comprehension:


In weaving together the two dimensions of reading, teachers give vital attention to the development of comprehension alongside fluency and decoding. The sharing of high-quality texts to build knowledge and develop vocabulary grows as vital decoding skills emerge. Reading aloud to children ensures an equity of opportunity to read beyond the decodable and build motivation and an engagement in the joys and wonders unlocked by reading.

Helping children learn to read is an undoubtedly a complex business but it is a vital one. It requires multiple teaching approaches to appeal to the discrete but interconnected facets of one of life’s most essential skills.

Through evidence-informed, balanced provision, schools and teachers can ensure that pupils experience a range of language and literacy experiences to develop their ability to read and understand written texts in various forms.