Phonics Screening Check – research findings by Margaret M Clark

The Phonics Screening Check involves children of about six years old in England being tested on their ability to read out loud 40 words, half of which are not real words at all.  The Government recently repeated its commitment to the test in England  despite the lack of supportive evidence and despite the irony that the Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb, urges teachers to take notice of research.

At the recent 54th UK Literacy Association annual conference in Cardiff I met the redoubtable Margaret M Clark OBE, who I first encountered perhaps 20 years’ ago.  Professor Clark has recently published “The Phonics Screening Check 2012-2017: an independent enquiry into the views of head teachers, teachers and parents.”  This report has been made open access and is accompanied by other resources including an article in the Education Journal.

Margaret Clark OBE

Margaret M Clark OBE

Clark explains in the article how the originally described “light touch diagnostic assessment” has become “a high stakes test in the accountability programme, with schools required by DfE and Ofsted to increase their percentage pass each year….it has come to dominate the early years literacy experiences of young children, with many hours devoted to preparing for the check, in particular the alien (pseudo) words which account for twenty of the forty words in the check.” (Clark, 2018: 20). Those who do not meet the pass mark have to take the test again the following year. Yet, as the report explains, “When teachers were asked: “Do you feel the phonics check provides you with information on individual children which you did not already have?” Only 71 of the 1,108 teachers polled answered ‘Yes’. Only 20 of 180 Head Teachers said that they found the Check helpful.” (Clark: 2018: 23).

Disturbingly, the PSC is gaining ground in Australia.  In an appendix to the report Dr Misty Adoniou of the University of Canberra explains how South Australia has made the PSC compulsory, with endeavours to roll it out as Federal policy.  She explains that the policy is driven by supposed benefits to the identification of dyslexia, although this was “never the stated purpose of the PSC,and the developer of the check and subsequent evaluators, acknowledge that the PSC is not nuanced enough to perform diagnoses of literacy difficulties” (p. 42).  She argues that the policy is ideologically driven, as  a “framing of learning to read as a medical neurological condition.” (p. 42).

I admire the continuing work of Clark, which includes a  challenging investigation into the appalling amounts spent on the PSC. This could be spent   very much better in supporting children’s wellbeing and literacy experiences.  In my opinion her research completely justifess her key findings and policy implications:

1. The views expressed indicate that the government should seriously consider either discontinuing the phonics check or making it voluntary.
2. Many of the respondents, teachers and parents, were critical of the inclusion of the pseudo words and of the time taken in practising them
3. The use of the check as a benchmark to measure overall school improvement appeared to be regarded as unhelpful by many.
4. Given the proportion of teachers and parents who disagreed with government policy,the Government should consider a broader repertoire of approaches to teaching children to read.

Clark (2018, p. 24)


Clark, M.M. (2018) The views of teachers, parents and children on the Phonics Screening Check: the continuing domination of politics over evidence. Education Journal Issue 347. pp. 20-24 10 July 2018.

Clark, M.M. & Glazzard, J.  (2018) The Phonics Screening Check 2012-2017: an independent enquiry into the views of Head Teachers, teachers and parents. A preliminary report July 2018.  Birmingham: Newman University.

Comment. Education Journal. Issue 347, p. 4.10 July 2018






Early childhood literacy – a view from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Earlier this week the American Academy of Pediatrics launched a new toolkit to encourage early childhood literacy.  There’s a lot to be said for it:

It seems really desirable that medical practitioners are being encouraged to work with all the families they meet to encourage children’s literacy development.

It’s great that reading together is being encouraged, and that talking about texts is seen as part of reading, as is singing.  Perhaps best of all, the lively illustrations with the campaign show that reading can be a social activity.  Children are shown clearly enjoying themselves, with others.  There are many links made between cognitive development, positive affect and reading.

The initiative is being supported by high profile contributors including Hillary Clinton.

I think if you’ve read this far, you might be expecting a “but” or two.

OK.  I’m not enthusiastic about the emphasis on “toolkits” and programs, although to be fair, what this toolkit mostly consists of are lists of tips, rather than the promotion of commercial programs that bedevils so much of early literacy policy.  This side of the pond, I think many of us still agree you don’t have to equate encouraging reading with the purchase of programs.  You can mention libraries, (independent) bookshops, and, dare I say it, suggest that people, including young children, might choose their own reading materials.  There are plenty of inspirational ideas out there, such as the Guardian’s diversity in children’s books week being celebrated at the moment. This  initiative is associated with the charity Seven Stories.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ toolkit is accessibly written and contains some sensible advice.  However, my biggest “but” is the idea that only printed books, bound between covers, count as suitable reading material.  I do appreciate the suggestion that it’s fruitful to set aside some time to focus on doing things with your child.  But it’s not the same thing to insist that this is necessarily without “TV, texting and other distractions” as is repeated many times or to suggest that you should “turn off the television and other electronic devices.”  This ignores the point that popular culture, in the form of TV shows, screen-based books and games might actually provide opportunities to engage in mutually delightful reading opportunities with a child.  To switch everything else  off and treat the printed book as necessarily more worthy than other media might at best lose opportunities for engaging early literacy and at worst, create a divide between “serious” and “fun” literacy activities that could turn out to be counter-productive.

It’s ten years since Jackie Marsh was making this point through, for example, her book Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood and there were predecessors.  And indeed I see that Seven Stories, with the fabulous National Media Museum in Bradford, has put on an exhibition Moving Stories – Children’s Books from Page to Screen.