Teaching unions protest over phonics reading check

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Teaching unions have joined forces to protest against the phonics screening check, which all six-year-olds will have to take in the next few weeks.

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The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers, have issued a joint statement and written to MPs about their concerns about the reading test.

This is the first year of the phonics reading check, which will be taken by all children at the end of Year 1.

They say that the check, which involves testing children on whether they can differentiate between made-up words - such as ‘snemp, ‘spron’, ‘voo’ and ‘thaz’ – and real words, is flawed.

The unions claim that the time-consuming checks will not give the majority of teachers any new information about children’s reading ability.

They also say that the checks will not let parents know how well their child is doing in learning to read and will not assess children on whether they can understand what they are reading.

They add 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.

In a pilot of the test last year, two-thirds of children failed to reach the expected level.

Just 32 per cent of Year 1 pupils who took a trial run of the test passed it.

Unions argue that this risks leaving the majority of six-year-olds feeling like failures, and that while phonics is essential for early literacy, it should not be the only method for teaching children to read. Checks at this age should be used to help diagnose children’s reading problems and for planning.

This is in opposition to education secretary Michael Gove, who has stated that teachers should use systematic phonics as the primary method for teaching children to read.

Unions warn that that they may refuse to take part in the 2013 phonics checks, should the Government misuse the data or make false claims about the test’s validity.

Instead they will devise their own reading checks and report the results from these to parents.

ATL general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, said, ‘Once again the Government is totally failing to understand how children learn. Phonics should not be the only game in town; it is just one of many equally valid and useful methods of teaching children how to read. Phonics checks for six-year-olds risk doing more damage than good. The Government should come clean with parents so that they know the test results will tell them nothing about their child's reading ability or their school's ability to teach reading.’

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said, ‘Despite claiming to empower schools, the Government is imposing a narrow test which will actually provide less information than the procedures schools are already using. Phonics is an essential part of early literacy, but this approach risks distorting teaching and reduces freedom.’

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said, ‘Synthetic phonics is one way of teaching reading but it is not the only one. The clear message being given by professionals to the Government is that they want the freedom to adopt whatever method best suits their children and not be pushed down a one-size-fits-all route. That approach would most certainly be failing our children and young people.’

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said, ‘The unions’ position is especially disappointing as many of their members have already told us how this quick check will allow them to identify thousands of children who need extra help to become good readers.

‘There is a weight of international evidence which demonstrates that phonics is the most effective way of teaching early reading. It is crucial for children to master the basics of reading as early as possible so they can go on to develop a real love of reading.

 ‘Parents want to know exactly how well their children are performing and, if they need help, what their teachers are doing to provide it. This check will help teachers to keep parents fully informed.’

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