July.15.2019

The flawed thinking behind a mandatory phonics screening test

By Paul Gardner

The New South Wales Government recently announced it intends to “trial an optional phonics screening test” for Year One students. This seems to be following a similar pattern to South Australia where the test, developed in the UK, was first trialled in 2017 and is now imposed on all public schools in the state.

The idea of a mandated universal phonics screening test for public schools is opposed by the NSW Teachers Federation, but is strongly advocated by neo-liberal ‘think tanks’, ‘edu-business’ leaders, speech specialists and cognitive psychologists. The controversy surrounding the test began in England, where it has been used since 2012. As in England, advocates of the test in Australia argue it is necessary as an early diagnosis of students’ early reading.

No teacher would dispute the importance of identifying students in need of early reading intervention, nor would they dispute the key role that phonics plays in decoding words. However I strongly believe the efficacy of the test deserves to be scrutinised, before it is rolled-out across our most populous state, and possibly all Australian public schools.  

Two questions deserve to be asked about the tests’ educational value. Firstly, is it worthwhile as a universal means of assessing students’ ability in reading, especially as it will be costly to implement? Secondly, does it make sense to assess students’ competence in reading by diagnosing their use of a single decoding strategy?

Perhaps these questions can be answered by interrogating the background to the test in England and by evaluating the extent to which it has been successful.       

What is in the test?

The test, which involves two stages, consists of 40 discrete words that the student reads to their teacher. They do so, by firstly identifying the individual letter-sound (grapho-phonic) correspondences, which they then blend (synthsise) in order to read the whole word. So, in fact what is specifically being tested is a synthetic phonic approach to reading, not a phonic approach per se. It could even be argued that calling the test a ‘phonics’ check is a misnomer since analytic phonics is not included.

Students pass the test by correctly synthesising the letter blends in thirty-two of the forty words.  In order to preserve fidelity to the strategy and to ensure students do not rely on word recognition skills, the test includes 20 pseudo words. In the version used in England, the first 12 words are nonsense words.

The back ground to the phonics screening check in England.  

We can trace the origins of the phonics screening check in England to two influential sources: ‘The Clackmannanshire Study’ and the ‘Rose Report’. In his 2006 report on early reading, Sir Jim Rose, drew heavily on a comparative study conducted by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, in the small Scottish county of Clackmannanshire. After comparing achievements in reading of three groups of students taught using different phonic methods, the two researchers concluded that the group taught by means of synthetic phonics achieved significantly better results than either of two other groups. These other groups were taught by means of analytic phonics and a mixed methods approach. Although the study received little traction in Scotland and has subsequently been critiqued as methodologically flawed, it was warmly embraced in England, especially by Rose who was an advocate of synthetic phonics.             

The 2006 Rose Report was influential in shaping early reading pedagogy in England and from 2010 systematic synthetic phonics, not only became the exclusive method of teaching early reading in English schools, it was made statutory by the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Coalition under David Cameron. The then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and his Schools’ Minister, Nick Gibb, announced a match funded scheme in which schools were required to purchase a synthetic phonics program. Included in the list of recommended programs was one owned by Gibb’s Literacy Advisor. This program is now used in 25% of English primary schools. In 2012, Gove introduced the phonics screening check for all Year One students (5-6 year olds) in England, and in 2017, Gibbs toured parts of Australia promoting the test here. 

To what extent has the Phonics Screening Check been successful?

In its first year, only 58% of UK students passed the test, but in subsequent years’ results have improved. Students who fail the test must re-sit it at the end of year Two. By 2016, 81% of Year One students passed the test, but since then there has only been an increase of 1%.

Gibb cites this increase in scores, over a six-year period, as proof that the government has raised standards in reading and advocates of the test in Australia have seized upon the data as evidence in support of their case.

At face value, the figures look impressive. However, when we compare phonics screening check results with Standard Assessment Test (the UK equivalent to NAPLAN) scores in reading for these students a year later, the results lose their shine. In 2012, 76% of Year Two students achieved the expected Standard Assessment Test level in reading, but last year only 75% achieved the same level. Clearly then, the phonics screening check is not indicative of general reading ability and does not serve as a purposeful diagnostic measure of reading.

In a recent survey of the usefulness of the phonics screening check in England, 98% of teachers said it did not tell them anything they did not already know about their students’ reading abilities. Following the first year of the test in 2012, when only 58% of students achieved the pass mark, teachers explained that it was their better readers who were failing the test. Although these students were successfully making the letter-sound correspondences in nonsense words, in the blending phase, they were reading real words that were similar to the visual appearance of the pseudo words.

The conclusion is that authentic reading combines decoding with meaning.

Furthermore, as every teacher knows, high status tests dominate curriculum content, which in this case, means that by giving greater attention to synthetic phonics, in order to get students’ through the test, there is less time to give to other reading strategies.

Whilst the systematic teaching of phonics has an important place in a teacher’s repertoire of strategies, it does not appear to make any sense to make it the exclusive method of teaching reading, as is the case in England. To give it a privileged status as a test does exactly that.

Perhaps this is the key reason why, in England, phonics screening check scores have improved but students’ reading abilities have not.

I don’t think Australia should be heading down the same dead-end path.

Dr. Paul Gardner is Senior Lecturer in Primary English, in the School of Education at Curtin University. Until 2014, he taught at several universities in the UK.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

3 thoughts on “The flawed thinking behind a mandatory phonics screening test

  1. Dr Jennie Duke says:

    Thank you for providing a logical and critical discussion of the issue. The point that the screen did not tell teachers anymore than what they already knew is an important one. What also is important is that we continue to provide professional learning for teachers about the teaching of reading. The current federal government wishes to spend $10 m a year on the phonics screen. How about we spend $10 mill a year working with teachers about teaching reading?

    The rhetoric delivered by some supporters of the screen is that those opposed are “phonics deniers”. Most of us are pro-phonics taught in context and anti- phonics screen. Anti-screen does not mean anti-phonics. Australian kids don’t need any more testing for us to know there’s a problem. Let’s support the teachers to do their job and provide them with any learning opportunities they need and then trust them to do their job.

  2. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for this summary of the issue Paul.

    I think it was John Holt who commented many years ago that if parents and care-givers taught their offspring to walk and talk using the principles advocated by the “decoding first” supporters of the day, “We’d raise a nation of mute cripples”.

  3. Thank you for your jargon free and informative summary, Please try to talk some sense into these educational decision makers who are obviously totally unaware of the extraordinarily complex cognitive processes which are manifested as ‘reading’.

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