Challenging the tyranny of the Phonics Check

It is hard to compete with Margaret Clark’s tenacity in challenging the deeply flawed Phonics Screening Check along with  schools minister Nick Gibb’s dogmatic support of Synthetic Phonics. After editing two books in a single year, she has just completed a major survey of teachers, heads and parents.

This research is damning of government policy. It clearly demonstrates the distortion of teaching and the sheer waste of pupils’ time.

  • 97% of the teachers deliberately practice individual words and pseudo words out of context, and many schools ask parents to do the same.
  • 94% say the test gives them no information on individual children that they don’t already have.
  • The majority believe the test to be inaccurate.
  • 80% say it is not useful to include pseudo words.
  • 68% think it should simply be discontinued, whilst a further 20% believe it should be available for administering only to some children at the teacher’s professional discretion.

Many teachers stated that the phonics test is pointless for fluent readers and indeed can hold them back by distorting their reading. Many others said it was demoralising for children who were still struggling with simple words (eg the consonant-vowel-consonant type such as dog, pin, man).

The survey shows teachers are in no doubt about the importance of phonics but believe that decoding should be taught in a variety of ways and that reading should involve pleasure and comprehension.

Here are some of the comments:

“Children who are competent readers are becoming anxious and tearful over pseudo words.”

“Children are now drilled from Foundation to be able to read individual words on flashcards – both real and pseudo. They are given regular ‘mock’ tests. they are also invited into school for extra ‘catch-up’ sessions before the start of the school day if it is not thought they will pass.”

“We now just do lots of pseudo words and test preparation, instead of using that time to improve their writing or other useful skills.”

“Teach to test. Drill children with nonsense words when we should be teaching the skills of reading of which phonics is just one small element”

“We teach to the test. It’s depressing and goes against everything most teachers want to deliver. Reading should be for pleasure, for learning and for life. Subjecting 5-year olds to ‘failure’ at reading is just crazy.”

What parents say

Similar negative comments were made by parents with concerns about six-year-olds’ stress and sleepless nights. One said her daughter was worried she would “get in trouble at school if she did it wrong”, while others were worried they were going to fail.

One parent said “Yes he failed so he said he was thick”.

Some parents of fluent readers were concerned that their children were bored, and that a lot of lesson time was spent repeating ‘alien words’.

TIme to rethink?

The major consultation about primary school tests which the government carried out in 2017 scarcely mentioned the phonics test. At the Westminster Education Forum in December 2017, Professor Clark demanded to know why:

“What is so sacrosanct about the phonics screening check that it’s merely stated in that consultation document that it would remain statutory? There are no questions asked about it. It is supposed to be diagnostic and it is now about as high stakes a test as you can imagine, because percentage pass is supposed to rise. It is on RAISE Online. It’s used by Ofsted and yet you have a consultation document where you just mention that it will remain statutory.”

The Department for Education’s representative answered as follows:

“The consultation document was developed within the parameters of Government policy and Government policy is that it’s very firmly committed to phonics as a mode of teaching reading and is very firmly committed to the continuation of the phonics screening check. So I don’t think it would have been helpful to set up a false debate about something which the Government wasn’t going to change, and Ministers weren’t going to change, and you know Minister Gibb has very strong views on phonics and the phonics screening check.”

This reply is revealing. Indeed, the whole consultation was phoney, with questions framed in ways that prevented real opposition.

Policy is dictated by the Schools Minister who refuses to listen to the evidence from teachers and researchers, and children are being damaged.

Only resistance from teachers and parents will stop this nonsense.

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