So what do we all think about Michael Gove’s phonics check? There’s been a flurry of Twitter activity in the past few days and lots of arguments for and against. Whatever your view, this week all Year 1 pupils in maintained schools, academies and Free Schools will be doing the check.
According to the Department of Education, the test “is a short, light-touch assessment to confirm whether individual pupils have learnt phonic decoding to an appropriate standard. It will identify the children who need extra help so they are given support by their school to improve their reading skills. They will then be able to retake the check so that schools can track pupils until they are able to decode”.
The DofE website certainly makes it sound very sensible. The check is a list of 40 words and non-words such as “mip” or “glimp” which the child reads one-to-one with a teacher – it takes between 4 and 9 minutes. Reading these words uses a mixture of phonic skills learnt both in Reception and Year One. The results are given to the child’s parents and are used to produce statistics on national and local performance and in Ofsted reports. Can feedback of this sort really be a bad thing?
Well, firstly, why has Michael Gove introduced this test? It turns out that, embarrassingly, England has slipped down the international table for reading in primary schools. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) of 10-year-olds has seen England fall from third out of 35 countries in 2001 to fifteenth out of 40 countries in 2006.
But will the check actually help? Leading literacy figures are calling it “disastrous”, and “a major waste of taxpayers’ money”.
I asked a friend who is a Deputy Head of a North London school what she thinks of the check and she said very emphatically, “in one word – horrific”.
She explained that, no matter how nicely teachers try to do it, it’s still a deeply unpleasant experience for 6 year olds to go through a one-to-one test in an unfamliar room with no prompts or any of the support or encouragement they would normally have in class. She also feels that good readers could actually do worse because of the ’non-words’. Children who are more advanced in reading will always try to make sense of what is on the page by coming up with a word that sounds reasonable to them – in the phonics check, they will be penalised for this.
Finally, the ‘pass’ mark has apparently been deliberately set at a higher level than the end of Y1 expectation. This means you can fail the test, but still be on track in terms of where you should be for your age. My friend thinks parents will find this very confusing. Basically, if your child passes, they are above average.
So a big thumbs down from this Deputy Head. If you want to read more criticisms, have a look at this open letter from Voice – the union for teaching professionals.
The jury’s out as far as I’m concerned as I’m not knowledgeable in this field at all. But if there are any experts reading, please do get in touch and tell me what you think.