Checking phonics

Phonics-shoot-089A guest post by Jonathan Glazzard

The teaching of systematic synthetic phonics in school has been a political focus since the publication of the Rose Review back in 2006 (Rose, 2006). It is a priority for both schools and providers of Initial Teacher Education, and over the last decade it has been given prominence in inspection frameworks. The Rose Review emphasised that the teaching of phonics is time-limited.  The National Curriculum requires children to be secure in the skill of word recognition by the end of Year 1 so that they can focus on developing fluency in reading in Year 2.  The aim is to ensure that children are secure in the skill of blending phonemes so that they can read words.

In 2012, the UK government introduced a phonics screening check to assess children’s skills in decoding. Four years later, Nicky Morgan, then Secretary of State for Education,  declared: ‘Since the introduction of the phonics reading check in 2012, 120,000 more children are now on track to become excellent readers’ (DfE, 2016, para 1.5, p.5). However, whilst most people would not dispute the need to assess children’s reading development, the phonics screening check is problematic on several levels.

Firstly, the ‘check’ introduces children to both real words and pseudo words. There is a  rationale for introducing children to pseudo words, because these are words which children have not seen before and therefore they can only be read through the blending the phonemes. However, as the process of reading is about eliciting meaning from text, the value of pseudo words can be questioned.

Secondly, advanced readers do not rely on blending phonemes (decoding) for the skill of word recognition. Word recognition becomes increasingly automatic and the emphasis shifts from word recognition to developing fluency and reading for meaning. Phonics is a time-limited skill. For advanced readers, an assessment of their phonic knowledge in Year 1 is not an accurate predictor of their skill in reading but we do need to know more about how to support their comprehension skills. Whilst the phonics screening check may be a useful assessment for less skilled readers, we need various forms of assessment to support pupils working at different stages of development in reading.

Thirdly, teachers will already know, through regular formative assessment, whether children are secure in the skill of blending. The screening check adds no further value because it does not inform teaching. For weaker readers, the skill of blending at the level of the phoneme is an advanced skill which comes after blending at the level of the whole word (tooth+ brush = toothbrush), blending at the level of the syllable and blending at the level of onset and rime (c-oat / r-ain). It is not sufficient to know whether children can decode or not: we need to know more about the stage of development at which they are operating. If children are struggling to blend phonemes, then it is important to know about their other phonemic skills such as phoneme addition, phoneme deletion and phoneme substitution. We need to know about the component skills of phonemic and phonological awareness and not just whether a child can blend sounds to read words.

Fourthly, the process of reading is not solely an auditory process but also a visual process. Children may well have mastered the skill of blending sounds, but their reading development can be hampered by poor visual skills.  For children to become good readers, the skills of visual attention, visual discrimination, visual memory and visual sequential memory need to be secure. For weaker readers, teachers need to know about children’s development in visual skills and phonological skills. It is insufficient to know that children cannot decode; we need to know about their development in other skills which contribute to reading development.

Finally, reading is not just a process of word recognition. It is a process which requires linguistic comprehension. If, as a result of limited exposure to spoken language, children do not have a good vocabulary, or if their vocabulary lacks depth, this will impede their reading development.  This is particularly the case for those who have advanced beyond the skill of blending phonemes.  For this reason, play-based learning is critical in the early years so that children develop their vocabulary through interaction with peers and adults. Within language development, there is a hierarchy of skills whose development which should be assessed, particularly in weaker readers.

The key issue is the way in which the phonics screening check is used to regulate schools and teachers. It has become part of the machinery of performativity which is used to assess school and teacher performance. It is ‘high-stakes’ and results in children’s being categorised into achievers or failures at a very early stage of their development. The fact that children are subjected to re-taking the test in Year 2 if they do not pass serves to further marginalise them through the process of segregation.

Reading development is complex, but the phonics screening check reduces the complex nature of reading development to a single skill. The check does not provide teachers with additional information that they have not already gleaned from their formative assessments. Neither does it inform teachers about what they need to do next to support children’s development in reading. It is a mechanism of surveillance which serves very little educational purpose.

The government’s stance is clear. Back in 2016, Nicky Morgan claimed that:

Despite decades of research showing its positive effects, systematic synthetic phonics had been disregarded by many schools, local authorities, and university education faculties. Growing support within the teaching profession led to a number of new synthetic phonics reading schemes. In 2012, we introduced the phonics reading check at the end of Year 1 and three years on, the proportion of 6-year-olds achieving the expected standard in the check has risen by 19 percentage points to 77%, equivalent to 120,000 more children on track to become excellent readers.

(DfE, 2016, para. 2.56, p.38)

It is interesting to note that the Coalition government in 2010 discarded all aspects of Labour’s education policies with one exception: synthetic phonics. This policy has been continued by the Conservatives when they re-gained power in 2015. While phonics is an important tool is the teacher’s toolkit, we need a range of methods to assess reading development. This should include the assessment of auditory and visual skills as well as children’s awareness of rhyme. The assessment battery should reflect the sequential development of skills which contribute to phonemic and phonological awareness and visual skills development. Unless we base assessment on a developmental approach to learning, teachers will not be able to diagnose children’s reading difficulties.

References

DfE (2016) Educational Excellence Everywhere: Assessment of Impact. London:  DfE.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. Nottingham, DfES Publications.

 

Storytelling in primary and secondary classrooms

Storyteller1

Gary Snapper writes:

If we want to improve our students’ literacy, we should not narrow their curriculum by providing ever more test-oriented literacy lessons. We can instead enrich their curriculum with more creative and physical activity, raising motivation and energy levels, and providing the stimulus for more effective learning. In English, in particular, effective understanding and effective writing can flow from the stimulus of discussion, drama, and performance, as from the traditional routines of grammar, comprehension and essay writing.

With this in mind, and in the light of the decreased emphasis on speaking and listening in the current curriculum, the central theme of the summer edition of Teaching English will be Storytelling in primary and secondary English. An idea that recurs throughout the magazine is the power of storytelling to motivate students (and teachers), its potential in stimulating and activating students’ (and teachers’) creativity, and its consequent potential to improve students’ literacy.

We look at storytelling from a range of perspectives. Tony Wilson suggests ways of teaching oral storytelling to children. Georghia Ellinas explores storytelling in the context of Shakespeare’s stories at the Globe. Carolyn Drever recounts what happens when storytelling and outdoor education come together. Debbie Chalmers and Mick Connell focus on the range of creative work that can emerge when the teacher becomes storyteller. In a similar vein, Chris Parton and Joan Foley report on teacher-as-storyteller in the ‘Classic Tales in English’ project. Meanwhile, Pete Bearder discusses the power of oral performance in his account of his work as a Spoken Word Educator in London.

Also in this edition

We feature two articles by James Durran intended to help English departments think through some fundamental issues to do with assessment and learning objectives. Peter Thomas’s detailed exploration of how to improve students’ writing – by focusing on sentence structure and sequence – is essential reading, and its concerns are echoed by Harry Ritchie’s call for a move away from traditionalist notions of grammar and towards grammar-in-use. Andrew McCallum, meanwhile, suggests strategies for dealing with unseens at GCSE, whilst Amy Forrester urges NATE members to consider organising English ‘teachmeets’ to share good practice.

Columns and Reviews

As usual, our news and review pages feature a survey of recent curriculum news and reviews of recent publications, whilst regular columns by Tom Rank and Keith Davidson explore topical issues in English. We also remember the life of Peter Medway, who died this year – a longstanding friend of NATE and a key figure in the history of modern English teaching.

If you are a member of NATE, you’ll receive Teaching English in the mail at the beginning of June. To join, click on the main website (link on right) or click here.