Year 1 Phonics Screening check – 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 those 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 (letter/s) and phonemes (sounds) 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 the phonic knowledge (being able to identify letter/s and their corresponding sounds) and skills (being able to blend those sounds into words). By using non words, the pupils must rely on their phonic knowledge and skills without being able to resort to their visual memory bank of words they can already read.

Why is it important for children to learn the phonic knowledge (phonic code) and skills (blending)?
When children rely solely on their visual memory to read, they can read words they already know. But what strategy do they have when they encounter a new word? Using the phonic code knowledge (they have been taught) and blending sounds into words is the only way to decode new words. This is particularly important as the reader begins to read more multi-syllabic words which are too long to remember by shape.

In the same way that it is important to ensure that children have secure number bonds before they progress to learn multiplication, it is important that children have a secure phonic foundation before they are able to develop higher order reading skills such as comprehension, inferring meaning, 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 do not. Those who do not need phonics instruction will become fluent readers any which way. As phonics teaching is necessary for many children 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, 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 which, if taught systematically, will help most children to read. They recognise that there are other reading skills of a higher order, which 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 teaching the mechanics of decoding, children lose their enthusiasm for reading.

Phonic 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 success have been taught to facilitate independence and success. Phonics instruction, if done systematically, should be only the 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 5, 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 those 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 those 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 which can only lead to failing pupils further up the school, denying them access to the world of reading which will have a serious and detrimental impact on their future lives.

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