Need to know: The phonics check

The all-important pass mark for the phonics check will be published later today. Here's what you need to know...

Helen Ward

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For the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of five- and six-year-olds have been doing the phonics check – reading aloud a list of 40 words, and then being marked by their teacher.

Later today, the crucial pass mark for the check will be revealed.

In all of the six years of the check so far, at least 32 marks out of 40 has always represented a pass. So why does this need to be republished every year and what is the phonics check anyway? 

What does the phonics check look like?

The check is a list of 40 words  – 20 of them are real, 20 are nonsense words, such as "quass"  – these are denoted with a monster to make it clear to children that they are the monster’s "names". These are included to show that children are using their knowledge and have not merely memorised words.

The list is marked by the child’s teacher as they read aloud.


nonsense words from phonics check 2017

Source: STA 2017 phonics screening check pupils materials


How many words do children need to get correct to be deemed good readers?

The threshold mark.

And what is that threshold?

We will know for sure on Monday 25 June.

Why is it being kept secret?

When the check was first introduced, the pass mark of 32 was published.

But when the results came out, they showed a spike in the number of children getting 32 out of 40.

The same thing happened again in 2013.


phonics results for 2012 and 2013

Source: DfE phonics screening check statistics 2013


So in 2014, the government decided that the pass mark would be kept secret, which had some effect.

phonics check stats for 2014

Source: DfE phonics screening check statistics 2014

Does the threshold change every year?

Not yet. Like England's performance in international football competitions, there is always that hope, and yet each time very little changes.


How are children doing in the phonics check?

The results from the check have been going up since it was introduced in 2012.

In 2012, 58 per cent of pupils got at least 32 out of 40 at the end of Year 1. By 2017 that had risen to 81 per cent.

The results for 2018 are currently timetabled to be published in October.

Is the phonic check working?

There had been concern that the results did not seem to be feeding though into wider reading tests, which are taken by pupils in the following year. Results for reading rose slightly from 87 per cent reaching level 2 in 2012 to 90 per cent in 2015.

The reading tests were changed in 2016, meaning they cannot be compared with previous years.

But the global Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) revealed last year that children in England were doing significantly better than five years' previously, something which Nick Gibb, the schools minister who has long championed phonics, said was “a vindication of the government’s boldness in pursuing the evidence in the face of ideological criticism”. 

The Pirls results show that 10-year-olds in England achieved a score of 559 on average, a significant rise from an average score of 552 in 2011.

But not everyone thinks that the extent of the phonics taught is necessary to improve reading.

At a conference in 2016, Jonathan Solity, honorary research fellow at University College London, and Cat Darnell, psychology researcher at the University of Birmingham, said that children's time would be better spent reading books and building their vocabulary, rather than studying some of the more obscure sound combinations occurring in the English language.

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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