Zsargo, Liz (2021) Learning to read in the era of systematic synthetic phonics as prime: young children’s views on their experiences. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

Systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) is mandated by the Department for Education (DfE) as the prime method to teach the early stages of reading to children in England. Over the past decade this approach has steadily increased in dominance through numerous government policy actions, such as: the introduction of a national phonics screening check (2012), an updated National Curriculum (2013), lists of DfE-approved SSP programmes (2010 & 2021), and updates to the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) School Inspection Handbook (2015 & 2019). This research uses a Bernsteinian analysis to argue that the state has created a new pedagogical singularity of phonics, often classified and enacted separately from reading. Furthermore, by taking control of the mechanisms of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, an inflexible model of the early stages of reading has been created, which is both instrumental and performative.

The study focuses on the views and experiences of children learning to read within this policy environment, dubbed SSP-as-prime. Data was generated through a series of activity-based interviews with groups of children in three schools, following them from Year One into Year Two. Using thematic analysis, the research concluded that children tended to view their phonics lessons as a distinct singularity, not seeing these as linked to reading. At the same time, children associated reading strongly with a phonics-based approach to text, in which the accuracy of decoding became the principal indicator of their success and competence. Children also seemed to be developing a primarily instrumental understanding of reading, with a focus on future outcomes. Children who experienced success with decoding were more likely to see themselves as achieving well in reading, with children who were slower in their phonics acquisition often seeing reading, at least in a school-related context, as unappealing.

It is further argued, however, that children may experience SSP-as-prime differentially based on a range of other factors including their home environment, personal dispositions, and the particular social and spatial contexts in which they find themselves. Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of development has therefore been used to complicate and develop the Bernsteinian analysis, demonstrating how children can, at times, resist, subvert or even appropriate the dominant discourse.

The study provides an original contribution to the debate with its focus on the views and experiences of children on learning to read in the era of SSP-as-prime, an area in which few studies exist. Furthermore the Bernsteinian analysis of SSP enactment and experience, elaborated through the lens of Bronfenbrenner, provides a new way of viewing the current policy environment. Possible consequences are highlighted and ways to mitigate these effects are suggested.

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