Focus on phonics criticised in new survey

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The majority of head teachers, teachers and parents disagree with the Government’s policy of prioritising synthetic phonics over other approaches to teaching children to read, according to a new survey.

  • Prioritising synthetic phonics to teach reading unpopular with most schools and parents
  • Survey coincides with the release of the latest screening results

The majority of head teachers, teachers and parents disagree with the Government’s policy of prioritising synthetic phonics over other approaches to teaching children to read, according to a new survey.

Not only do they challenge the current literacy policy in England, but respondents to the independent survey expressed concerns about the ‘high stakes’ of the Phonics Screening Check that was originally introduced in 2012 as a ‘light’ touch’ assessment. It involves children at the end of Year 1 reading a list of 40 words aloud, half of which are nonsense. The survey publication coincides with the latest screening results (see box).

Many respondents felt that the phonics screening is undermining the way literacy is taught in schools and questioned the pressure the test puts on six-year-olds. One head teacher commented, ‘They are not ready emotionally to be sitting statutory tests, however informally you are able to dress them up.’

margaret-clarkThe Phonics Screening Check 2012-2017: An independent enquiry into the views of Head Teachers, teachers and parents was edited by Margaret Clark, visiting professor at Newman University, Birmingham and Jonathan Glazzard, professor of teacher education in the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University. It surveyed 230 head teachers, 1,348 teachers involved in administering the check, and 419 parents whose children have been assessed.

Key findings included:

  • More than 70 per cent of head teachers believe the phonics check affects the way they teach children to read. Heads reported more pre-check testing and ‘teaching to the test’ to ensure children were prepared for the check. Comments included that it has an adverse impact on the time given to teaching comprehension skills.
  • The majority of head teachers (89 per cent) and teachers (94 per cent) do not think the phonics check provides them with new information on individual children.
  • Many heads challenge the notion that phonics should be the only strategy to teach reading. They add that the use of other strategies such as ‘picture cues, context cues, reading on’ should be taught to enable pupils to choose the correct strategy to solve an unknown word. One respondent said, ‘Using phonics to the exclusion of other pedagogy impedes understanding and the development of inference skills.’
  • Eighty per cent of both head teachers and teachers think it is unhelpful to include nonsense words in the check. Some commented that these ‘alien’ words confused even fluent readers. One respondent said, ‘Our children who were reading for meaning would try to make sense of the nonsense word on the test and therefore failed the test.’
  • Nearly 63 per cent of teachers had observed some children being detrimentally affected by the check, including more-able children. Comments included, ‘Children are stressed. Some cry. It also results in an over use of phonics when reading.’
  • Despite the children of 75 per cent of parents surveyed having passed the check, 93 of the 419 parents polled expressed concern about the negative effect on their child. ‘Anxiety’, ‘stress’ and ‘worry’ were frequently cited.
  • When asked whether the phonics check should remain statutory for all children in Year 1, the majority of head teachers, almost 85 per cent, said it should not. As a result of the survey, the authors are calling on policy-makers to discontinue the phonics check or make it voluntary, and that the Government should consider a broader repertoire of approaches for teaching children to read.
  • They state, ‘The Teachers’ Standards in England currently require all trainee teachers and teachers to “demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics”. The inclusion of synthetics phonics within the Teachers’ Standards makes this method of teaching reading mandatory. In the light of these results, Government should consider amending this so that it emphasises the role of synthetic phonics within a broad range of approaches for teaching children to read rather than as the only method of teaching reading to all children.’

Additional concerns:

  • The use of a percentage pass mark on the Phonics Screening Check as a benchmark to measure school improvement and the emphasis given to the pass rates in Ofsted inspections.
  • The money spent by the Government and schools on phonics programmes and training courses, especially synthetic phonics – £46 million from 2011 to 2013.
  • The difference in failure rate between the oldest and youngest children. In 2018, 89 per cent of the oldest pupils passed the check, and only 75 per cent of the youngest children.

Writing in the Education Journal, Professor Clark states, ‘This statutory assessment on all children at the end of Year 1, when they are not yet six years of age, means that around 7,000 boys and 5,500 girls born in August have been recorded as failures on a test whose reliability and validity have been questioned and which many teachers claim gives little evidence they did not already have.’

Commenting on the survey findings, Wendy Scott, honourary president of TACTYC, questioned school standards minister Nick Gibb’s approach: ‘His claims for the effectiveness of systematic synthetic phonics reveal a worrying lack of understanding of early literacy development and of rigorous academic research.’

While learning phonics is ‘part of the repertoire of teaching reading’, she believes it is not enough and children need to experience meaningful, enjoyable text. Ms Scott adds, ‘Teachers and parents are right to distrust a reliance on the ability to decode non-words as a valid measure of literacy: these confuse able readers, who expect text to make sense, and bewilder children who are in the early stages of linking print to meaning. It is disheartening that a restricted method of teaching based on flawed evidence is being imposed when we have a sophisticated understanding of how best to support early literacy.’

Phonics Screening Check 2018 results

  • 82 per cent of children reached the expected standard in phonics in Year 1, an increase of 1 percentage point on last year and up 25 percentage points since 2012.
  • 1,268 schools had at least 95 per cent of children achieving the phonics standard in Year 1 in 2018, up from 1,076 in 2017.
  • When results are broken down by ethnic group, gender and free school meal (FSM) eligibility, white boys on FSM are the lowest-attaining group, with only 62 per cent meeting the required standard.
  • Fewer than half of children (44 per cent) with special educational needs (SEN) reached the pass mark, compared with 89 per cent of children with no identified SEN.

School standards minister Nick Gibb said, ‘This is a huge achievement, improving the lives and education of hundreds of thousands of children, but we remain determined to make sure not just most children but every single child is able to meet their potential.’

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said, ‘The Government continues to confuse accuracy in decoding words with fluency in reading. They are not the same thing, and Nick Gibb’s claim that synthetic phonics is putting children on track to be fluent readers has no basis in research.’

An NAHT spokesperson added, ‘The phonics check does not in itself guarantee standards. It is the teaching and learning that happens continuously in the classroom that really matters. Unfortunately, because the data from the phonics check is used for accountability purposes, it becomes not just a check but another high-stakes test.’

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