Key MPs demand change to national phonics test plan

18th March 2011 at 00:00
Influential politicians wade into debate on Year 1 assessment

Parliamentary pressure is growing against the Government's plans for a national phonics tests for all six-year-olds. Both the former and current chairs of the Commons education select committee have demanded changes to the proposal to screen children's phonic ability in a 10-minute test during Year 1.

Graham Stuart, the committee's Conservative chair, has called for a clause to be inserted into the education bill - currently going through Parliament - to broaden the test beyond phonics alone.

He believes the secretary of state should "promote language comprehension as well as word recognition and phonic skills throughout the infant curriculum".

"(The select committee's recent) report on behaviour made a recommendation to broaden the assessment to include an assessment of speaking and listening ability.

"Some children may be able to decode a word, but the whole purpose of phonics is to encourage comprehension. Phonics is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself."

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Annette Brooke, former spokesman for children, has tabled an early-day motion (EDM) calling for a rethink.

She is concerned that a "simplistic, exclusive focus on phonics can distort children's learning" and adds that teachers are best placed to identify children who are not struggling through their monitoring and observation.

Among the EDM signatories is Barry Sheerman, former chair of the Commons education select committee.

"I'm in favour of phonics as part of the answer, but we should not put all our eggs in the phonics basket. It is a useful way of teaching children if you have trained staff, but it isn't a magic bullet."

The Government has proposed that the test would consist of about 20 words and 20 non-words, such as Zort and Koob, which would indicate which children understood phonics - the link between letters and sounds.

A #163;250,000 pilot project is due to take place in 300 schools this summer and the results used to roll out a version of the test to all schools the following year. The results are not due to be published, although schools may be asked to explain to parents how their child compares to the school average.

The consultation document says that the test is not intended to replace the wider reading test at the end of Year 2, but to identify children who need additional help.

Comment, page 25

THE DEBATE - Screening is 'lost opportunity'

I Can, a charity that supports children with speech, language and communication difficulties, supports the phonics screen, but worries that the proposed test could be a lost opportunity to pick up other issues that cause reading difficulties.

Mary Hartshorne, head of quality and outcomes at I Can, said: "It is an ideal opportunity to do a screening for young children, but focusing on phonics and missing out the importance of oral language skills is a real omission.

"Reading is not just about phonics, it is also about reading comprehension. Vocabulary, for example, links very closely to language comprehension.

"Some children will struggle with the phonic approach. We want the guidance that goes with the test about interpreting results to recognise this, to recognise that a child's difficulty with phonics may be because of an underlying language difficulty.

"We're in favour of the screening, providing the right support for the child is implemented afterwards - and that support may be language skills, not more phonics."

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