Informal primary assessments come under fire

6th December 1996 at 00:00
New national reading and spelling tests for seven- and 11-year-olds would raise standards and measure school success, says Martin Turner in his latest attack on progressive teaching.

Mr Turner, who caused a furore six years ago when he started the debate on reading standards, is likely to spark controversy again with his recommendation that tests for five-year-olds should be formal and objective, instead of informal assessments.

This time the head of psychology at the Dyslexia Institute has joined forces with remedial teacher Tom Burkard and the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies to publish Reading Fever: Why phonics must come first.

The 33-page booklet claims that the reading skills of primary school children in Britain have fallen over the past 20 years because of "whole language" teaching methods.

The authors say that a balanced approach of mixing modern and phonetic methods of teaching reading is not acceptable.

Most primary schools, say Turner and Burkard, insist children read commercially available storybooks ("real books") or "graded readers" before they have mastered the alphabet. This is the same as asking children to add or subtract before they can count to 10, they argue.

And they claim that the few primary schools which teach the basics of phonics before any other method are also those which are the most successful in teaching children from all backgrounds to read.

In a page of recommendations. the authors say: "The bias in teacher-training courses against teaching phonics must be reversed through an emphasis on phonics teaching in the Teacher Training Agency's proposed new national curriculum for teacher training...

"Authoritative primers for use by unskilled teachers, and reading and spelling texts for pupils, should be commissioned and distributed throughout all primary schools.

"The use of reading schemes and real books should be encouraged only when basic phonetic skills are established and when reading for practice is desired."

Turner and Burkard also recommend new tests: "The effectiveness with which literacy skills are taught in primary schools should be measured by externally administered reading and spelling tests at the ages of seven and 11. Standardised tests must replace the cumbersome and unreliable subjective measures currently embodied in the national curriculum. Should baseline testing be used, these tests must be formal, objective tests rather than informal assessments which have no reliability or validity in inter-school comparisons. "

In a chapter on the importance of testing, Turner argues that a mixed-age sample of 15 per cent of children could be assembled in a single classroom, given tests of ability, maths and English during an hour and a quarter, and the school's effectiveness measured by the results. Such tests, he says, are "valid and reliable".

The booklet defines "whole language" teaching as the belief that language cannot be split up into pieces, that learning to recognise words out of context offends against the wholeness of the text, and that top-down processes - moving from comprehension of the whole to deciding what individual words might be - and placing meaning at the centre of the enterprise are of paramount importance.

"Such an emphasis upon hallucination rather than evidence readily identifies itself as belonging to the intellectual milieu of the late 1960s," says Turner.

Reading Fever: Why phonics must come first by Martin Turner and Tom Burkard is published by the Centre for Policy Studies, 52 Rochester Row, London SW1P 1JU, at Pounds 7

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