Reading in England - Was I wrong about phonics?

By John Freeman

| 08 December 2017

I hope that no-one has been surprised that the phonics test has showed a rapid increase in the proportion of children reaching the expected standard. It is an inevitable and universal finding that high-stakes tests show a rapid improvement in their first years, slowly tailing off until nearly everyone succeeds - or, perhaps, everyone who is able to succeed with intensive coaching and training. The improvements in the phonics test have followed this pattern very closely - as I previously predicted - with yearly improvements of +9, +5, +3, +4, 0 percent. ‘Teaching to the test' is a cliché precisely because that is what happens. Teachers take some time to learn how tests work, and so there are rapid improvements which tail off.

As I say, then, I hope no-one - perhaps even including ministers and civil servants - was surprised by the phonics test improvements. It's just a pity that ministers claim that phonics is a major success when all that has happened is an improvement that follows exactly the general pattern,

If you are not familiar with the detail, here is a short extract from the official guidance concerning regional dialects - it really is worth reading!

"Some of the pseudo-words in the screening check contain vowel digraphs that end with ‘r', such as ‘ur'. In a small number of regional dialects, the ‘r' in words with these vowel digraphs is voiced and pupils who speak with these dialects will be known to their teachers. For these pupils, pseudo-words with a vowel digraph ending in ‘r', such as ‘murbs', may be pronounced as /mɜːrbs/ instead of /mɜːbs/. These pronunciations are acceptable alternatives in the relevant pseudo-words."

Without wishing to be patronising, I suspect that many of those reading this blog, if they are not involved in the teaching of phonics, will have to think about what a ‘vowel digraph' might be, and will have to check what the difference is between /mɜːrbs/ and /mɜːbs/.

I'm certainly of the view, having read the guidance, that we are forcing teachers and young children into some pretty arcane areas of grammar and English usage, and I'm absolutely convinced that very few children will, when they have grown up and left school, be able to define a ‘vowel digraph.'

So, on first reading, I was quite ready to extrapolate from these phonics improvements, and from the extremely artificial nature of the phonics test, sorry, screening check, to the PIRLS international reading study. I was about to suggest that children were learning to decode and pronounce better, but not necessarily to read for understanding or to love reading, one of life's great pleasures. I might even have said that artificial phonics was likely to put children off reading for pleasure.

I'm still highly sceptical about the phonics screening check and what the trends show, and how it has impacted on teaching. But I was absolutely wrong about the PIRLS checks - I read a couple of the tests, and I thought they were well-constructed and likely to be absorbing for children, just as one would hope. Here's a sample from ‘Brave Charlotte' by Anu Stohner:

"Charlotte was different from all the other sheep right from the start. When all the other lambs just stood shyly by their mothers, Charlotte was leaping around, ready for adventure. Charlotte lived with all the other sheep on a hillside far from the farm. They had a shepherd to look after them and he had an old dog named Jack. Jack tried to keep Charlotte under control, but she wasn't scared of him."

This was followed by several well-constructed questions.

What do I conclude from all this? First, I'm pleased that our scores are improving on this sort of realistic assessment of real-world reading, though the actual score for England was 559, up just 7 points from 552, just over one per cent, in five years, which is hardly cause for dancing in the streets. Second, that it may just be that the emphasis on reading and phonics has had a positive impact beyond the narrow screening check.

I would, though, like to see some follow-up research on all this, and some better analysis of how children learn to read and assign meaning, and internalise stories like ‘Brave Charlotte'. In a utopian world, the outcome measure would be both the ability to read for meaning when you need to do that - income tax forms, rental agreements - but also the extent to which people read for pleasure.

Also in a utopian world, teachers and teaching assistants would work with fewer children to whom they could give proper attention, with a quality assurance system that was professionally - not politically - led.

And I'm quite happy to be taken to task for my grammatical and vocabulary solecisms, including starting sentences with conjunctions. Having failed GCE ‘O' Level English Language twice, I am inured to criticism!

John Freeman is a children's services consultant and former DCS

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