Phonics test turns out to be not so monstrous after all

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
To ministers' delight, evaluation reveals support among schools

There were howls of protest across the primary sector when the idea of setting compulsory phonics tests for six-year-olds was announced last year by the new Coalition ministers.

The very many who opposed it were clear that it was unnecessary, stressful and expensive. There was no way it should be implemented, they said.

But now, following a 300-school pilot, its evaluation and a ministerial decision last week that it would be rolled out nationwide, it has emerged that the test has rather more support in schools than one might have imagined.

The test itself tasks pupils with reading 40 words - 20 real and 20 non- words, which are there to check that the children can "decode". These words are sometimes presented as the name of an imaginary monster, which is pictured, but sometimes presented with no explanation at all.

What will please ministers is that the official evaluation of the pilot, commissioned from researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, found that some 43 per cent of schools admitted the test had uncovered pupil difficulties of which they were previously unaware.

As such, the study has raised serious questions for those opposing the test, which includes every relevant union. How would these difficulties be detected without a compulsory test?

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, which was vocal in opposing the test's introduction, observed that it did not need to be compulsory to be useful. "My initial reaction was that 57 per cent of schools got no use from the test whatsoever; it didn't tell them anything new," he said.

"If schools find it useful they will use it, and it seems it could be a helpful tool for them, but to have a high-profile compulsory test could mean more focus on what is tested and less on what is not tested. This doesn't address fluency, comprehension or reading for pleasure - it is just a test of 40 words."

Nevertheless, the evaluation's findings are unequivocal: the test will have more supporters in the classroom than perhaps expected. Take, for example, Dame Reena Keeble, head of Cannon Lane First School in Pinner, north-west London, where 90 children took part in the pilot. "Our children loved it," she said. "We had misgivings beforehand. We weren't sure how the children would react, especially to the nonsense words, but they loved it and asked for more.

"We didn't see it as a test, more of a screening, and we have used it as a diagnostic tool. There were a few children who we thought were fine, but the test found they were not as fine as we thought.

"My lead teacher did a detailed analysis of performance and one thing that came out was a problem with plurals. Children were not reading out an `s' on words which had an `s'."

This is, of course, music to the ears of the Department for Education. Conservative schools minister Nick Gibb has long campaigned for synthetic phonics to be a compulsory teaching method in England's primaries.

"The evidence from the pilot is clear - thousands of six- year-olds who would otherwise slip through the net will get the extra reading help they need to become good readers, to flourish at secondary school and to enjoy a lifetime's love of reading," he said.

However, buried within the evaluation was a series of caveats, which Mr Gibb said he was prepared to take on board.

Top of the list must surely be the use of non-words. The study found that 60 per cent of schools said some pupils found them confusing, especially when images of imaginary animals were used to illustrate them.

Indeed, in its submission to a consultation carried out by the DfE before the pilot, Ofsted predicted the difficulties.

"It is not at all clear why a picture is deemed appropriate for a nonsense word. To have a picture to support a non-word appears to defeat the purpose of the test and may leave children feeling confused. It would be better to tell them directly which are words and which are made up items or nonsense words."

Additionally, Mr Gibb and his colleagues will not be able to ignore other challenges laid out by the Sheffield Hallam study. For example, researchers reported that only 61 per cent of teachers thought it was an accurate test of the abilities of those pupils with "weaker decoding skills".

The test, it would seem, is far from perfect. But with a surprisingly high level of support from the chalkface itself, you can expect Mr Gibb to be robustly defending it as it is rolled out next year. Its supporters say it isn't going anywhere.


61% of teachers thought the phonics test was accurate for pupils with weak "decoding skills"

46% of teachers thought it was accurate for pupils with English as an additional language

35% thought it was accurate for pupils with speech difficulties

33% found it accurate for pupils with special educational needs

It was also the struggling children listed above who found it least enjoyable.

Primary forum


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