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Phonics check has increased teaching of nonsense words, official evaluation finds

The greatest single impact of the new phonics check for six-year-olds has been to increase the teaching nonsense words, rather than improving reading abilities, according to a study.

Children taking the test are are asked to read 40 words, 20 of them pseudo, or "nonsense", words. An official evaluation published today found the test had become more accepted by teachers in 2013 than when it was first introduced in 2012 and produced some useful information for school staff.

But just over a half of literacy coordinators said the single biggest change was the introduction of nonsense words – such as thob, blim and flamp – which were now taught in almost two-thirds of England's Year 1 classes.

Other changes included increased assessment of progress in phonics, introducing groups for phonics and increasing phonics teaching time.

Russell Hobby (pictured), general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, described the emphasis on nonsense words as "really bad news" for the check.

"If the effect is to increase the teaching of nonsense words, then I think it’s having a terrible impact on the teaching of literacy by breaking the link between words and meaning which is the overall purpose of reading.

"I think the government should think really carefully about what it’s achieving by imposing this check on schools.”

But Sara Wernham, co-author of the Jolly Phonics programme, said she was more relaxed about it, describing nonsense words issue as a "minor sideline".

"As a reader you will come across words you have never seen before and you need to know how to cope with them – how to read place-names, for example, if you look at a map of England, place-names can be terrible gobbledigook,” she said.

The report also revealed national cost of the check to schools was £4.3 million, or £4.99 per pupil.

In the 2013 phonics check, 69 per cent of six-year-olds met the expected standard of being able to read 32 words or more correctly, up from 58 per cent in 2012.

The evaluation of the phonics check also found that many teachers believed that a phonics approach should be used alongside other methods. 

As for whether it had an impact on attainment, the researchers concluded: “Attainment in reading or writing more broadly appears unaffected by the school’s enthusiasm, or not, for systematic synthetic phonics and the check, and by their approach to the teaching of phonics.”

Janis Burdin, head of Moss Side primary in Leyland, Lancashire, said: “I’ve always been a fan of phonics, but whether we need a test I would query, because if you are doing your job properly you will know which children need support before the test."

A DfE spokesman said: “Our phonics check is allowing teachers to identify children struggling at an early age so they can receive the extra help and support they need before it is too late.

“The check has now helped teachers identify more than 400,000 six-year-olds behind on reading – demonstrating its value and driving up the standard of literacy.”


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