How phonics instruction affects disadvantaged children

Back at the turn of the millennium, we at Fordham published a paper that urged a stronger focus on phonics. Author Louisa Cook Moates wrote: “Reading science is clear: young children need instruction in systematic, synthetic phonics in which they are taught sound-symbol correspondences singly, directly, and explicitly.” The reading wars—the longstanding debate between “whole language” and phonics proponents—has been mostly settled in the U.S. with phonics playing a key role in the federal Reading First program, and having now been embedded in most states’ English language arts standards, including Ohio’s.

Recently, British policymakers also took bold steps to prioritize phonics, i.e., structured instruction that teaches children to “decode” words. Coinciding with an influential 2006 paper known as the “Rose Report,” which recommended phonics as the principal strategy for early literacy, England began requiring its schools to move away from the nation’s “searchlights” model and instead implement phonics-centered instruction for children aged five to seven.

A recent study by Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally, and Martina Viarengo evaluates the impact of this initiative, which also included government aid allowing schools to hire literacy consultants who supported teachers’ transition to phonics. The policy was implemented in waves with eighteen local authorities participating in the pilot phase in 2005–06 and another thirty-two in the first full phase in the next year. By 2009–10, all local authorities had adopted the phonics-based program. The researchers use quasi-experimental methods to compare the test results at ages five, seven, and eleven of students who attended schools in the pilot and first phase (the “treated” group) to those unaffected by the first two waves of implementation.

Their analyses find that students benefitted from the shift towards phonics instruction. At age five, children in both the pilot and first phase posted substantial gains on reading tests of about 0.22 to 0.30 standard deviations—what the researchers call an “instant effect” of the program. The study also uncovered positive results at age seven of roughly 0.08 standard deviations. However, by age eleven, the effects were essentially zero, leading the researchers to speculate: “Most students learn to read eventually. This is the simplest explanation for why we do not see any overall effect of the intervention by age 11.” Nevertheless, though the effects for students on the whole may have dissipated, the benefits were larger and more persistent for low-income pupils and non-native English speakers. For instance, at age eleven, children from both of these groups demonstrated gains of approximately 0.05 to 0.07 standard deviations (some findings were statistically significant, but others were not). This leads Machin, McNally, and Viarengo to conclude: “Without a doubt the effect [on less advantaged students] is high enough to justify the fixed cost of a year’s intensive training support to teachers.”

Based on studies showing that reading proficiency by third grade predicts better outcomes later in life, policymakers in Ohio and other states are focusing much attention on early literacy initiatives. Can a continuing emphasis on phonics instruction prove beneficial, especially for children most apt to struggle in reading? The evidence from England—along with studies from this side of the pond—indicates that the answer is yes.

Source: Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally, and Martina Viarengo, “Changing How Literacy Is Taught: Evidence on Synthetic Phonics,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy (2018); open version is available here.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.