It's that time of year when the "alien" words have come out. Or perhaps in your school they are called "monster" words, or "nonsense" words, or something else entirely.
However you label them, they announce the start of phonics screening check season: these "non-words" are a huge part of the test every Year 1 student in England will sit in the next two weeks.
But they are also part of the argument as to why that test is flawed.
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The phonics screening check has always attracted controversy, not least because of its role in the reading wars (which you can read more about here). Every school in England is now expected to teach children to read using phonics, and the screening check is a test that makes sure that teaching is happening.
But does it actually check that a child is adept at phonics? Does it turn kids off reading? Is the test actually fit for purpose? We asked two leading academics for their view.
Phonic screening check problems
The PSC could potentially assess 85 grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs). The check aims to ensure two things: how successfully the school scheme teaches children to decode using phonics; and that every child has a good knowledge of the 85 GPCs.
For example, knowing that "c" is a "cah" sound in "cat", and "ch" is either a "chuh" sound in "chip" or a "cuh" in Christmas or "sh" in champagne.
It is the selection of the GPCs that Jonathan Solity, director of Optima Psychology and honorary lecturer at University College London, has been studying and where he finds some issues. His research has identified that, over the six years of the check, 15 single-letter GPCs account for 66 per cent of the total number of GPCs assessed and 27 GPCs have either never been assessed or only assessed once.
“Teachers are told that children could be assessed on up to 85 different GPCs, but invariably it’s the same items that come up over and over again,” explains Solity. “Each year the PSC is just sampling a small number of [GPCs].”
Only testing a small number of GPCs isn’t necessarily a problem, he says, because the majority of books that children read will be made up of those GPCs that have been tested in the phonics screening check.
What is a problem, says Solity, is that class time is spent preparing children for a test of 85 GPCs where many of those are low frequency, rarely occur in children’s books and contain exceptions that you should simply teach as words, rather than through phonics, he argues.
"Our research suggests it is best to teach the most commonly occurring GPCs, and then teach children the exceptions,” he says. “Quite often these alternative pronunciations only occur on very few occasions, so [you could] just teach them, for example, the words 'Christmas' and 'echo'. The confusion that is created by teaching multiple pronunciations is problematic.”
It’s not just the confusion of what he sees as unnecessary teaching that is problematic about the test, but the impact on those who struggle with reading.
“If you’re a child who is taking longer to read, and you don’t pass the check aged 6, then you have another year to prepare and take the check again,” explains Solity. “These children are hit twice. They’re being taught things that are really not very useful [and] only being learned to pass the check, and then won’t appear in the books that they want to read [or in the check].
The risk is that those children quickly decide reading is not something for them.
Which brings us to "alien" words and the nature of the test itself. Anne Castles, distinguished professor of cognitive science and scientific director of the Macquarie University Centre for Reading, feels the test can be improved because it is not made up completely of alien words.
“The very best test of phonics is to give them words they can’t have possibly seen before so they have to apply their knowledge to sound it out,” Castle explains. “If I had my way, the phonics check would only have non-words.”
Essentially, the test runs the risk of assessing vocabulary knowledge rather than phonics knowledge, as some of the words will be "known" to the children taking it.
So not only should the test be made up of "alien" words, argues Castles, but children should also complete it cold - i.e., no teaching of "fake" words should happen before the test is run.
“The phonics check should be a diagnostic check – it’s like when a doctor takes your heart rate," she says. "We shouldn’t artificially try and get the heart rate to go down beforehand. Just like teaching alien words before a phonics check.”
Solity agrees: “If you want to know how well children can decode, we should give a list of non-words, and ask the children to pronounce these non-words in as many different plausible combinations as possible – and that would be the best way to do perform a phonics check.”
For example, he says that where 85 GPCs have been taught, the non-word "chut" has six phonically accurate pronunciations.
Castles and Solity both identify a need for schools to perform a separate check for vocabulary.
“Vocabulary, we know, is extremely important, and children arrive with a widely varied oral vocabulary and this makes a big difference to their reading acquisition,” explains Castles. “Oral vocabulary is extremely important, and something we need to pay more attention to.”
Solity feels that a separate check for vocabulary would help teachers to interpret the results of the phonics check for better diagnostic purposes.
“If you check vocabulary, then this would highlight whether or not it is the vocabulary knowledge that is restricting their reading, rather than their phonic knowledge,” explains Solity.
If real words must be used in the phonics screening check, Solity says they should be very low-frequency words (i.e., words the children will not readily encounter).
“If the government wants to check phonic knowledge with real words, I would use low-frequency words, containing low-frequency phonic sounds (e.g., echo). In theory, executing the test this way would tell you if children could decode accurately, and it would tell you the depth of their phonic knowledge,” he says.
True diagnostic tool
Lastly, Solity believes the high-stakes nature of the test makes it more difficult to get any real diagnostic value out of it. If the test is truly to identify problems with phonic knowledge, or the scheme being used, schools need to truly use the test for that purpose, he says, not for hitting targets for accountability.
“Schools should teach what is fun, make reading fun, and we will have a check at the end of the year," he says. "The test needs to be low stakes, and diagnostic without consequences for the school, other than for them to look at the programme they use and its effectiveness.”
Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer