Sound strategy for pupils who fail the phonics check

17th April 2015 at 01:00
Dyslexia experts' scheme can boost reading skills, study finds

A reading programme designed by experts in dyslexia can significantly boost the skills of all children who fail the controversial new phonics check, research reveals.

The government-funded approach was developed in response to criticism that although the government had introduced a phonics test for six-year-olds, there was no specific support for children who did not reach the required standard.

Now an independent evaluation of the Sound Check scheme has found that 72 per cent of children who participated passed the test when they retook it a year later, compared with 65 per cent in a control group. Overall, the scores increased for 95 per cent of pupils who completed the programme.

The course takes children back to basics, helping them to relearn the alphabet, and focuses on building a better understanding of the links between sounds and letters.

`Intense course'

Researchers who evaluated a pilot study at 27 schools in Swindon, Manchester and Leeds over two years found that boys generally had a greater increase in scores than girls. Younger pupils on the programme narrowed the gap with older classmates, whereas those in the control group fell further behind.

Sound Check was also found to be particularly helpful for children who spoke English as an additional language (EAL), who improved more rapidly than native speakers.

Helen Swanson, principal of Drove Primary School in Swindon, said the impact of the programme, developed by charities Dyslexia Action, the British Dyslexia Association and Springboard for Children, had been "amazing".

"We have 80 per cent of children with English as an additional language. They come to us with no English whatsoever in many cases. It has been a huge success in giving those children an opportunity and a boost to improve their phonic knowledge in an intense course."

Lisa Mayes, deputy headteacher of Lethbridge Primary, also in Swindon, said the school had used the programme to improve teaching in Year 1. "In 2013 our pass rate was 70 per cent; in 2014 our result was 86 per cent," she added.

The phonics check is a short test in which children have to read 40 words, half of which are pseudo or "nonsense" words. When the check was introduced in 2012, 42 per cent of children did not reach the required standard of 32 correctly read words. By 2014, that proportion had fallen to 26 per cent.

Liz Horobin, project director for Sound Check at the British Dyslexia Association, said the aim of the programme was not to identify children as dyslexic but to provide an approach that would work for all children struggling with phonics. This could include pupils with dyslexia but also those with special educational needs or who were young in their year group, as well as EAL children.

"When we began the project, the number of children who weren't meeting the [phonics check] threshold was much higher," she said. "As schools get more skilled in teaching for the phonics check, the number of children failing is smaller, but those children do seem to have entrenched difficulties."

The Department for Education recently awarded the project almost pound;550,000, which will be used to create three centres of excellence in Manchester, Leeds and Swindon. These can then provide training and disseminate good practice to local schools.

The British Dyslexia Association is also planning to create a three-tier certification framework, in which schools could receive a bronze, silver or gold award for dyslexia awareness.

Dyslexia Action describes dyslexia as a specific learning difficulty that makes it hard to read and spell.

The use of the term has been challenged by Professor Joe Elliot from Durham University, who told TES last year that the definition was so broad that it had no educational value ("Why the dyslexia label may do more harm than good", News, 28 February 2014). He added that resources should be put into helping all children who struggled with literacy, rather than trying to diagnose and treat a "dyslexic" group.

The phonics check has been controversial, with the NAHT headteachers' union arguing that the pound;4.3 million spent on administering the test would be better used to fund support for children with reading difficulties.

`It's repetition, but it's fun'

Headteacher Karen Bathe says the Sound Check programme has been of significant value to her pupils at Holy Family Catholic Primary School in Swindon.

"We had a dyslexia teacher come one day a week who worked with the children, and we have a dedicated teaching assistant who is now trained up and continuing the work," she explains. "The children are not necessarily dyslexic - it is just using strategies that have worked for children with dyslexia.

"It's intense repetition, but it's fun. The children look on it as doing games. It is very much back to basics: they learn the alphabet, they learn the sounds and how to blend them. But they don't sit down at desks. They may stand up or sit on the floor. It is very pictorial, with lots of flash cards, and very touchy-feely.

"We had 13 children in 2013 who did not reach the phonics check threshold. One child left during the following year, but 11 of the remaining 12 all achieved the threshold."

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