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






Wendy Crocker’s PhD

Wendy Crocker’s PhD is now publicly available here.  Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be present at the Literacy Research Discussion Group when Wendy has presented her research, have been completely entranced.  Here’s the title and abstract of her thesis.

Crocker, Wendy A., “Telling tales out of school: Principals’ narratives of the relationship between school literacy and the home literacy practices of a minoritized culture” (2013). University of Western Ontario – Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. Paper 1458.

Much of the literature in the area of school leadership pertains to the role of the principal in school improvement – specifically in raising reading and writing scores in large-scale assessments. However, what is less represented is how administrators who are confronted daily with the socially constructed and multiple representations ofliteracies demonstrated by the English Language Learners in their schools view the focus on reading and writing referred to in the literature as school literacy. This Narrative Inquiry explores administrators’ perspectives of the relationship between school-literacy and home-literacy practices of a minoritized culture taking as its case the Low German-speaking Mennonites (LGM) who reside in particular rural areas of southwestern Ontario and often migrate between Ontario and northern Mexico.

A Principal Learning Team (PLT) was employed in this study which brought together ten participants from six schools within one school board to share their narratives of reading and writing in school, working with LGM students and their families, and school leadership. The four main findings for discussion included: (i) recognition of a mismatch between the multiliteracies demonstrated by students and the print-literacy model perpetuated by Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) ; (ii) the use of the Low German language as a vehicle to build trust with the LGM community; (iii) recognition by the principals that cultural proficiency within school communities is critical when working with students from a minoritized group; and (iv) the ways in which existing leadership frameworks and checklists constrain principals’ literacy leadership vis-à-vis minoritized cultures.

The study recommends that school leaders as literacy leaders adopt a widened view of literacies to encompass both the print literacy of large scale assessments such as EQAO and the daily demonstrations of multiliteracies by the students of minoritized cultures. Further, administrators should be granted greater autonomy by local boards to support school-based resource decisions. Finally, to better reflect the literacies of the students in their schools and to more appropriately assess students from minoritized cultures on large scale assessments, principals require greater latitude to employ accommodation and exemption mechanisms within the EQAO assessment.