Year 1 Phonics Screening check – a good or bad idea?

The DFE will launch a Year 1 phonics screening check from 2012. This test is intended to assess the progress of the pupils’ phonics skills, with the aim of identifying pupils who are falling behind.

This short assessment will be a ‘light touch’ screening check, which will be performed by teachers towards the end of Year 1. It will consist of 50% real words and 50% non-words, with graphemes (written letters) and phonemes (sounds) that the children have been taught.

What are non-words?

Non-words are words that do not have meaning, like ‘mif’ or ‘chup’.

Why include non-words in a reading test?

Non-words are an effective method of assessing phonic knowledge (being able to identify letters and their corresponding sounds) and skills (being able to blend those sounds into words). To use non-words, pupils must rely on their phonic knowledge and skills without being able to resort to their visual memory banks of words they can already read.

Why is it important for children to develop phonic knowledge (the phonic code) and skills (blending)?

When children rely solely on their visual memories to read, they can read words they already know. But what strategy do they have when they encounter a new word? Using knowledge of the phonic code and blending sounds into words is the only way to decode new words. This is particularly important when children begin to read more multi-syllabic words that are too long to remember by shape.

We know that it is important to ensure children have secure understanding of number bonds before they progress to learning multiplication. It is equally important that children have a secure phonic foundation before they are able to develop higher-order reading skills such as comprehension, inference, skimming, summarising etc.

It is true to say that some children can unscramble the phonic code for themselves, and do not need phonics instruction – but many cannot. Those who do not need phonics instruction will become fluent readers any which way. As phonics teaching is necessary for many children, though, and can only enhance the progress of those who do not need it, we believe that systematic phonics teaching will improve the reading ability of all children.

Who objects to this initiative?

Reservations have been voiced by the UKLA (United Kingdom Literacy Association), who have concerns about the check for a variety of reasons. This is mainly because they consider phonics as only one strategy of a number of strategies that children use to read.

Phonics specialists are keen to emphasise that decoding is an essential foundation that, if taught systematically, will help most children to read. They recognise that there are other reading skills of a higher order that also need be taught to many children, once they have their decoding skills in place.

Another concern raised is that phonics is a ‘drill and kill’ method of teaching to read: that, in the process of learning the mechanics of decoding, children lose their enthusiasm for reading.

Phonics specialists believe this is a misplaced fear. In fact, the opposite happens. A solid phonics foundation creates fluent and enthusiastic readers because the tools for independence and success have been taught. Phonics instruction, if done systematically, should be only an initial and short stage of teaching children to read.

Some Early Years teachers have concerns, but this is more to do with the age at which reading is taught in the UK rather than the actual screening test. If we are teaching our children to read at the early age of five, there is all the more reason to do so systematically.

Who supports this initiative?

Phonics specialists welcome the screening check for two reasons:

1. It will ensure that all children have a good phonics foundation.

2. It will identify pupils who need extra support.

In the past, too many pupils have reached secondary school with a poor phonics foundation and this has been a major obstacle to their reading progress. It is very important to identify these pupils and support them early on.

Should teachers fear a phonics screening check?

Schools that offer a coherent and systematic phonics programme from the beginning will find this screening check very useful. It will reflect the success of their systematic synthetic phonics programme, and will identify pupils who need extra help.

Schools that do not follow a systematic phonics programme will find that their pupils are not doing as well as they should. This phonics screening check will help them to address a problem that would only lead to pupils having problems further up the school. These problems would deny them access to the world of reading, which would have a seriously detrimental impact on their future lives.

Tami Reis-Frankfort

Comments

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think it is really important to see the check within the whole picture: The teaching of reading has been a national disgrace and schools have not been held accountable for allowing children to pass through the system without making sure they are helped to learn read. Often teachers do not know exactly where the child is in reading or what difficulties they have because they have no time to read 1:1.

      The check has two aims: to identify those children and to make the school take action. I think both are really positive things. First, though the DfE must help train teachers so that they are doing a good job. Many teachers have not been well trained but that it the fault of the Universities who are very muddled about how to teach reading.
      Regards,
      Tami

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think it is really important to see the check within the whole picture: The teaching of reading has been a national disgrace and schools have not been held accountable for allowing children to pass through the system without making sure they are helped to learn read. Often teachers do not know exactly where the child is in reading or what difficulties they have because they have no time to read 1:1.

      The check has two aims: to identify those children and to make the school take action. I think both are really positive things. First, though the DfE must help train teachers so that they are doing a good job. Many teachers have not been well trained but that it the fault of the Universities who are very muddled about how to teach reading.
      Regards,
      Tami

  1. A clear description of the Screening Check. I have not accessed the actual Check, however, I would also like to add that apart from aiming to identify the child who is failing, it should help to identify that child who is progressing as expected and one who is an accelerated learner to inform an appropriate plan for each one of them.

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