Aston academics help 30% more children achieve expected levels in early literacy, improving their listening, talking, reading and writing skills

Why this research is needed

Reading difficulties in the UK cost the taxpayer an estimated £2.5 billion per annum. As a result of poor literacy levels, children’s lives, as well as their future prospects are significantly hindered. Efforts to improve early reading through targeted teaching are key to improving children’s attainments in primary school and beyond.

In 2006, the government commissioned a review (the Rose Review) of the teaching of early reading. This review concluded that synthetic phonics is the most effective way to teach early reading. Synthetic phonics is a method that teaches children to first translate written letters into sounds and then blend the sounds to pronounce the word. This second step requires “phonological awareness”- awareness of the individual sound-units within a spoken word. However, the Rose Review did not clarify the distinction between phonics and phonological awareness.

Research at Aston demonstrates that synthetic phonics combined with training in phonological awareness is the most effective way of teaching early reading.

The research team

Dr Laura Shapiro is a Reader in the School of Life and Health Sciences. She conducts large-scale longitudinal research on the causes and consequences of children’s language and literacy development.Her key focus is to explore the relationship between pre-school cognitive skills and instruction on early reading progress.

She leads the Aston Literacy Project team, and also works together with Dr Jessie Ricketts, Reader in Language, Memory and Attention at Royal Holloway, and Dr Joanne Taylor, Lecturer in Psychology at University College London.

Together, the team specialise in reading and language development in children, adolescents and parents.

The research process

The research conducted at Aston University demonstrated the key role of phonological awareness when learning to read and the long-term importance of good basic reading skills for developing vocabulary knowledge.Through longitudinal work beginning from school-entry, the team discovered that teaching ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ alongside training in ‘phonological awareness’ resulted in improved reading.

Notably, the team discovered that phonological skills are most critical at the beginning stages of reading, and when children are reading new words which can only be read using a phonics strategy. The way children are taught to read also changes the importance of phonological skills. Specifically,children taught through intensive synthetic phonics rely more heavily on phonological skills for reading than children who were taught mixed methods. In fact, children who started school with poor phonological awareness performed better following mixed methods which included training on recognising words by sight.

Together, this work suggests that beginning readers must develop good phonological skills in order to benefit from synthetic phonics teaching. The project team performed numerous external events aimed at non-academic audiences such as the Scottish Insight presentation in 2018.

Reports from the ‘Aston Literacy Project’ have been presented to the Department for Education with the purpose of explaining their findings along with the associated impact they could have for children’s literacy and learning outcomes. Findings were also published in academic journals including Cognition, Developmental Science and the British Journal of Educational Psychology.


This research has influenced policymakers, practitioners and children via the distribution of reports and publications from the Aston Literacy Project and other related projects. The research on the importance of phonological skills for early reading provided a key rationale for the Scottish Government to approve the Emerging Literacy workstream within the Northern Alliance, Scottish Highlands (deployed in eight local authorities).

The Emerging Literacy workstream improved school attainment, in literacy and numeracy, through evidence-based training on literacy teaching. This improved the teaching quality of teachers and greatly raised literacy levels whilst reducing in equalities in the schools adopting the workstream. Emerging Literacy is now facilitating collaboration and career long professional learning across 345 primary schools in the Scottish Highlands (61% of the primary schools in that geographical area).

It has been found that children in Emerging Literacy partnership schools were more likely to achieve at least Early Level in every aspect of literacy. They were also 30% more likely to attain at least Early Level in all 3 areas, 50% more likely in Listening and Talking, 60% in Reading and 40% in Writing.

Additionally,the most deprived children were twice as likely to achieve at least Early Level whilst the least deprived children were not held back. Research from this team has also led to collaboration between Aston University and family learning teams from 7 local authorities in England. Together they co-developed course material which prioritises phonological awareness as well as phonics skills. These co-developed programmes have raised parents’ phonological awareness and phonics skills, increased parents’ confidence in their ability to support their child’s reading, and the amount they read at home with their child.

Finally, research findings formed part of the evidence used to petition the Scottish Parliament to urge the Government to provide national guidance on the use of synthetic phonics in schools and in teacher training. As a result, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills acknowledged and proposed a new self-evaluation framework.

Why is this research relevant today?

This body of research has formed the basis for ongoing funded projects which will lead to new policy and practice impacts internationally. These include:

  1. working with an advisory panel of practitioners and policy makers to develop strategies to support children’s vocabulary growth by increasing their independent reading (including ~50 secondary schools in Birmingham and Greater London)
  2. working with Early Childhood Education Centres and other policy and practice stakeholders in Kenya and Zambia to improve early childhood education and engage families in children’s learning.