Nearly half of all six-year-olds fail phonics reading check

Catherine Gaunt
Thursday, September 27, 2012

Just under six out of ten six-year-olds met the standard required by the new phonics reading check, the results of the first year of the test show.

Department for Education statistics published today show that just over half of all boys (54 per cent) met the expected standard compared to 62 per cent of girls.

The check was piloted last year and is now statutory for all children at the end of Year 1.

Teaching unions are highly critical of the reading check and have threatened to boycott it.

But the Department for Education said that the results of the check have led to schools being able to identify 235,000 pupils for extra reading support.

The phonics reading test was taken by all children in Year 1 in schools in England during the week of the 18 June.

The results show that children from an Indian background did best at the test, with 70 per cent achieving the required standard. Travellers and children from a Roma background had the lowest percentage, achieving 16 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.

Forty-four per cent of children eligible for free school meals passed the check compared to 61 per cent of their peers.

Twenty-four per cent of children with special educational needs met the check's required standard, compared to 65 per cent of children who have no identified special educational need.

Children take the one-to-one check with a teacher they know and are tested on their ability to decode words. They are given a list of 40 words to read from, some of which are made-up 'nonsense words'. The DfE said that including the made-up words is important because children will not know them or have memorised them and will have to use their decoding skills.

Children are deemed to have passed the test if they score more than 32 out of 40.

Unions say that the test is pointless because it does not tell teachers anything new about children’s ability to read, does not show whether chidlren understand what they are reading, and could put young children off reading and books.

A joint survey by the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Association of Head Teachers found that 91 per cent of teachers felt the phonics check told them nothing that they did not already know about their pupils’ ability to read.

Teachers also say that the use of made-up words will confuse children who do not have English as their first language and children with special educational needs, as well as frustrating children who can already read.

Commenting on the results of this year’s phonics check Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said, ‘The results published today have reinforced the union’s view that the top-down imposition on phonics across the board is wholly the wrong approach. Children have different learning styles and develop at different ages and stages, a fact that the phonics check does not recognise.

‘Decoding using synthetic phonics can be a useful tool for teachers but it is nonsense for it to be the basis of a blanket test. Teachers need to be trusted and supported to develop a range of strategies for the teaching of reading. The aim is that all children learn to read for pleasure. A mechanistic approach will not guarantee that.’

The union also questioned the ‘value for money’ of the test which they claim costs £8m to administer.

Ms Blower added, ‘Five is too young to fail. This check is simply upsetting and reducing many pupils’ confidence. In addition we are far from assured that the phonics check serves pupils with Special Educational Needs at all well. We need to be encouraging reading for pleasure, not putting children off the whole process by reducing it to yet another target.’

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said, ‘While it is right for teachers to use synthetic phonics and check whether children are able to decode words accurately, synthetic phonics should only be used as one of many equally valid and useful methods of teaching children how to read.  No two children learn in exactly the same way and teachers should have the freedom to use whichever reading strategies best help the individual children they are teaching.

‘Phonics tests waste time and money telling teachers what they already know about children’s reading ability, as our joint survey with the NAHT and NUT showed.

‘If the Government persists with phonics checks and its mistaken determination to make synthetic phonics the only method used to teach children to read, it risks doing long-term damage to children’s reading.’

However, ministers claim that systematic synthetic phonics is an internationally proven method of driving up reading standards, especially among five- to seven-year-olds, and is the best way for teaching children to read.

Education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss said, ‘The reading check helps teachers identify those pupils who need extra help in learning to read.

‘Many thousands of children will now receive the extra support they need to develop a love of reading.’


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