Phonics provides best chance of successful start at school

Jennifer Buckingham

06 August 2017 | The West Australian

letters words phonics reading books child 1Australia’s results in international literacy tests have been declining over a long period of time, while other countries have either maintained their performance or improved. It is well-established that a student’s literacy achievement depends heavily on their early progress in learning to read, so it makes sense to look at the effectiveness of early reading instruction and to make sure that it reflects the best and most up-to-date evidence.

One of the most consistent findings in educational research is the importance of phonics in teaching children to read. Phonics is the relationship between the sounds in spoken language and the letters in written text. Writing is a code, and children need to learn to decode words in order to become proficient readers.

There is enormous variability in the quality of phonics instruction, and plenty of reason to believe that in many schools phonics is not being taught well, mainly because of a lack of understanding about how to teach it effectively. This situation is replicated in every Australian state and territory.

It was for these reasons that the Australian government proposed a Year 1 literacy and numeracy assessment. A model of early literacy assessment that has been successful is the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check (PSC) implemented in English schools in 2012.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding about the Phonics Screening Check and many of the arguments against it are based on false premises. The PSC has the potential to reduce the unacceptably large number of children who reach high school unable to read so it is important to set the record straight about it. The PSC is not a NAPLAN-style test for Year 1. It is a brief, 5-7 minute assessment of children’s ability to read words accurately using their knowledge of letters and sounds. Children read a series of words aloud to a teacher.

Unlike NAPLAN tests, the results of the PSC are available immediately to teachers to identify individual student learning needs and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of phonics knowledge in their class. This allows teachers to tailor teaching and interventions accordingly without delay. Also unlike NAPLAN, federal education minister Simon Birmingham has clearly stated there is no intention to make individual school results public.

This means that concerns about stress on children are unfounded. The PSC simply involves a child reading aloud to a familiar adult – their teacher. Children should be reading aloud to an adult every day, so the only way it could be stressful for children is if teachers and parents make it so.

The PSC is a very efficient tool and does not duplicate current assessments. The ‘on-entry’ assessment schedule in Western Australia, as in most other states, does not provide sufficient information about children’s phonics knowledge.

Of course, phonics is not the only aspect of reading. Vocabulary and comprehension are also important. However, a child’s ability to read words using phonic decoding (‘sounding out’) is a strong predictor of their later reading ability.

And there is good evidence that the PSC has had a positive impact on reading in England. Scores have increased each year since it was first implemented nationally in English primary schools in 2012. In 2012, 58% of students achieved the expected standard, rising to 81% in 2016. A major evaluation of the PSC found that it had influenced improvements in teaching phonics.

Furthermore, the proportion of students achieving at the expected standard in Year 2 (Key Stage 1) reading tests also increased after the PSC was introduced, with performance in the PSC in Year 1 strongly predicting performance in the reading tests in Year 2. It is not appropriate to look at PISA scores as an indication of the PSC’s impact, however, because the children who have done the PSC have not reached PISA age yet (15 years).

Much has been said and written about phonics teaching and the Phonics Screening Check by influential educators. It is their responsibility to ensure they are well informed and to debate its merits on the basis of facts and evidence.

Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies, director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project and author of the report Focus on Phonics: Why Australia should adopt the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check

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