Classroom practice - Don't be afraid of monster words

Take a fun approach to the phonics check and pupils will feel there's nothing to fear
8th May 2015, 1:00am


Classroom practice - Don't be afraid of monster words

Love it or loathe it, the Year 1 phonics screening check is here to stay. The controversial assessment consists of 40 phonetically decodable words: 20 real ones and 20 pseudo ones. Parents and teachers often struggle to understand why we check children's ability to read fake words, whereas hard-line phonics supporters believe that the entire test should be made up of pseudo words to isolate phonic ability from sight recognition.

There are valid arguments on both sides. The check does assess children's ability to segment and blend sounds - skills that are undoubtedly important when learning to read. Many other assessments check only the child's knowledge of a phoneme rather than their application of that knowledge. However, children who exceed the standard for their age and are already fluent readers can find it frustrating to return to the sounding-out stage and often misread the pseudo words as real words.

Whatever your view, the test has to be taken. Schools will receive the assessment materials between 1 and 12 June; the test should be administered in the week beginning 15 June and the results must be reported by 31 July.

The threshold mark in previous years has been 32, but the mark for 2015 won't be released until 29 June. Children can be excused from the check in certain circumstances, but any child who does not meet the threshold in Year 1 must retake the test in Year 2 unless they are still exempt.

So, how should you prepare your class to gain the expected mark? And how can you make it fun?

Dedicate time to monster words

In addition to your daily phonics teaching, decide how you will refer to pseudo words. At my school we call them "monster words" and every Monday is Monster Monday. The phonics lesson on this day is dedicated to pseudo words. The monsters have been known to leave a trail of words around the school; we go on monster word hunts, design our own monsters and create our own monster words.

Use previous checks to inform planning

The phonics check has been in place since 2012, so there are three previous booklets to use with your pupils. Evaluate the results of these to see which children need support and who should be stretched.

Target vulnerable groups

Go into detail when analysing data from the previous year's check. Did boys perform worse than girls? How did children eligible for the pupil premium score? Consider daily interventions for these groups; get them to read three real words and three pseudo ones with an adult until you are confident that they will reach the expected mark.

Have fun with phonics

Make books of the past phonics checks once you have used them in assessment - children can read them during self-directed time. Leave laminated real and pseudo words lying around with monster or alien puppets; make monster boxes that children have to feed with monster words; get them to collect and sort real and pseudo words. Immerse them in phonics.

Use guided reading time wisely

Read phonetically decodable books in the run-up to the check, rehearsing segmenting and blending skills. Independent group activities can be linked to the phonics screening check. Laminate resources to use time and time again.

Build a foundation

Prepare for next year by talking to colleagues who teach at the early years foundation stage about what is expected in the check. If pupils enter Year 1 with a strong knowledge of phonics, they are more likely to achieve or exceed the threshold mark.

Try innovative presentation

For the past two years, we have presented the phonics screening check to pupils wrapped in monster-themed paper and with a letter from the monsters. The children are desperate for their turn to read the booklet and show us what they can do. As the check has to be administered by the class teacher, try to view the day as quality one-to-one time with each child in your class. A positive mental attitude helps the children to feel relaxed and happy, too.

For those pupils who don't gain the expected mark, try to celebrate the progress they have made. If you have been using the past checks, you will be able to track their improvements and inform their Year 2 teachers. Make sure this information is shared so that teachers can continue the good work and help the pupils to hit the mark in 2016.

Alice Edgington is a Year 1 class teacher and English coordinator at St Stephen's Infant School in Canterbury, Kent. Find her on Twitter at @aliceedgington

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