As an EFL consultant based in Eastern Asia, my work includes developing effective language and literacy programmes for children. A key finding from decades of research, as well as my own experience, is that phonics-based approaches have a profound impact on EFL literacy outcomes.
Students who receive systematic instruction on the sounds of English, how letters represent sounds, and how to blend these to read and spell unfamiliar words, achieve significantly higher rates of literacy.
The literary crisis in the US
Did you know that 54% of US adults between the ages of 16 and 74 years old lack proficiency in literacy, reading below 6th grade levels. Data shows that 21% of US adults are illiterate and the country ranks 7th globally in overall literacy rates.
These shocking data have led to a growing call for change in the way that children are taught – or not taught – to read. A central problem has been that many US education districts abandoned phonics and opted for what has been called a ‘whole word’ or ‘whole language’ approach.
Beyond the Brand: The Building Blocks of EFL Literacy
The research is clear: effective EFL literacy instruction focuses on several interconnected skills, grounded in evidence-based practices.
At their core, the strongest programmes:
1) Develop phonemic awareness. The ability to manipulate word sounds is foundational, and effective programs place strong emphasis on this, with a focus on identifying and manipulating sounds at the word, syllable, and phoneme levels. Studies show phonemic awareness training leads to stronger literacy outcomes, especially when started early.
2) Teach systematic phonics skills. After phonemic awareness, effective programs teach the relationships between letters and sounds in a structured progression. Students learn to sound out words by applying letter-sound knowledge, enabling independent word decoding. Reviews show systematic phonics instruction improves reading accuracy and comprehension.
3) Build reading comprehension. Beyond decoding, literacy requires understanding what is read. Effective programmes incorporate comprehension instruction and practice, teaching strategies like summarising, inferring, and prediction, as well as building world knowledge. Research shows reading comprehension strategies and knowledge have significant impacts on comprehension.
4) Develop writing skills. To be literate, students must be able to express themselves through writing. The strongest programmes include writing instruction and practice to build skills like crafting sentences, paragraphs, and longer pieces. As with reading, research-based strategies and techniques are important for teaching writing.
5) Adapt to student and classroom needs. Effective programmes personalise instruction and provide modifications or extensions based on learner needs. Teachers can adapt or supplement lessons, using data and feedback to tailor instruction to students’ individual levels, speeds, and weaknesses/strengths. Research shows personalised, adaptive instruction leads to better student outcomes.
While programmes differ in style, content, and brand, the strongest are grounded in research on how students learn literacy skills best.
With a balance of foundations and adaptability, students can gain the language skills to unlock opportunities to learn and achieve.
Lost in Translation: Why US Literacy Lags Behind
The research-based practices driving high EFL literacy rates in my region contrast sharply with current approaches in many US schools. While territories such as Hong Kong focus on phonemic awareness, systematic phonics, and balanced skill instruction adapted to learners, the “whole language” philosophy took hold in US education.
This “whole word” approach de-emphasised phonics and believed reading would emerge “naturally” if children were exposed to whole words in context.
However, research shows this philosophy lacks the instructional elements that effectively teach the code-cracking skills new readers need. As a result, many students never fully grasp the relationships between letters and sounds—and never learn to decode independently.
With huge literacy discrepancies tied to race and socioeconomic status, this “whole language” legacy has contributed to the US’s growing literacy crisis and stark inequalities.
To tackle illiteracy and equip all students with essential skills, the US should reexamine the approaches driving high literacy rates elsewhere. With a return to evidence-based practices targeting code-cracking skills and balanced, personalised instruction, more students can unlock literacy—and the future opportunities it opens.
Staying Evidence-Based: Why Research Must Guide EFL Literacy
As EFL language and literacy consultants and developers, our duty is to equip students with skills to achieve their fullest potential. This means:
• Grounding our work in rigorous research on effective practices, not popular opinion or anecdotes.
• Focusing on what language acquisition, cognitive and literacy learning research shows works:
› Phonemic awareness and systematic phonics instruction
› Balanced reading/writing lessons teaching comprehension and composition
› Personalised support adapting to student needs and levels
• Not being swayed by trendy philosophies or flashy materials lacking evidence-based grounding.
• Recognising the high stakes for our learners and duty to support their growth with effective practices.
Only by staying focused on data and evidence, not just stories or trends, can we develop EFL literacy programmes and content fulfilling our responsibility to open opportunities for students to read, learn, and achieve.
Our learners deserve nothing less than programmes implementing research-proven practices. Evidence must guide our way.