Last week saw Dr Jonathan Solity present a research paper entitled ‘Is the Phonics Screening Check a major cause of pupils’ difficulties in learning to read?’ at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference. The research calls into question the very basis of the test taken by thousands of children every year.
What is the Phonics Screening Check?
The check is taken by pupils at the end of Year One and it is retaken in Year Two if the children do not achieve the pass mark in Year One. The check takes place in June and is completed on a one-to-one basis. It presents children with 40 words; half of which are real words and the remaining half being ‘pseudo-words’. The children are assessed on their competence in reading letters and graphemes. Children can read the word without sounding out or they can sound out the phonemes e.g. ‘d’ ‘o’ ‘g’ and then blend the phonemes together to make words e.g. ‘dog’. Both of these are acceptable correct responses. If a child correctly sounds out a word but incorrectly blends the word then this would be marked as incorrect. The pass mark is released after the Phonics Screening Check window and has been 32 since the start of the check in 2012.
Does the Phonics check really assess children’s phonics knowledge?
In the Department of Education’s own words, the Phonics Screening Check was “Designed to confirm that children have grasped the basics of phonic decoding and to identify those pupils who need extra help at an early stage.” However, Dr Solity and his partner, Cat Darnell, have produced research that would fundamentally disagree with this statement.
The research consisted of the in-depth analysis of the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Phonics Screening Checks. In total, the check was devised to check 85 grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) however Solity and Darnell found that 27 of these GPCs (32%) were never tested in the Phonics Screening Check. During the period covered by the analysis, the pass mark stayed at 32 marks out of 40. However, the analysis showed that children needed to demonstrate only simple phonic knowledge to reach this mark. Pupils did not need to know less common GPCs such as ‘ou’ in ‘you’ in order to pass despite the screening rules stating that children should be able to decode less familiar GPCs to be able to pass. The research found that the screening check has not assessed the learning required in the National Curriculum consistently for the past three years.
It could be argued, as the Department of Education has done, that it is impossible to check every aspect of the curriculum in every test, however the research points to something more fundamental.
A Phonics Check or a Vocabulary Check?
Solity and Darnell found that 80% of the ‘real words’ (40% of each check) featured in the screenings that were analysed had more than one “plausible” pronunciation if pupils only used their phonics knowledge to answer. In order to pronounce the words correctly, pupils had to use their knowledge of vocabulary instead. For example, on the 2014 check, children were presented with the word ‘brown’. The ‘ow’ grapheme can be sounded out in two ways, ‘ow’ as in ‘cow’ and ‘ow’ as in ‘slow’, therefore a child has to draw on their vocabulary knowledge to choose the correct pronunciation. The paper showed that a test designed to eschew vocabulary knowledge, in fact makes children rely on it. The researchers argue that children with less “language rich” environments would be disproportionally affected. They propose children learn the most frequent GPCs and then move on quickly to reading ‘real’ texts to build up their vocabulary knowledge.
So what now?
Solity made clear that phonics was not the issue, stating that “This is not an anti-phonics argument. It is absolutely clear that children need to be taught phonics and systematic synthetic phonics in particular. What we are questioning is whether it is worth teachers spending a great amount of time making sure pupils learn all 85 [GPCs], rather than concentrating on the most frequent ones and then building pupils’ vocabulary.” The Department for Education view the research as misleading, but it does raise a number of questions about the efficacy of the tests and whether ultimately they are worthwhile.