The Knowledge

Covid delays release of long-awaited phonics study

Important £1m trial study now due in 2023

Important £1m trial study now due in 2023

The independent charity set up to find out which education interventions work best has defended its decision not to publish an important study on the effectiveness of popular phonics programmes until next year.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) announced a £1 million trial in 2016 into Read Write Inc. Phonics and Fresh Start, two systematic synthetic phonics-based literacy programmes run by Ruth Miskin Training.

But the foundation says a decision was made in 2019 to instead publish the findings alongside a second study funded by the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund (TLIF).

This would provide the “most useful and consistent messages around the findings”. But constant Covid delays mean the results are not expected until spring next year.

It comes as a new study this week reignited a row over phonics teaching. UCL researchers claim a “narrower focus” on phonics in the past decade has made English schools “less successful”.

Jonathan Solity, a director of Optima Psychology consultancy that develops reading and writing programmes, said the Ruth Miskin initiatives were “effectively the government’s flagship systematic synthetic phonics programme”.

The honorary lecturer in educational psychology at UCL added: “The EEF mission statement confirms its commitment to transparency, and its guide to ‘Improving Literacy in KS1’ claims to provide evidence of what works – and what doesn’t work – to improve educational outcomes, especially for disadvantaged children.

“Therefore, surely teachers deserve to know whether evidence shows a programme used in 25 per cent of schools and 24 out of 34 English hubs works?” 

Trial ‘severely impacted by school closures’

The EEF told Schools Week its decision to publish both trials together was made before any delays caused by the pandemic.

The studies were due to be published in spring last year, but the second trial was “severely impacted by school closures” during Covid, an EEF spokesperson said.


The second study was rescheduled to run in schools last year, but the spring closures pushed it back again to this academic year. 

The EEF told Solity in an email that it had received a draft report of the first study in February last year.

However, it claimed Covid-related delays with the national pupil database meant it had only received “all necessary information” for the report in December. 

The report would now go through its “internal reporting process”, the spokesperson said in December. “The findings have not been shared externally.”

The spokesperson added publishing both results together would ensure “best utility to schools and to ensure the integrity of the two trials”.

Read Write Inc. Phonics is a whole-school approach for early readers from reception to year 2 and for children in years 3 and 4 who are not yet accurate and speedy readers.

Fresh Start is a catch-up programme for those children struggling to read at the end of primary school. 

Annual accounts published last month show Ruth Miskin Literacy Ltd posted a £2 million profit after tax in 2021, up from £1.4 million in 2020. Its turnover last year was £5.9 million. It also opened a branch in Australia with school and local government contracts.

‘Odd’ to claim teachers only used phonics

A report from UCL this week found synthetic phonics – the practice of breaking words up into units of sound – has become the “dominant approach” in England after reforms introduced in 2012 by Michael Gove.

However, researchers claimed teaching reading in England “has been less successful” under the new approach. The conclusion was based on an analysis of 55 “robust” longitudinal experimental trials.

An open letter to government signed by more than 250 people said teaching should instead “centre on a wider range of approaches to teaching phonics and reading, enabling teachers to use their own judgment about which is best for their pupils”.

But Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchEd, said it was “odd” to claim teachers only used phonics.

Evidence showed it remained the best way to introduce young people to reading, although there was “still a strong anti-evidence instinct in many educationists”, while some teachers had been misinformed and let down by phonics “denialists” in their teacher training.

The Department for Education said phonics teaching had been “proven the world-over to be the most effective method of teaching children to read”.

The EEF rates phonics as having a “high” impact of five months of progress for “very low cost”, based on “very extensive evidence”.

In the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), England rose from joint tenth to joint eighth place out of 50 countries for reading among ten-year-olds, its highest-ever ranking.

The DfE said its guidance was “clear that phonics is just one part of becoming a fluent reader” alongside “speaking and reading stories to foster a love of reading among children.”

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One comment

  1. Kate Aspin

    Why do you keep asking Tom B who has ZERO knowledge of phonics or Primary to comment. Stop insulting the whole sector and do some proper journalism. If you wouldn’t dream of asking an EYFS person to comment on secondary school topics stop doing the same in reverse, it is frankly professionally insulting and lazy.