The Facts about the Phonics Screening Check

Jennifer Buckingham

19 September 2017 | Online Opinion

child reading learning teachingIt’s astonishing that much of what is written in opposition to the Phonics Screening Check is inaccurate, given that information about it is very easy to find.

The UK government publishes a collection of official statistics and makes available a useful amount of data on the results of the Phonics Screening Check each year. Technical reports and evaluations are also easy to find.

Sadly, the Check’s critics seem to not bother to research their subject, leading to the spread of misinformation and impoverishing public debate over its value.

There are a number of common criticisms of the Phonics Screening Check, all of which have been repeatedly refuted, but which are worth revisiting.

Claim 1: The Phonics Screening Check is advocated by people who claim that phonics instruction is sufficient alone to learn to read.

The Facts: All reading specialists and researchers know that phonics is essential but not sufficient for reading, but there is good reason to believe that phonics is not being taught well and deserves particular attention.

Claim 2: A ‘balanced approach’ to teaching reading is the most effective.

The Facts: A ‘balanced approach’ to teaching reading has no evidence of effectiveness, partly because there is no accepted definition. In practice, a balanced approach tends to mean a mixture of learning lists of words by sight, the ‘multi-cuing’ method of guided reading, and some incidental phonics teaching. Each of these elements of a ‘balanced approach’ has been consistently shown to be less effective than explicit systematic phonics instruction, especially synthetic phonics, within a comprehensive program that includes explicit instruction in vocabulary and comprehension.

Claim 3: Decoding is ‘not synonymous with reading’ and therefore the Phonics Screening Check serves no purpose.

The Facts: Decoding is the first step to reading. A child can have a well-developed vocabulary, but if they cannot accurately identify the words on the page, they cannot read. There is a vast amount of evidence supporting the ‘Simple View of Reading’ – that children require both decoding and language comprehension skills, and that decoding skills are a strong predictor of later reading ability.

Claim 4: There have been no improvements in reading since the Phonics Screening Check was introduced in England.

The Facts: There have been clear improvements in performance on both the Phonics Screening Check in Year 1 and Key Stage Reading tests in Year 2. The proportion of children who achieved the ‘threshold’ score in the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check has increased each year, from 58% in 2012 to 81% in 2016. In an article published in Online Opinion on 23/7/18, Paul Gardner attempts to minimise this improvement, claiming that “students that ‘failed’ the test in 2012 had to re-take it in 2013 and would have been included in the figures for the higher pass rate.” This is not true. While it is that case that students who do not achieve the threshold score in Year 1 do the Check again in Year 2, their scores are recorded separately and therefore do not contribute to the higher pass rates in Year 1.

There were also important improvements in Key Stage Tests in Reading in Year 2. The proportion of children who did not achieve the expected standard in Reading fell from 15% to 10% after the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check — in real terms, this means a third fewer children below the expected standard. The achievement gap in Year 2 reading between children eligible for free school meals (low income families) and their peers closed by a similar amount. While it is not possible to conclusively prove a causal connection, the PSC was the major literacy policy change that occurred prior to the improvement in results. Furthermore, children’s performance in the PSC in Year 1 is a very strong predictor of their performance in the reading test in Year 2, which in turn is a strong predictor of their performance in reading tests in Year 6.

Claim 5: Any improvements in performance on the Phonics Screening Check that might be real are attributable to teachers ‘coaching’ students to pass the check.

The Facts: The only way teachers can improve student performance on the Check is to teach phonics well and improve students’ ability to decode. If ‘coaching’ means drilling using sight words, this will be ineffective, as the pseudo-word component specifically prevents this.

Claim 6: ‘Good readers’ are disadvantaged by the pseudo words in the Check because they try to read them as real words.

The Facts: Item analysis of the Phonics Screening Check results has shown pseudo words that look similar to real words are not read incorrectly more often than other pseudo words. In addition, a reading error is a reading error: Children in Year 1 come across many words they do not recognise in the books they read. Many ‘good readers’ have memorised a large bank of words but cannot decode unfamiliar words because their phonics knowledge is poor. They need to know how to decode accurately to read proficiently beyond the simple and predictable texts they are given in the early years of school.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of reason to believe many Australian children have not been taught phonics well and do not know how to use the alphabetic code to read and spell. Numerous studies of teachers have found weak knowledge of the evidence base and the language constructs that underpin effective reading instruction. Initial teacher education degrees in Australian universities are by and large not providing teachers with effective strategies for teaching phonics.

Some schools are teaching phonics well, but the Phonics Screening Check would highlight any deficiencies in phonics instruction around the country and also identify students who need help with this fundamental skill, including the apparent ‘good readers’.

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

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