Phonics test: changing pedagogy through assessment

Alice Bradbury

If you want to change what teachers teach, should you change the curriculum, or change the assessment? For the last three years, all six-year-olds in England have had to take a Phonics Screening Check test, which they can either pass or fail. The introduction of this test by the coalition government was controversial, as there is much debate over the use of phonics in the teaching of reading. This year’s results have just been heralded as a victory for phonics as a greater proportion of children passed. However, if we look back at the evolution of this policy, as I have done in a paper presented last week at BERA and now published in the Oxford Review of Education, we can see that the purpose of the Phonics Screening Check has always been surrounded by confusion.

In this study, I explore the changing aims of the Screening Check in the government’s rhetoric, from initial idea in a Conservative Party conference speech in 2009, to the realisation of the policy in legislation. This ‘policy genealogy’ approach, focusing on one part of the policy ‘trajectory’, seeks to ask: which ideas become truth through policy, and whose ideas are included or excluded?

The main finding of this research is the confusion of aims of this ‘reading test’ in speeches and the Conservative manifesto of 2010. In opposition, Michael Gove stated in a conference speech that children who struggled to read were “overwhelmingly, likely to be the difficult and disruptive pupils in class, […] likely to be the truants, the recruits for street gangs, the children who have given up on hope and become trapped in defiance”. To “save these young lives” there would be a renewed focus on reading, including a ‘simple reading test’. By the time of the manifesto, the aim of the reading test, now on phonics only, was to reassure parents that ‘their child is making progress’. Over time, the test’s stated purpose changed. I argue that this is because the test’s main purpose is not to reassure parents or prevent children joining gangs, but to hold teachers to account for their teaching of reading.

By the time of the public consultation in 2011, there was considerable opposition to the phonics test’s form and content. The consultation report found that only 28% of respondents thought the test should be on phonics; teachers in the pilot did not feel it provided anything they could not assess informally; and 91% of teachers surveyed by the teachers’ unions felt it provided no additional information on children’s ability to read. There is also the thorny issue of teachers distorting the test results, as a disproportionate number of children scored just above the (publicly available) pass mark.

As with most statutory tests, the scores have increased each year, from 58% in 2012 to 74% in 2014. What this shows is not that children can read better, but that there has been an increased focus on phonics. Indeed, the initial findings from research I am currently undertaking with my colleague Guy Roberts-Holmes suggest that the pressure of the phonics test has spread down into Reception and even Nursery classes. Much of this increase in the pass rate is simply because teachers have got better at preparing children. For instance, one problem was always that fluent readers were thrown by the non-words used in the test. Now, as another educationalist commented recently, “I know many teachers who now devote a lot of time to teaching children how to read invented words to help them pass the test”. Is this a useful activity? Does it help children “learn to read, so they can read to learn”, to use Gove’s phrase?

So what is this test for? My analysis of the policy trajectory suggests that the confusion of stated aims belies a far more consistent agenda. By creating another statutory test which schools can be judged on, the Coalition government has managed to change what teachers teach, and in turn what is valued within Year 1 classrooms. The spread of accountability continues, even into an area as hotly contested as teaching reading. The current government is well aware of how quickly change can happen when “the assessment tail starts to wag the education dog”, to quote O’Neill.

We are now at exactly the same point in the election cycle as when Gove first proposed the idea of a ‘simple reading test’ at Conservative conference in 2009. Which of the ideas in this year’s speeches will evolve into something which changes what teachers do, and what matters in classrooms?

 

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Posted in Childhood & early education, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
6 comments on “Phonics test: changing pedagogy through assessment
  1. Jim Sweetman says:

    Spot on Alice. Instead of measuring these marginal impacts on children, I would love to see some research done on the attitudes of adult readers to reading depending on whether they learned predominantly by phonics or by a mixture of methods. My hypothesis is that phonic trained readers rarely learn to read sufficiently fast to enjoy reading. The readers on trains, my measuring stick, who used predominantly to read books now have the competition of the younger generation who read phones. I’m inclined to blame phonics rather than technology.

  2. I think it is historically incredible what is being achieved in England’s teaching profession and schools right now (this is a new era in reading instruction) although there is still some way to go to fully raise professional understanding about the role of phonics for reading and spelling and its relationship with language comprehension.

    If various university academics were not so indignant about successive governments taking responsibility to investigate the body of research on reading instruction, AND to look at actual classroom findings to see what works most effectively and most inclusively, AND to support the teaching profession through various routes and actions, then they might, in contrast, actually allow themselves to get interested and indeed excited that teachers are becoming increasingly effective at phonics teaching enabling more children of all descriptions to lift the words off a page – whether those words are known in spoken language or whether not-known as in the use of the pseudo words in the Year One phonics screening check.

    It would be very refreshing indeed to witness academics working collaboratively with Government, with the teaching profession, with phonics programme authors such as myself, with parents of learners, with those in the field of dyslexia and special needs – rather than continue to be critical and divisive.

    Time to get on board?

  3. Andrew Davis Durham University says:

    Some of Ms Hepplewhite’s post uses language that can be divided into two categories:
    Category 1: words with an emotional charge such as ‘indignant’, ‘get interested’, ‘excited’ ‘critical’, ‘divisive’.
    Category 2: terms with implied covert value elements that might be contestable – ‘effective’ –‘collaborative’ and so on.

    I’ve no problem with this language per se – I use it all over the place myself. We are all entitled to be emotional and to make value judgements about reading, that supreme element in our culture that can open up for children the world of story and imagination. Parents of children who can already read before they go to school are particularly inclined to be emotional about what happens to their offspring in phonics sessions at school, as I can attest from many direct personal communications.

    The trouble with some of Ms Hepplewhite’s language is that it diverts us from some very serious issues surrounding the phonics check and the teaching of early reading. It gives the impression that anyone who has the temerity to look critically at these issues is being ‘divisive’, and isn’t being suitably ‘collaborative’, ‘excited’ and ‘interested’. However, those of us who intend to continue our critical inquiries into synthetic phonics are also excited about reading and wish it to be taught effectively. We also work with teachers and dyslexia specialists – fortunately phonics programme authors do not have a monopoly here.

    I can only briefly rehearse some of the topics that are still rightly the subject of critical inquiries – many readers will be familiar with them.

    The so-called Simple View of Reading is widely known to be over-simplistic. You cannot separate decoding and meaning in the way it implies. Even working out how to say ‘his’ needs context to enable a child to relate their attempts to decode with the word ‘his’ that they can understand and pronounce.

    The phonics check has major validity problems, mainly in respect of the so-called real words. See our Open Letter to Michael Gove, published at the end of June this year at http://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/06/26/open-letter-to-michael-gove-why-the-y1-phonics-check-must-go.aspx

    Even if we thought that research ‘showed’ that synthetic phonics was ‘effective’ for the teaching of reading, of course this does not imply that the State is entitled to remove teachers’ professional freedom to make judicious choices about how and when to deploy it. There are and should be no ‘pupil proof interventions’ in any schools. Moreover, there are profound difficulties about the very idea that such interventions can or should be researched. See David Aldridge’s excellent commentary and development of these arguments at http://davealdridge.brookesblogs.net/2014/06/29/on-phonics-denialists/ and elsewhere.

    The very idea of ‘getting on board’ is inappropriate.

    This does not leave the teaching of reading ‘to chance’, as Ms Hepplewhite has implied in some places. Teachers’ professional expertise will ensure that ‘chance’ does not operate here, and, needless to say, such expertise will include knowledge of what is good in well-designed synthetic phonics programmes, and of the intricacies of English orthography.

  4. MaggieD says:

    “depending on whether they learned predominantly by phonics or by a mixture of methods”

    It would be helpful if Mr Sweetman could specify exacctly what ‘methods’ he is referring to when talking of a ‘mixture of methods’. It is clear from reading many blogs and comments on the subject of phonics that there is some confusion about what synthetic phonics proponents mean as a ‘mixture of methods’ and how this is interpreted.

    The ‘method mix’ which SP teaching advises strongly against is the use of guessing strategies (picture clues, initial letters & context) for word identification. Also the teaching of words as ‘wholes’ rather than by synthesising their components (decoding and blending letter/sound correspondences). It is difficult to understand why people should prefer children to guess their way through a text when they can easily learn how to swiftly and accurately determine what a word ‘says’ through the application of phonics knowledge and skills.

    It is especially difficult to understand the widespread support for guessing strategies when research since at least the 1970s has consistently shown that skilled readers rely predominately on phonic skills for identifying unfamiliar words in text and that it is struggling and disabled readers who try to use ‘other cues’.

    As to the other aspects of reading, understanding and enjoyment, phonics teaching does not preclude any of the strategies used to promote them.

  5. nemocracy says:

    The use of the word ‘guess’ with a perjorative connotation is a commonplace among supporters of the phonics check and those who want a very restricted and exclusive form of phonics taught. This is odd when, in fact, guessing also takes place when phonics are applied where there are different possible pronunciations for a letter or letter group. This is common in English. It is the context of the words containing these ambiguities and the reader’s vocabulary which reduce the ‘blindness’ of the guess, just as their phonic knowledge reduces the ‘blindness’ of a guess from context.

    I doubt anyone would dispute that phonics is a great tool in approximating correct pronunciation, if the reader is methodical and has a strong knowledge of the alternatives that might imply. Some children may have the good memory for these somewhat abstract associations. Others may have a good vocabulary which supports a less methodical style. Others again might bounce between vocabulary knowledge, phonic knowledge and awareness of context (of course, quite naturally used by those who have not memorised a great many words).

    MaggieD claims that the teachng of SP does not interfere with other aspects of reading instruction beyond decoding and indeed it doesn’t have to. However, as the above article highlights, there are indications that testing children’s use of synthetic phonics leads to a distortion of priorities, and, as Andrew Davis highlights above, the removal from teachers of their freedom to use the skills amassed through training and experience.

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