Phonics campaign

Briefing note on the Year 1 phonics screening check - June 2012

All Year 1 teachers in English primary schools are expected to conduct a "phonics screening check" on all children aged 5 and 6. This new, statutory assessment will take place during the week commencing 18 June 2012. The phonics test comprises a list of 40 words that children read one-to-one with a teacher. The list is a combination of both real and pseudo-words (such as 'Osk' and 'Snemp') to allow the assessment to focus purely on decoding using phonics. The results of the test will be collated centrally through RAISEonline.

The Department for Education (DfE) piloted the phonics test in approximately 300 schools in June 2011.

Using phonics and encouraging children to decode unfamiliar words plays a significant role in the teaching of reading. However, as the former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen and others have argued "doing synthetic phonics can only ever be a contributory factor in the process of how we 'learn to read'. Authoritative studies have shown the superiority of a balanced approach which includes not only phonic decoding and sight recognition of words which are not phonically regular but also, and of great importance, the syntactical and semantic clues which help children to attach meaning to the symbols put before them.

Headteachers' and teachers' concerns

The NUT conducted a survey of its primary members in March 2012. Almost 1,300 teachers responded to the survey and the main findings are listed below:

  • The vast majority, 83%, of respondents did not agree with the statutory implementation of the Year 1 phonics screening check for all Year 1 pupils.
  • 90% of teachers believe the test would provide no additional information to teachers on children's phonic knowledge over and above their usual assessment.
  • Children are being set up to fail the test - only 33% of Year 1 children passed the pilot. The overwhelming majority of teachers, 85%, were concerned about the effects on those children failing the test having to repeatedly re-take it.
  • 63% said that the phonics screening check was inappropriate for many children with special educational needs and for those with English as an additional language.

In a recent NAHT survey of over 2,000 school leaders, only 15% expressed support for a compulsory phonics screening check with results published in RAISEonline.

Conclusion

Teachers working with children in the all important earliest years now face a major challenge. Do they allow the test to dominate their teaching or will they continue with a sensible and balanced approach to teaching reading?

At best the Year 1 phonics screening check will tell teachers nothing that they do not already know about the reading skills of the children in their class. At worst the danger of introducing such a 'high stakes' test is likely to place too great an emphasis on decoding skills at the expense of other reading skills such as enjoyment, comprehension and wider reading. As one teacher in the NUT survey commented "The pass threshold is set so high that only around 33% of children passed the test in the pilot. What do we achieve by informing two thirds of children and their parents that they have failed to pass the phonics test in Year 1? Five years old is too young to fail!'"

The fact that Ofsted is now inspecting the teaching of phonics in primary schools is a clear indication of the government's will to impose one particular teaching method over another throughout the education system. Schools which do not adhere to the strict phonics teaching criteria will face the consequences on inspection day contrary to the rhetoric of freedoms for teachers.

Many schools are already drilling their pupils twice a day in the hope that the results when sent to RAISEonline will not trigger an inspection which will bring criticisms of their teaching. Parents too are beginning to coach their children in phonics as reflected by online parent forums such as Mumsnet and Netmums.

Reading for pleasure should be a fundamental part of childhood and lifelong learning. The ATL, NAHT and NUT are not alone in their concerns about the Year 1 phonics screening check.

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