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







Governance by Data: Where Next for International Literacy Assessments? by Mary Hamilton

We have hit a crucial time in the field of international literacy assessment. This year sees the first results from the latest developments in international testing. PIAAC (the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) has been conducted in 25 countries, and builds on both PISA and the IALS and is the result of the combined efforts of the OECD and the European Union. In a related development, UNESCO has developed the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP) to provide the diagnostic information required to monitor and improve literacy skills worldwide. At this point, it is a good opportunity to reflect critically on the field of international literacy assessment, its ambitions and achievements and the future challenges it poses – for literacy researchers, educators and policy-makers: The implications of governance by data and the implications of viewing literacy through the lens of large-scale statistical projects.

On June 17th we welcomed literacy scholars, policy makers and practitioners to an international symposium on “literacy as numbers” where we looked at how literacy measurements are developed and carried out, and the cross-cultural social, political and scientific contexts in which they take place. Organized by Lancaster University, the University of East Anglia and the London Institute of Education, the symposium aimed to contribute to the process of reflection and commentary on international literacy assessment. Videos of presentations from the symposium are now on the site, and these give a flavour of some of the issues that were raised in the seminar, the strands of research and theory that converged there on the topic of literacy as numbers.

I come to this topic as a long-time researcher in adult literacy in the UK and someone who has watched the field change from its beginnings in the 1970s as a marginal, informal and fluid area of practice to an internationally specified index of social development. I’ve become fascinated by the process whereby the complex diversities of adult experience and achievement have given way to an ordered field of measurement; how the technical debates surrounding the development of these measurements and the assumptions behind them become hidden from view as time goes on and how the concepts and terminology they generate become naturalized within public discourse.

My specific interest is the ways in which literacy is currently being represented through the lens of numbers and measurement – by scholars and administrators and increasingly in government and media discourses. In my recent book Literacy and the Politics of Representation I explored the work that this form of representation does and the effects and implications of imagining literacy through numbers – from the historical rise of social statistics and the creation of national systems of statistical record to the use of psychometric measurement in education.

State policy makers and international agencies are currently mobilising literacy as number as never before, making a persuasive impact in the mass media and the public imagination. A large amount of work (often invisible to the public) goes into creating and sustaining the credibility of these numbers. International surveys aim to harmonise measurement of literacy and enable cross-country comparisons that will be useful for policy. The science of statistics developed to serve the purpose of the state and its role has always been deeply paradoxical – the enumeration of populations is claimed as part of the ideal of a democratic social order but has also been an integral part of colonial projects.

Numerical measures of literacy are, clearly, not the only ways of defining what literacy is and what it does: there are other discourses of literacy – emancipatory and moral – that invoke human rights and religious principles. But the numbers are very compelling, especially given the social power that is currently mobilised behind developing and promoting them.

One of the powerful aspects of literacy as numbers is that it seems to offer certainty and closure on debates of what literacy is, and is for. The slippery and multiple nature of literacy seems finally to have been pinned down by experts into a rational set of competencies, enabling teachers to get on with the technical business of addressing the skill needs of the millions of adults deemed to be in need of help.

My own view is different. I believe that the debates about the nature of literacy and how to account for the diversity of everyday practices are in fact far from resolved. In fact they are more fascinating and challenging than ever before.  The meanings and practices of contemporary literacy are woven into increasingly complex and rapidly moving mixtures of languages and cultures (named by some as “superdiversity”). They are migrating into the new “virtual” spaces created by digital technologies. In these processes, the nature of literacy is being transformed in unpredicted and as yet unclassifiable ways. I look forward to continuing this discussion via this blog and with the international network formed from the symposium.


Hamilton,M. (2012) Literacy and the Politics of Representation Routledge.

Schleicher, A. (2008) PIAAC: A New Strategy for Assessing Adult Competencies International Review of Education, Volume 54, Issue 5-6, pp 627-650

UNESCO LAMP – Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme