x overlay image

Michael Gove's Phonics Test

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.

Leave a comment

    From John Hall
    Date: 14th. August 2012
    Hello Lucy,

    As an introduction, I should like to say that I have always been interested and involved with the education and advancement of my 3 children and 6 grandchildren.

    However, I have noted with dismay over a period of 40
    years from the 1970's, that a lot of children in primary school have been poor readers and this has adversely effected them in secondary school and then later on, in finding well paid future employment.

    This lack of ability in reading was obviously a great handicap for these children but made worse because they were often anxious and embarrassed at having to hide the fact of their not being able to read very well. Sometimes they could not even read warning signs and instructions.

    The disappointing figures for the P.I.R.L.S. that you show above are even more shocking when you realize what the figures actually mean. They mean that each year over 100,000 children leave primary school with below the required level in Literacy.

    As at March 2012, according to the World Literacy Foundation, there are over five million adults in Britain who are considered to be illiterate, so in view of this, I think immediate action should be taken to change the 'Status Quo' in our primary schools and I think Michael Gove is trying to do just that.

    Further to this problem, I feel sure your readers would be interested to read my blog at:
    and they would also enjoy a 'YouTube video' by my granddaughter called:
    'KS2 Literacy. Help your child to improve now'

    I should be pleased if you would consider putting a link from your site to my site shown above.

    Thank you.

    Hope to hear from you.

    From Claire
    Hi Lucy

    My six year old - who was born in September so, through complete luck, is ahead of the game when it comes to reading - just scraped through her test. Her teacher tells me that she - as well as many of her classmates - got the non-words wrong because they made just presumed they couldn't be right, so made an educated guess about what they could be. Maybe Gove should just leave it to the teachers - she seems to be doing well inspite of these tests.
    From Helen Kinsey
    Dear Lucy !
    I am at odds with the above opinion. It has been prooved consistantly that children under the age of seven need most of their time to creatively explore their world in the form of play. While it is true that some children happily learn to read under this age, those who are drilled both in school and in extra reading lessons after school give over an aspect of themselves which in my experience is never completely recovered, their imagination, reflected in their writing later on is less rich, their ability to complete a task properly is poor, their self esteem is compromised. Neither of my daughters were pushed to read. They both read at age nine. They both now read prodigiously, good literature. I teach in a Waldorf school. I have had my class for 3 years from age 6 to 9. I have never once had a reading lesson in my class. I have focused on writing. Beautiful writing. All my children read, most of them now fluently. I have taken in many children from conventional education, while they can read and spell ( though not all ) their writing is littered with 'and then,' their hand writing is appalling, they struggle to complete tasks properly and find it very difficult to have to repeat something.

    Small children need to 'do' and play. They need to be active in the world. They learn from imitation.

    Finally in the words of my teacher trainer some years ago " Try teaching a child NOT to read." I would say the best way, proved by the government's own statistics is to teach them phonics too young. The tests are an assualt on childhood.
    From Melanie Dawson
    Hi Lucy,
    As well as being a mum of two of your students at Southgate, I've also been a reading tutor for the last 5 years. I don't teach in schools, so I have absolutely no idea how this test will be administered. My hunch is that it needn't be as unpleasant as your deputy headteacher friend suggests. It is up to the teachers to put the children at ease in what is clearly going to be an unusual situation for them. By 6 years old, I expect most children should be relatively familiar with unusual and perhaps even unpleasant situations. The visit to the dentist, optician, doctor. That first day at school. Speaking and singing aloud in front of unfamiliar people. At Perform your teachers do a brilliant job in placing children outside their comfort zone and making them comfortable in it. There is absolutely no reason why primary teachers cannot do the same for a ten minute "test".
    As for the test itself, I think perhaps the end of Yr1 is too late. By this stage, many children in the class will be verging on fluent readers, while some others will clearly be struggling. By this stage I would expect most teachers to be aware of the children that need additional support. However, if it is reworked, I think a test of this kind would be most beneficial to younger children who perhaps do not yet know all of the letters of the alphabet but who can be assessed on their level of phonemic awareness, i.e. the ability to translate sounds into words, the ability to rhyme, to segement words into syllables and then each constituent sound. There are many reasons why children can struggle to learn how to read. But in my experience, it is the children who are unable to blend sounds together to form a word, or to segment words into their sounds that go on to become completely lost on that path to reading. It is my view that there should be some form of assessment - and it needn't be in a one-to-one environment - but its principle aim should be to assisit teachers to identify children who may need additional support when those are at the very beginning of their reading journey.
    The important thing is that this test should not be seen as another value in the league tables, but as a diagnostic tool (one of many) that teachers use to best serve each individual pupil.
    Best wishes and please keep up the good work!
    Melanie - Eureka Reading
    020 7255 9120 Phone