Madness of phonics screening

Masha Bell's picture
There is a very good article on the madness of the phonics screening test in today's i (the 20p version of The Independent) under the pseudonym Jennifer Jackson.

The piece is brilliant, apart from a slip in the 5th para from the end in which the English language is confused with its spelling.

The language is fine, only its spelling inconsistencies stink. They are responsible for daft initiatives like the new phonics test.

Masha Bell
Ex English teacher, now independent literacy researcher
Author of ebook SPELLING IT OUT (2012),
'Rules and Exceptions of English Spelling' (2009),
'Understanding English Spelling' (2004),
and Youtube video 'Why improve English spelling?'
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Michael Dix's picture
Sat, 01/12/2012 - 12:04

I agree that the article highlights the two main issues with the phonics test, namely children trying to use their usual decoding skills to find sensible words from the nonsense ones (the test does not indicate which are real and which are made up) and the inevitable outcome of any test which will hold teachers to account (even though Ofsted says they won't pay any attention to schools' scores, they will, even if subconsciously), which is teaching to the test.

However, the schools described in the articles do not resemble any that I have worked in over 35 years. Is the writer genuine? Only allowed to read on alternate days? Taught to spell irregular words phonetically? Teachers taking it out on children because their parents had questioned their methods? If I was any of those parents, I'd be looking for a new school.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 01/12/2012 - 14:39

Michael - I too was concerned about the alleged behaviour in the schools. The writer used anecdotes to imply widespread bad practice among teachers of reading. This was a pity because the criticisms of the phonics reading test are valid.

An Early Day Motion was tabled on 26 November 2012 which says:

"That this House notes the year one phonics screening check was analysed in a recent UK Literacy Association (UKLA) survey by an independent researcher at Sheffield Hallam University; further notes the survey overwhelmingly indicates that in teachers' and headteachers' professional judgment, the phonics screening check for six-year-olds has been costly, time-consuming and unnecessary, and can undermine the assurance of more fluent readers by labelling them as failures; agrees with the UKLA, the teacher unions and other professional associations that checks like this should not be imposed on all children, but used judiciously where a teacher thinks it would help to identify specific needs in a particular child; and calls on the Government to listen to the voice of professionals on this issue and ensure that the phonics screening check is not used in subsequent years for all children in year one, but is instead implemented at teachers' discretion."

16 MPs have already signed (sponsors and names are below). Anyone concerned about the phonics test should write and ask their MP to sign it.

Rosie's picture
Sat, 01/12/2012 - 20:02

The most valuable aspect of the Phonics test is the huge empowerment it gives to parents who now have their child's literacy formally quantified ( and so can now challenge the vague platitudes which form the normal teacher's response to any parent of a ks1 child concerned about their reading).
I had been questioning my child's reading abilities for 12 months (due to his lack of reading and anxiety about going to school ) to no avail with the school .

By January of year 2 and on his 7th birthday I downloaded the sample phonics test from the D of E website. He failed miserably scoring 12 out of 40.

Realising I couldn't rely on the school ( who wouldn't even agree with me that he was struggling) I purchased Mona McNees Step by Step phonics home tutoring book and 10 x 1 hour home intervention lessons later he was a child transformed. The teachers commented on how much more confidant he was and after another 10 hrs over the easter holidays he returned to school and wrote 2 pages about his hero Harry Potter .

It was only later that the teacher let slip that he hadn't been formally assessed since a failed test in January when he had become too distressed at his inability to continue. (Had this triggered an intervention ..oh no). He had also been hysterical about the prospect of a trip to visit a Victorian Schoolroom. The only way he would attend was after one of the more intuitive teachers persuaded the "alpha" kid in the class to volunteer to be the "dunce" identified by the teacher. Clearly my son had been so aware of his reading failings that he believed that he would be singled out and vilified in the mock victorian. classroom.

Now his school claims to do phonics and in year 1 I had felt that it was phonics that must be failing him. It turns out it's not phonics that fails IT'S PHONICS DONE BADLY BY UNTRAINED PETULANT TEACHERS.

The school did phonics but used old Oxford Reading tree look and say books without actually doing the look and say teaching. Hence none of the books my very literal and stubborn son had to read actually followed the basic phonics rules he was being taught. So , being of a dogmatic disposition, he rejected reading completely.

The sad fact is that there's no money to be made in Educational Resources and research if they can't prove it's been done wrong up to now. The subversion of phonics by egotists after the second world war directly correlates with the steady decline in literacy in this country.

Other methods deliver quicker results for most children but the fact is that the children are actually deriving their own phonics rules to apply to unfamiliar words. fair enough if this suits all children but it fails miserably the 20 to 30% who can't do it.

Phonics is the cornerstone of Dyselxia interventions.

The early day motion is a disgrace and I shall be writing to my MP to explain why.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/12/2012 - 09:53

Rosie - there are two points about the article. The first point, mentioned by Michael above and endorsed by you and me, is that the behaviour of the teachers described in the article does not seem credible. The second point is that there are real concerns about the phonics test – these concerns shouldn’t be ignored because the author gave unsubstantiated anecdotes.

I'm afraid that your remarks about "petulant teachers" and "egotists" subverting phonics for over half a century which, apparently, has contributed to a "steady decline in literacy" in the UK, are without foundation. A recent survey found that when results of international tests were combined with literacy and graduation rates the UK came sixth in the world and second in Europe.

Rosie's picture
Sat, 01/12/2012 - 20:05

err not much point in asking you all to sign the on-line petition by Dyslexia Action to make Phonics Teaching a mandatory part of the teacher training curriculum then ????

Rosie's picture
Sat, 01/12/2012 - 20:09

I thoroughly despise the emotive manipulative way the early day motion states "and can undermine the assurance of more fluent readers by labelling them as failures".

It is not the children that are failing IT IS THE SCHOOL .

Rosie's picture
Sat, 01/12/2012 - 20:20

I highly recommend that we all peruse the comments that follow the independent article which include
"No wonder the author is using a pseudonym
As a Y1 teacher I've never read such utter rubbish"

We should note that no alternative viewpoint is allowed in the article and vague unsubstantiated references to "parents up in arms " how many...can you provide proof??

Rosie's picture
Sat, 01/12/2012 - 20:21

Refreshing to see the comments generally deride the article ...poor I mean Jennifer

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/12/2012 - 10:16

Rosie - there were 13 comments under the article. One was from Mashabell which as you would expect agreed with the article. Two commented solely on the behaviour of the teachers. Three commented on English spelling. One, who agreed with the concerns about the test, thought it was a pity that the article turned into a generalised complaint about teachers. The remaining six or so were divided between those who supported the concerns about the phonics test and those that did not.

Rosie's picture
Sat, 01/12/2012 - 20:25

Highly lucid and informed quote from comments in independent
"Errant nonsense, through and through. Schools are teaching phonic strategies as a basis for early reading, not as the sole method for interpreting words on a page. The idea of reading nonsense words is based on the idea that all new words to a child appear as nonsense words, and the speed at which they can decode them may indicate the speed at which they decode new words. I find it hard to believe that a teacher would rebuke a child for spelling correctly whilst praising phonetic alternatives - similarly, I doubt very much that a teacher has told a child they may only read on certain days. If these anecdotes are true, then the teacher may need to be referred to the LEA Literacy Advisor. I suspect, however, that these tales are fabricated for effect so that teachers will, yet again, be blamed for lack of reading progress in some pupils. Journalists, please get your facts straight and do a little research into the fundamental principles behind teaching phonic reading strategies to early readers."

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/12/2012 - 09:45

Rosie - the comment you quote is correct that anecdotes can be "fabricated for effect". And it's also true that such anecdotes can result in teachers being "blamed for lack of reading progress in some pupils." Ironic, then, that your first comment should be mainly anecdotal.

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