phonics testing of six year olds

The flawed thinking behind a mandatory phonics screening test

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, it is 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.

A new phonics test for Australian six year olds is a BAD idea

The recent announcement by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, of a nation-wide phonics assessment for six year olds is of great concern to me. I believe, as do many of my fellow literacy expert colleagues, this new test will not help improve our literacy levels.

Australian children have been “marking time” or “falling behind” when compared on international benchmarks like PISA since high-stakes testing has been introduced and ramped up in this country. This latest mandate is part of the political cycle associated with testing regimes. Continuing this kind of assessment will not improve student literacy outcomes.

Evidence from the UK and USA, where similar tests have been used, may show improvement in performance on the phonics test over time but do not correlate with an improvement in children’s literacy levels. In fact what can happen is a narrowing of the literacy curriculum.

No evidence that phonics training preceding meaning making helps

 As renowned English author Michael Rosen explains, the difference between a phonics test and learning to read is that a phonics test merely requires children to pronounce a list of words, while learning to read is about making meaning of a text.  Phonics is only one part of the literacy story. And there is no evidence that phonics training should precede meaning making in literacy learning. It is much more productive to address decoding skills in meaningful contexts.

Absolutely the drilling of phonics will help some children do better in phonics tests, but there is no correlation with ultimately learning to be literate.

What the evidence says

We do know that six year olds should not be subjected to this kind of assessment. There is emerging evidence that teachers and students are finding the test-driven approach to education in Australia is anxiety producing.

Early childhood contexts and the first years of schooling should be centred on engaging in creative play with language including poetry, songs and rhymes, developing children’s confidence in talking about and responding to story, building a rich vocabulary and developing an understanding and love of literature.

One of the best predictors of literacy success is access to books in the home, as well known research tells us. In addition, shared reading, storytelling, talking about books from an early age and the opportunity for children to read widely are all important in learning to be literate.  Many children living in poverty do not have access to a wide range of books and shared reading experiences from an early age. If we want to spend more money in Australia to develop literacy we should be investing in the provision of quality literature for all Australian children and better resources for teachers who teach disadvantaged children. We need more teacher librarians in our schools. At the moment, however, we are seeing a reduction in teacher librarians in public schools.

A new research brief from Save our Schools supports the argument that the continuing gap in access to education resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the world and the OECD. Disadvantaged students in Australia continue to be denied equal opportunities to learn because they have less access to qualified teachers and resources than their more advantaged counterparts.

Data from PISA 2015 published in a supplementary report by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more teacher shortages, higher teacher-student ratios and more shortages or inadequacy of material educational resources than advantaged schools.

If we are serious about improving literacy levels in Australia we should be investing our money more wisely than in another useless test. Widening socioeconomic inequality will be a much larger determiner of children’s literacy achievement than performance on a phonics test.

 

Robyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices.