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.
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