New phonics test for 6 yr olds in English primary schools

New phonics test for 6 yr olds in English primary schools

We consider the new ‘reading test’ that is being introduced into our Primary schools in June of this year. The test focuses solely on testing children’s phonic knowledge…

In June of this year all Year 1 children in Primary schools in England will be given a ‘reading test’. It will focus solely on their phonic knowledge – their ability to link letters to sounds, and to read (pronounce) written words by recognising the letters which make them up and blending the sounds associated with them. Specifically, the test is designed to show whether, at this early stage in their learning, the children can

  • Give the phoneme (sound) when shown any grapheme (letter or combination of letters) that has been taught
  • Blend phonemes in order to read words
  • Know most of the common grapheme-phoneme correspondences
  • Read phonically decodable one-syllable and two-syllable words

The introduction of the test is a key part of the Coalition Government efforts to raise standards of literacy. It reflects the belief that acquiring this skill in decoding single words is a necessary preliminary to learning to read (and understand) the strings of words that make up sentences and texts. The test is described as a screening check: it is designed to “confirm whether individual pupils have grasped the basics of phonic decoding by the end of Year 1 and identify those pupils who needed extra help, so the school can provide support.” The implication being that many of the one in five children who leave primary school without having reached  the expected standard in reading could have been helped if any shortcomings in their phonic skills had been diagnosed and remedied at the start of their schooling.

Other measures in the Government’s literacy policy reinforce this emphasis on phonics: matching funds have been made available to enable schools to buy approved classroom teaching and training resources to support phonics; from September 2012 those teaching early reading will be required to have a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics; and Ofsted’s expertise in assessing the teaching of reading is to be enhanced with appropriate attention being given to the quality of early phonics programmes.

None of this is exactly new. The notion that the teaching of reading is likely to be most effective if children are started on a crash course of phonics, conducted away from (but not instead of) any reading for meaning became a central theme of government literacy policy in 2006 when the then Labour administration endorsed the recommendations of Sir Jim Rose’s Review of Early Reading, built them into the renewed Primary Framework for literacy and the Early Years Foundation Stage, and published their own phonics  study programme, Letters and Sounds.

The Primary Framework has gone, the EYFS is being slimmed down and the National Curriculum refocused, but the introduction of the Year 1 screening test indicates the ‘phonics first and fast’ strategy lives on – as, indeed. does the scepticism with which Rose’s central claims were met at the time.

Rose’s critics (drawn mainly from university schools of education) challenged two of his key recommendations. He proposed  that children  should begin short, concentrated teacher-led sessions in phonics as early as 5, or at least as soon as they have mastered the alphabetic code and acquired sufficient phonological awareness to be able to discriminate between the sounds associated with letters. He also argued that as phonics teaching was aimed specifically at word recognition, it should be conducted apart from, and ahead of, efforts to help children to read for meaning – to understand and enjoy whole texts.  Against this, his critics accepted that phonics is a necessary skill for learning to read but argued that the case for treating it as the prime skill which must be acquired  “‘first and  fast’’ had not been made in the report, rather, they claimed, the evidence from ‘best  practice’ points in a different direction. As one academic critic, Henrietta Dombey, a past President of the United Kingdom Literacy Association, put it:

‘‘The most successful schools and teachers focus both on phonics and on the process of making sense of text. Best practice brings these two key components together, in teaching that gives children a sense of the pleasures reading can bring, supports them in making personal sense of the texts they encounter and also shows them how to lift the words off the page’’.

In this, the new screening check is with Rose: it prioritises phonics, and excludes comprehension – as signalled by the inclusion of completely meaningless ‘pseudo-words’ in the list of words that it asks children to decode. It is also a test, and as such it has attracted criticism on a second front, from those who oppose the imposition on schools of centrally inspired, government-led performance testing. The Government has responded by insisting that this is to be a ‘light-touch’ affair. Schools and teachers have nothing to fear. It will take only two or three minutes per pupil to administer; children will enjoy it, parents will find it reassuring. Moreover, its results will not be included in school league tables. They will be made available to Ofsted, and recorded on the RAISE online website so as to make inter-school comparisons possible. This means, the government argues, that it will not only allow teachers to check the progress of individual children and identify those who need extra help, but also “provide a national benchmark for phonic decoding, so that schools can judge their performance against the national average, and set high, but appropriate, expectations for their pupils to achieve by the end of Year 1”.

Opponents of testing will have none of this. They contend that teachers will learn nothing from it about their own pupils that they don’t already know, that it will add to bureaucracy, use up scarce resources and time, and generate mountains of data that will be open to multiple interpretations.

Notwithstanding this barrage of criticism, the tests will go ahead. As a company who has produced online resources to support a systematic phonics course and with our plans to develop it further up to the end of key stage 1, we will be watching for the results and – looking for signs of the longer term outcome – with interest.

You can find the latest Government statement on the test, with links to the main supporting documents here

You can read an open letter to the Education Secretary sent by the UK Literacy Association following the publication of an independent report on the piloting of the test here

You can read the contribution from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers to the public consultation on the Governments proposals here

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