Phonics check is crucial

Jennifer Buckingham

01 December 2017 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

A key policy proposal of the CIS’s FIVEfromFIVE literacy project is a Year 1 Phonics Check. The rationale for the Check is that phonics (sounding out words) is an essential skill for proficient reading, and there is good reason to believe that many teachers are not teaching phonics well. A simple assessment administered towards the end of Year One — a crucial point in learning to read — would show which students have not acquired this skill and are therefore likely to struggle with reading throughout their schooling.

The Year One Phonics Check has been implemented in all primary schools in England since 2012 and has been shown to be an effective tool for identifying struggling readers and for guiding teaching and intervention. There has also been an improvement in reading comprehension in later years of school since the Phonics Check was introduced.

Despite this, there has been a concerted campaign against the Phonics Check in Australia from teachers unions and professional associations, who claim it is unnecessary and even ‘harmful’. Some opponents appear to object to the Check on the basis that they don’t like the people who are promoting it. The most likely reason they are opposing the Check is that they are worried about what the results might show.

Those who claim the Phonics Check is unnecessary state that teachers already assess phonics in the early years, and that the Check is an affront to teachers’ professionalism. If teachers are already assessing phonics, they have nothing to fear from the Check. However a review by an expert advisory panel appointed by the Australian government found that there is no consistent systemic assessment of phonics in Year 1 in Australian schools.

Those who claim the Phonics Check is harmful typically point to the inclusion of pseudo or nonsense words in the Check, claiming that teaching pseudo words is pointless. This is correct but misleading — the Phonics Check does not encourage the teaching of nonsense words but using them for assessment is a valid and accurate way of determining phonic knowledge because it reduces the possibility the child will be reading the word using their sight word memory.

There is however, strong support for the Year 1 Phonics Check from many academics, researchers, principals, teachers and parents. An online petition has garnered more than 3000 signatures and social media is alight with debate. The FIVEfromFIVE video explainer has had almost 13,000 views.

The Year 1 Phonics Check proposal will be discussed by education ministers at the Education Council meeting next Friday. The arguments for the Check are clear and compelling. At the very least, it is worth doing a national trial. Any objections to such a proposal can only be on political rather than educational grounds, and that would be a very disappointing result indeed.

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