Why ‘good’ readers might have performed poorly on the Year 1 Phonics Check

If threads on Mumsnet and TES are anything to go by, there appear to have been significant numbers of children with above average reading ability who did not reach the required standard on the phonics check (correctly reading 32 out of a possible 40 words).

So should parents be concerned if their child did not perform in the check as well as they were expected to, based on their current reading levels?

One of the aspects of the check that has caused a lot of debate has been the use of ‘pseudo’ or ‘alien’ words.

It appears that some able readers could decode the words but got confused when it was a word they’d never heard of. If they did not recognise it as a ‘real’ word, they changed it to something recognisable. Even if they had decoded the word correctly (e.g. ‘strom’) but then changed it to a real word (‘storm’), their final answer had to be taken and teachers were not allowed to give any help with this.

Some children will have been used to reading these pseudo words prior to the test (some phonics schemes routinely use them) and all children should have been made aware exactly which words in the test were real and which were not – maybe some teachers administering the check did not make this clear enough.

Setting this issue aside, there are more important reasons for a lower than expected performance.

  • Firstly if the child has poor phonic decoding skills and is reliant on whole word and context strategies, they would probably not have performed well on the check. This can lead to literacy problems later on, so it is useful to have it highlighted so it does not lead to future difficulties.
  • Secondly, if the child is not reading accurately, they may be flying through books, getting the general gist of the text but missing or guessing words as they go along. This may not present itself as a problem – particularly if the child reads silently – but as the texts get more challenging in Key Stage 2, this can become a problem. The habit of glossing over words is quite difficult to break once it has become entrenched, so again it is useful to highlight the problem of inaccurate reading now.

If a child is strong at writing and spelling, poor performance on the phonics reading check may be no real cause for concern. If a child has performed poorly on the check and their writing ability is not matched to perceived reading ability, it is likely that the check has highlighted a problem that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. This will enable the school to provide additional phonics support in the coming year.

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New Phonics Reading Test For Six-year-olds

The government has announced plans to introduce a phonics progress check in all schools throughout England for children in Year 1. A pilot will take place in 2011, with the aim of rolling it out nationally in the summer of 2012.

The purpose will be to identify those children who have gaps in their knowledge of letter-sounds and difficulties with blending them to read words. It will therefore enable the school to target those in need of extra support.

The proposed test will include ‘non-words’ so that children will have to decode the word to read it, rather than relying on their visual memory of known whole words or using clues such as pictures or context to guess the words.

Inevitably, this has already led to criticism from anti-phonics lobbyists, who believe that phonics should be taught alongside other methods, rather than on its own – they argue that it will not test other reading skills such as overall vocabulary or comprehension of what they are reading.

Yes – these critics are correct – it will only test whether the child has reached the required level of phonics decoding – that is the point. Once children can decode properly with phonics early on, they can then move on to higher order reading skills.

Currently, one in six 7-year-olds and one in five 11-year-olds still fail to reach the standard expected of them in reading. Some time ago I read this analogy that sums this up very well:

‘There is an education bus and it stops to pick up passengers all the way to Year Three. After this, the bus accelerates and it gets much more difficult to get on. Unfortunately, many children never manage to get a seat on this bus and get left behind, unable to access the school curriculum properly.’

I think this new test could be an important bus stop to help make sure all our young children get a seat on that bus.

More information on the proposed test can be found on the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) website and the DfE website.

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