Year 1 Phonics Screen—should we be concerned?

ECA Members recently received an email communication explaining that the Federal Government intends to introduce a phonics check for Australian students. The phonics screening test that has been applied in the United Kingdom (UK) since 2012 has been recommended and, if agreed by the Australian states and territories, will be administered to students in Term 3 of Year 1.

ECA members were invited to express their views about the check and its potential impact and many thoughtful, informed responses have been received.

The debate around literacy teaching and learning is complex, carrying quite divergent views about what constitutes effective literacy pedagogy, especially for young learners.

There is general agreement that phonics is an important aspect of learning to read and write, but less agreement that the proposed screen is likely to improve literacy outcomes for Australian children.

What does the test look like?

The UK phonics screen is based on synthetic phonics. That is, children are asked to identify ‘psuedo words’ such as ‘ept’, ‘quib’, ‘glog’ and ‘splue’ mixed in with genuine words such as ‘high’, ‘feast’, ‘shape’ and ‘reptiles’. The intention is to check if children can sound out words using phonics without relying on context, meaning, or memory (www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-screening-check-2017-materials).

What are the main concerns?

Survey respondents suggest that:

  • given that students have been in full-time school for two years by the end of Year 1, teachers already know which students are struggling with literacy, so this test will add no value
  • what teachers need, rather than ‘another test’, is more resources to support ‘at risk’ children
  • the test being ‘borrowed’ from the UK may not be age-appropriate, timely in its application or suited to the Australian context
  • the focus on the single skill of phonics does not capture the other, perfectly valid strategies a child is using
  • the ‘contrived nature’ of the test, which uses synthetic phonics, is not a reliable predictor of literacy success—a child may become skilled at phonics, but remain a reluctant, unsuccessful reader and writer
  • there is a risk that the test by its very nature, will bias pedagogies away from a rich literacy program and result in parents and teachers teaching to the test.

What does the evidence say?

The UK Department of Education’s own evaluation of June 2015 comes to some interesting conclusions (www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-screening-check-evaluation-final-report):

  • The proportion of pupils reaching the expected standard on the check improved over the three years since the test’s introduction.
  • There has been a greater emphasis on phonics teaching and assessment in the past three years. In fact, there is an increased focus on pseudo-words as a key part of the learning program.
  • For those children who did not meet the standard, the most frequent type of support has been to continue a focus on phonics teaching.
  • The Report found no evidence of improvements in pupils’ overall literacy performance or progress.
  • Literacy Coordinators reported that check results ‘did not reveal anything of which teachers were not already aware’ (ox.ac.uk/news/2013-06-05-phonics-check-valid-unnecessary-test).

So, what does this mean for early literacy practice?

We want every child to access the joy and power of becoming literate.

We would all wish to ‘catch in the literacy net’ any child at risk of failure; literacy and numeracy are central to success in school and in life.

The best way to promote literacy success is through a rich, engaging program tailored to meet individual strengths and needs and driven by deep educator knowledge and skill.

What does a program that includes phonics, as well as other reading and writing strategies look like to you?

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Jenni Connor

Jenni Connor undertakes research and writing into learning, curriculum and educational issues generally. Jenni has a number of publications with ECA, including Your Child’s First Year at School. Jenni has been an early childhood teacher, primary principal, curriculum manager and writer. She is now a freelance writer and undertakes research, writing, editing and lecturing in early childhood education, literacy, learning and curriculum.

3 thoughts on “Year 1 Phonics Screen—should we be concerned?”

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thanks Jenni for this blog. For me, a good literacy program includes a wide range of teaching strategies including but not exclusively focused on phonics. We run the risk that children will learn how to sound out words but not gain any meaning from the text if we over emphasise phonics. In the old days we called this ‘barking at the print’!
    A good literacy program builds on the literacy capital that children bring to the setting which might include confidence in several languages, a strong family tradition of oral storytelling, a love of books, a capacity for engagement with different texts or different literacies including digital texts and digital literacy.

    Liz says:

    Stop handing over money to big publishing companies. Put it into schools and let the teachers decide how to best support their students. Teachers know which children are struggling and should be allowed to use the funds to give those students what they need.

    Manik says:

    Agreed with Anne & Liz.
    Another view: the children with ASD can perfectly ‘bark at print’ – but we essentially need the understanding of the print!
    Also other risk we run is what if the children begin to think that ‘synthetic phonics’ are real words?
    How often we as adults actually ‘read’ a word as against ‘scan’ it? We need our children to understand & develop love for reading, not robotic ability to pronounce ‘a group of letters’.

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