More six-year-olds pass the phonics reading check

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Teaching unions have renewed calls for a ban on the phonics reading test, following the publication of the provisional results of this year's check.

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The results from the second year of the test, published yesterday, show a rise in the number of six-year-olds meeting the standard expected for their age, which is up by 11 percentage points.

However, there was no change in the attainment gap between girls and boys, and between children eligible for free schools meals and their peers.

Sixty-nine per cent of six-year-olds scored 32 out of 40 in the test, compared with 58 per cent last year.

However, 31 per cent of children – 177,000 six-year-olds - who took the test were identified as being below the expected reading level for their age and will now receive extra support.

More girls than boys reached the expected level. The gender gap was eight percentage points, the same as last year. In this year's test 73 per cent of girls met the required standard, compared to 65 per cent of boys.

A lower percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved the expected level - 56 per cent, compared to 72 per cent for all other pupils. The attainment gap of 17 percentage points is the same as last year.

Children take the phonics check at the end of the summer term in Year 1. It involves children sitting with a teacher they know and reading from a list of 40 words, 20 of which are 'nonesense words' to check that they are able to decode words.

It is described by the Department for Education as ‘a short, light-touch assessment’, which assesses children’s ability to break down and blend words using systematic synthetic phonics.

Ministers advocate phonics as the most effective method of teaching children to read and claim that the phonics check helps schools to identify pupils who need extra support with reading.

The DfE said that 13,400 schools have used Government funding to buy synthetics phonics products or training over the past two years.

Education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss said, ‘We are committed to improving children’s reading. The phonics 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 catch up with their peers and develop a love of reading.’

However, teachers have branded the test a waste of money and claim that it does not tell them anything about children’s reading abilities.

A study by the National Federation for Educational Research, published in May and commissioned by the DfE, found that the majority of teachers found the phonics check had 'little or no impact' on children's reading and writing.

Experts also argue that schools need to foster reading for pleasure rather than focusing on testing children at such a young age.

Summer-born children and children with special educational needs struggle with the test, they say.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said, ‘These results don’t tell us whether the phonics check is helping children to read. We fear that schools are being pressured by the Government to teach to this test and young children will be painted as failures instead of being encouraged to enjoy reading. 

‘Scores in other assessments at this age already show that the vast majority of pupils are doing well – so it would be a mistake to focus on phonics results, just one small part of primary education.

‘Teachers support the use of phonics as one of many techniques to teach children to read, but they reject the Government’s belief that phonics are the best method for every child.

‘The phonics check is a waste of money and should be withdrawn. Instead teachers should be trusted to use the best methods to teach reading for each child.’

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said that it would be better if children were encouraged to read for pleasure.

‘This test really is quite pernicious. To be telling five and six year olds that they have failed is quite simply wrong, ‘she said.

‘Children develop at different levels. The slow reader at five can easily be the good reader by the age of 11. We cannot continue with this obsession of testing and categorising as failures our very young children. In many other countries with successful education systems, such as Finland, most children haven’t even started school until seven years of age.

‘Of course it is important that young children are learning and absorbing new ideas and skills and of course reading is vitally important. Turning reading, however, into a stressful hurdle to be passed as soon as children step through the school doors is a dreadful mistake.’

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