Saying it is one thing, but do they know what it means?

5th October 2012 at 01:00
Phonics success may mask EAL pupils' problems, say experts

Fears have been raised that bilingual pupils will lose out on much-needed support in English after scoring highly in the new phonics test, despite historically performing poorly later in primary school.

The phonics test was introduced for the first time last term, with pupils in Year 1 asked to read a list of 40 words, 20 of which were made-up "nonsense" words.

Results published last week showed that 58 per cent of pupils passed the test, with no difference in the pass rate between native English speakers and those who speak English as an additional language (EAL). All 235,000 children who failed will receive additional support with their reading in Year 2.

But experts have raised concerns that the overriding focus on phonics, championed by the current government, will mean that EAL children miss out on the help they need. While those pupils are as good as their classmates at sounding out words, they lack the wider comprehension needed to develop their literacy.

Nicola Davies of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL, said its biggest concern was that schools may not realise bilingual pupils still need long-term support. "We will need to say explicitly to schools: 'Don't let this fool you - don't forget that there's more to reading than phonics,'" she said. "No one is disputing that phonics is a good way to find out about words, but it is one part of the jigsaw. What we hope is that none of this means comprehension gets squashed out by phonics."

A pilot study of the phonics test also highlighted fears that the test may skew the assessment of bilingual children's abilities. It found that fewer than half of teachers felt the test gave an accurate picture of the ability of bilingual children. Some teachers even said that EAL pupils, particularly those with higher ability, "tended to flourish" when freed from the barriers of putting words in context; having a smaller vocabulary meant they were less likely to correct nonsense words into actual words.

For the past seven years, since the current system of teacher assessment at key stage 1 was introduced, results have shown that English-speaking children are more likely to achieve the expected level in reading at the end of Year 2 than bilingual pupils. The children who took the first phonics test this year will take their KS1 tests next year.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said the issues surrounding EAL pupils showed that literacy was about more than "decoding" words.

"The government is focused on only one half of literacy," he said. "If children are weak at decoding, this test could reveal that. But comprehension is just as important and it shows nothing about that. Decoding is important, but the most important thing is to like reading."

The NAHT and other unions have renewed calls for the government to make the phonics test optional. Synthetic phonics was made a compulsory part of the curriculum in 2008 and the pressure on schools to ensure they are providing quality phonics instruction has increased since the coalition government took power in 2010. The government introduced the test and has offered every primary school matched funding of up to #163;3,000 for approved phonics products and training.

But Paul Jackson, head of Gallions Primary School in Beckton, East London, said he thought heads who were already supporting EAL children would not allow that to slip.

"There has been a concern about the nonsense words in the test and its meaningfulness for EAL children after we have worked so hard to make sure they put things in context," he said. "But I am quite pleasantly surprised to hear EAL children are doing as well as other children. We won't let phonics distract from the wider work with EAL."

Mark my words

- A total of 592,000 children took the phonics test.

- Overall, 58 per cent of pupils reached the expected standard.

- Girls performed better than boys: 62 per cent reached the pass mark compared with 54 per cent of boys.

- Just 44 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals passed the test.

- 58 per cent of pupils who speak English as an additional language passed - the same proportion as native English speakers.

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