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The Psychology of Thinking and Communication

Recommendation of the report:

It is recommended that phonics is a superior learning tool for developing children.

Summary of supporting evidence:

Several theories have been proposed to explain the development of children, including the maturational, behaviourist, constructivist, sociohistorical, ecological and multiple intelligence theories, reviewed extensively in (Aldridge, Sexton, Goldman, & Werner, 1997). However, no one theory can explain the complex process of learning and development of reading skills in children. The theories on child development all agree that understanding how children think is a critical aspect of developing effective learning tools (Aldridge et al., 1997). Developmental theories related to literacy view child education as a discontinuous process involving distinct and separate stages of learning (Aldridge et al., 1997). The ability to read represents one of those distinct stages of child development that require careful nurturing. Evidence shows that children who develop early, higher reading skills develop broader knowledge of their environment and perform better during further education. However, the most effective strategy to promote this developmental stage and skills remain a contested issue.

Two of the most common tools for teaching reading skills, especially English language are the phonics and flash cards. Phonics is method based on developing the ability to hear, identify and manipulate phoneme. By contrast, flashcard uses cards bearing information such as words or numbers. Unfortunately, the use of flash cards has been criticised for representing words out of context and encouraging memorisation. Both issues are linked to poor reading skills, as children struggle to read information that contain words they are yet to memorise. Conversely, there is significant body of evidence that phonics is the most effective method for teaching children of all backgrounds how to read English. Indeed, phonic based methods can mitigate the disadvantages of flash cards by teaching children the sounds made by letters and combinations of letters. Moreover, phonics allows children to blend letters to form new words. Unlike memorising words, phonics can teach children how to decode new words. The ability to decode new words is a critical stage in learning how to read English and is supported by the different theories of child development. These theories propose a staged approach to learning.

Modern implementation of phonics is a structured approach that starts from simple words and progresses to complex words. Some studies showed that phonics is particularly helpful for children developing reading skills and those struggling with reading. Regardless of educational backgrounds, implementation of good phonics tool can allow children to develop the skills required to decode new words and read full texts. In this context, flash cards are limited by the brain’s capacity to memorise words. Research evidence show that human brain can only memories less than 2000 abstract symbols. Thus, the ability to decode new words and read full texts is significantly impaired in children taught with flashcards. Correspondingly, children taught with phonics tend to read more accurately compared to children taught with other methods including flash cards (Rose, 2005). One of the challenges facing reading and teaching approaches is the unique differences in learning style exhibited by developing children. However, phonics can improve reading skills in people with learning difficulties like dyslexia (Rose, 2009), compared to other methods. Thus, phonics can be used for different learning styles and for children with different backgrounds.

One of the most comprehensive research into the use of different teaching methods for reading in children showed that the use of phonics lead to significant improvements in reading skills from pre-school to primary schools (Panel, Health, & Development, 2000). The study also confirmed that phonics can be used for disabled readers. The reading skills of disabled readers was significantly improved by phonics compared to other methods. By contrast, the abstract and memory intensive nature of flash card based methods can make it a challenge for children with learning difficulties to comprehend and device methods to decode new words.

In the UK, a study showed that implementation of phonics in a high-literacy learning environment significantly increased reading accuracy for both normally developing children and those affected by learning difficulties (Torgerson, Brooks, & Hall, 2006). This finding suggest that phonics can be used to improve reading in children with developed reading skills and highlights the wider application of this tool compared to flash cards. In agreement, an investigation into alternative methods for teaching reading skills by the Australian national inquiry into teaching of literacy showed robust evidence to support the advantages of using phonics (Rowe, 2005). The inquiry revealed that research, good practice and consultations support phonics as the most effective method for learning how to read English (Rowe, 2005). The inquiry further showed that lack of phonics in any learning environment impedes literacy progress (Rowe, 2005). Indeed, lack of phonics impedes reading accuracy, fluency, comprehension and spelling skills. Therefore, flash cards are dispensable in teaching children to read but not phonics. Based on this evidence, using flash cards alone is not only disadvantageous but could impede development and literacy. Though phonics can be combined with flash cards, there is a potential risk of encouraging memorisation at the expense of robust phonics based learning. These claims are further supported by a seven-year study that reported significant improvements in reading and spelling skills in children taught with phonics tools compared to those in the alternative groups (Johnston & Watson, 2005). This seven-year study showed that children taught with phonics had reading and spelling capabilities that were three years and a year above their age, respectively (Johnston & Watson, 2005).

A study that focused in the most deprived area of Scotland successfully reduced illiteracy to near eradication using phonics based teaching methods (MacKay, 2007). The study emphasised the superiority of phonics compared to other methods of learning. Despite the numerous claims that phonics is limited by the irregularities in some English words, the ability to read complex words is reduced in flash card based learning. There is evidence that children initially taught with flash cards show high reading levels than those taught with phonics. This difference is potentially related to the ability to recognise a selection of memorised words. Indeed, when children start to learn complex and longer words flash cards is less effective compared to phonics. Considering that the focus of this report is at this developmental stage, learning with phonics is superior.

Sources of further information:


This website provides information on the effectiveness and implementation of phonics.

https://www.teachingenglish.or g.uk/article/using-flash-cards -young-learners

This website provides information on the different aspects of flash cards.


Aldridge, J., Sexton, D., Goldman, R., & Werner, M. (1997). Examining contributions of child development theories to early childhood education. College Student Journal, 31, 453-459. 

Johnston, R., & Watson, J. (2005). The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: a seven year longitudinal study.

MacKay, T. (2007). Achieving the Vision: The Final Research Report of the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative. Dumbarton: West Dunbartonshire Council. To order, email: education. centralregistry@ west-dunbarton. gov. uk.

Panel, N. R., Health, N. I. o. C., & Development, H. (2000). Report of the national reading panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Rose, J. (2005). Independent review of the teaching of early reading: Interim report: Department for education and skills.

Rose, J. (2009). Identifying and teaching children and young people with dyslexia and literacy difficulties: an independent report.

Rowe, K. (2005). Teaching reading: Report and recommendations. Australian Government Department of Education, Science, and Training: National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy.

Torgerson, C., Brooks, G., & Hall, J. (2006). A systematic review of the research literature on the use of phonics in the teaching of reading and spelling: DfES Publications Nottingham.