The ‘Simple View of Reading’ conceptualises reading as having two key components — word identification and language comprehension. Children need to know how to decipher the words on the page, and have a store of vocabulary, factual and conceptual knowledge to give the words meaning. A deficit in either one of these areas means that reading is difficult or impossible.
Pretty much all educators acknowledge that phonics is an essential element in learning to read and write. Phonics is both a body of knowledge and a skill: children need know which letters represent which sounds and vice versa — and they need to be able to use that knowledge to read and spell.
All children can and should know how to use phonics to decode words. Unfortunately there is good reason to believe many children are not acquiring this fundamental knowledge and skill, thus hampering their ability to become proficient readers.
It was for this reason that the advisory panel I chaired recommended a Phonics Check for Year 1 students — a simple, five minute, teacher-delivered assessment based on the Phonics Screening Check used in all primary schools in England since 2012. The Phonics Check would identify children who are struggling with decoding at this critical stage in learning to read, and provide schools and systems with immediate detailed data about strengths and weaknesses in phonics instruction that would allow them to respond accordingly.
Objections to the Phonics Check came in thick and fast when the advisory panel’s report was released earlier this week, but many were misinformed about the nature of the assessment and the rationale underpinning it.
The loudest protestations against it have been that teachers are already assessing phonics and that ‘another test’ is unnecessary. However the panel found that — while all state and territory government schools and all non-government schools are conducting literacy assessments to varying extents — none of the systemic assessments had a strong phonics component. The phonics assessment items were either too few or were poorly designed. In some cases items listed as ‘phonics’ were measuring a different skill: phonemic awareness. The best assessment was in the Northern Territory, which is making significant in-roads in phonics.
It is now up to the state and territory education ministers to carefully consider the recommendations of the panel, without being unduly influenced by the teachers unions and a few professional associations that seem to be very
worried about what a Phonics Check might reveal. If we can put politics aside and get phonics right in the early years, we may finally see a reduction in the number of children struggling with reading.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the Five From Five literacy campaign.