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Phonics ‘first and fast’… but at what cost?

Katie Jackson

Reading is one of life’s profound joys. According to reading expert Maryanne Wolf, reading changes the very structure of our brain and neural pathways; the act allows us to go beyond our own thought processes (Wolf, 2008). Reading is a way of developing self, identity and our relationship with the world, and thus is indispensable for young children.

However, reading is also heavily monitored, assessed and audited within the classrooms of very young children (Ofsted, 2010). Policies and government edicts on reading instruction create a certain environment – an experience that can be entirely disparate to the essence of what reading actually is and what it offers children, emotionally and socially (Fischer, 2017).

Data from the case study schools involved with the Phonic Screener Check Evaluation Research Report in 2014 (Walker et al., 2014) suggest that phonics policy has conceptually separated reading for meaning from the process of decoding words: four schools spoke about ‘finishing’ phonics so that they could move on to ‘reading comprehension’ in year 2 (Walker et al., 2014., p.24).

We all need to be wary of this distinction. Can we really isolate the skill of decoding from the experience of learning to read? Creating this disparity has the potential to significantly alter the experience of learning to read for young children. This is especially critical for those children who do not come from a literacy-rich household. For some children, without the emotional backdrop of the meaningful reading experience, simply seeing reading as decoding could damage their perceptions of reading.

Ability-setting and self-concept

The deleterious impact of ‘ability-setting’ upon children’s self-esteem has been highlighted within research for the last 50 years (Barker Lunn, 1970; Francis et al., 2017). Arguably, the most damaging environmental change wrought by phonics ‘first and fast’ (Ofsted 2015) is the introduction of ‘ability grouping’ for explicit phonic teaching within reception and year 1 classes. The data from University College London’s recent survey report (Bradbury and Roberts-Holmes, 2017) painted a very worrying picture for our youngest readers: with phonics now a subject in its own right, the pressures of performance have made year 1 particularly prone to ‘ability’-setting practices – for example, ‘grouping is most common in Phonics (76%)’ (Bradbury and Roberts-Homes, 2017, p.16)

Systematic phonics is sequential and broken up into stages – starting with the easiest sound and then moving on, in order: children do not move onto the next phonic ‘stage’ until they know all the sounds in the first one, and so on. Thus, the authors of the UCL report suggest it is the stage-based structure that, in the eyes of the teachers they interviewed, has made ‘mixed-ability’ teaching redundant (Bradbury and Roberts-Homes, 2017).

Pause for thought

To navigate our way through policy, we need to be mindful of children’s developing self-concept and the consequences of ability-grouping. We need to pay attention to our language, our groupings, our perceptions of developing readers – and their perception of reading. Young children do not become readers by accelerating through coloured bands: they grow into readers by experiencing reading (Nation, Rastle and Castles, 2018). Such growth needs to be nurtured and developed long after their phonic assessment has finished. Significant differences to reading attainment and enjoyment are not made through ability-grouping and testing: they are made through acknowledging reading as an emotional practice, one capable of changing our identity and world-view (Fischer, 2017; Tatar, 2009).


Barker Lunn, J.C. (1970) Streaming in the Primary School: A longitudinal study of children in streamed and non-streamed junior schools. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

Bradbury, A. and Roberts-Holmes, G. (2017) Grouping in Early Years and Key Stage 1. “A Necessary Evil”? (final report). Retrieved from National Education Union website:

Fischer, S. (2017) Readers as Place-Makers: The Experience of Place in the Literacy Life-Worlds of Middle Childhood. Environmental Education Research 23(10): pp.1476–1488.

Francis, B., Connolly, P., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., Pepper, D., Sloan, S., Taylor, B., Tereshchenko, A. and Travers, M.-C. (2017). Attainment Grouping as self-fulfilling prophesy? A mixed methods exploration of self confidence and set level among Year 7 students. International Journal of Educational Research 86: pp. 96–108.

Nation, K., Rastle, K. and Castles, A. (2018) ‘Ceasefire in the reading wars’. Times Educational Supplement, 15 June 2018. Retrieved from:

Ofsted (2010) Reading by Six: How the best schools do it (report summary). Retrieved from

Ofsted (2015) Reading: The next steps: Supporting higher standards in schools. Retrieved from

Tatar, M (2009) Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Walker M., Bartlett, S., Betts, H., Marian Sainsbury, M., and Worth, J (2014) Phonics screening check evaluation research report. Retrieved from GOV.UK:

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid. The story and science behind the reading brain. London: Icon books.