Phonics test – Nick Gibb fails again

Schools minister Nick Gibb is crowing, once again, that thousands more children are ‘on track to become fluent readers’. Improved pass rates in the Phonics test show no such thing.

“163,000 more 6-year-olds are on track to become fluent readers since the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012.” (Gibb 27 sept 2018)

The phonics test requires children to pronounce 20 words and 20 non-words and score 32 to pass. The real words are restricted to simple regular spellings: sing, flat, chop, dart, shock, delay appeared this year, with a few more difficult (saucers, groans).

It does not check whether children can read very common words such as the, was, any, there, said, come – though it’s impossible to read without them.

The non-words used this year included reb, wup, eps, zook, chack, and scrid.

The test carefully avoids letter combinations which can be pronounced in different ways eg ou (soup, out, could, soul). There is no requirement to read a full sentence or to know what words mean.

There has been a substantial rise in the numbers passing this absurd test since it was first introduced:

2012   2013   2014      2015    2016   2017    2018    (Year 1)
58%    69%    74%      77%     81%     81%     82%

an increase of 24 percentage points over a 5 year period. Many hours are spent teaching children how to read nonsense!

However, the impact on a reading-for-understanding test taken a year later has been negligible:

2013   2014   2015      2016    2017    2018                (Year 2)
86%    89%    89%      74%     76%     75%

The following graph shows the mismatch (the year is when each batch of children took  their Y2 reading comprehension test).

However to interpret these results properly, you have to bear in mind that the Year 2 assessment was made much harder from 2016 onwards. To adjust for this, we can add together the gains made year-by-year on each side of this break:
2013 to 2014   3 points
2014 to 2015   0 points
2016 to 2017   2 points
2017 to 2018   -1 point

i.e. an average of just 1 percentage point per year. If we assume the same for 2015-2016, we have a very modest increase of 5 percentage points over the 5 year period. (Even this could be the result of more intensive test preparation.)

We can show this graphically by adjusting the 2013-5 scores to reflect the increased difficulty of the Y2 reading tests from 2016-8.

Nick Gibb’s reading miracle is smoke and mirrors. Higher phonics check scores show only… higher phonics check scores. They do not mean children are ‘on track’ to becoming better readers.

Immense pressure is being placed on young children. It is significant that 25% of August-born children are failed – and their parents told they have failed – compared with 11% of September-born children.

Many children afflicted by poverty are often slower to develop. Not surprisingly, 30% of children entitled to free meals are failed – and their parents told they have failed.

This could have a long-term effect on their personalities, development,  mental health and attitude to education.

To understand the lack of evidence behind this Government’s insistence on the ‘synthetic phonics’ method, please read our earlier series of posts: 

Phonics: myths and evidence

The Scottish phonics miracle: myths and evidence

The Rose Report on phonics: playing fast and loose with ‘the evidence’

The phonics check: what does it prove?

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