ðə greɪt fɒnɪks dəbeɪt: KEELY UNSWORTH takes no nonsense from the latest literacy screening tests

THE ‘GREAT DEBATE’ about teaching phonics to primary school children (Chall, 1967) has been an ongoing battle of Context vs. Code for many centuries. Since the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet in the 12th Century BC, letters have been changing from pictographic symbols to more consonantal letters which the Greeks then adopted and injected vowel representations to form the current alphabet that we use everyday.

In the present day, children as young as four are taught to learn letter sounds and names. This can be confusing for children, as they then have to learn that some letters have multiple ‘sounds’. For instance the ‘c’ in ‘cat is not the same as the ‘c’ in ‘circle’ (Lewis & Ellis, 2006: 35). This is a very basic part of teaching phonics and is one of many small dilemmas that phonics advocates do not address when encouraging teachers to continue to use the decoding method of teaching children to read.

As of September 2012, children in Year One of primary school took part in a compulsory ‘Phonics Screening Test’ consisting of ‘a short, light-touch assessment to confirm whether individual children have learnt phonic decoding to an appropriate standard’ (www.education.gov.uk). However, in my opinion, the test has many flaws. Watching the training video on the Education website, which is aimed at primary school teachers, we see that there are some words that could be questioned in relation to ‘correct’ pronunciation. For example, one child is given the non-word ‘roopt’. He successfully sounds out each individual phoneme, but then doesn’t ‘blend’ the final two phonemes correctly and fails in this instance. Surely there should be some leeway when it comes to blending consonants, as I myself would have failed this section of the test as I personally find it difficult to blend the consonants /p/ and /t/, as the point of articulation of these two plosives are difficult to move to and from in some cases. Surely the fact the word ‘baff’ was considered a correct alternative for ‘bath’, as it is ‘a common feature of six year old speech’ is worse than a child not being able to ‘successfully blend’ two phonemes. If using /f/ in place of /θ/ is acceptable in the phonics screening test, then surely it would be acceptable the other way round, so the /f/ in ‘phonics’ could in fact be pronounced /θ/ by a six-year-old, as this is a ‘common feature’ of their speech? Shouldn’t we be teaching children to speak correctly, instead of picking them up on a minor pause or stutter when speaking?

Another instance where a child fails part of the test for not ‘correctly’ pronouncing the word is with the non-word ‘vead’. The video shows three children ‘correctly’ pronouncing the word in the two ‘acceptable alternatives’ – ‘vead’ as in ‘feed’ and ‘vead’ as in ‘red’. However when the next child pronounces the non-word ‘vead’ as in ‘great’, the child fails. Who is to say what all of the acceptable alternatives are when it comes to sounding out phonemes?

Many people, including myself, believe that phonics should be part of the national curriculum, but should be taught alongside other enriching literacy activities, without a national screening test in order to balance out the code/context argument. The screening test puts additional pressure on a young child at a time where making friends and fitting in is a crucial part of the child’s development, not to mention the test not being watertight.

 KEELY UNSWORTH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


 Chall, J.S. (1967) Learning to Read: The Great Debate. New York: McGraw Hill.

 Lewis, M. & Ellis, S. (eds.) (2006) Phonics: Practice, Research and Policy. London: Paul Chapman.



5 thoughts on “ðə greɪt fɒnɪks dəbeɪt: KEELY UNSWORTH takes no nonsense from the latest literacy screening tests

  1. Hi Keely, You state the following and I don’t understand how you draw this conclusion: “This is a very basic part of teaching phonics and is one of many small dilemmas that phonics advocates do not address when encouraging teachers to continue to use the decoding method of teaching children to read.”

    It suggests that you have a limited understanding of systematic synthetic phonics promoted by the government in England. Please do take the time to visit one of my sites where I provide free downloadable Alphabetic Code Charts – some of which are designed specifically for student-teachers. On these charts I show the level of alphabetic code that I, and many other programme authors, include in their work. You will see that teaching letter ‘c’ as code for ‘circle’ or ‘city’ is introduced at an early stage of the teaching – not left out!

    Further, I promote a form of phonics called ‘two-pronged systematic and incidental teaching’ which means that teachers use versions of these charts from four year olds to give the overview of the alphabetic code. This means when ‘Alice’ says she hasn’t got the letter ‘s’ in her name but can hear the /s/ sound, the teacher can immediately point to the ‘ce’ in the chart and give a quick explanation. This actually happened in my last Reception class some years ago. You should see the level of literacy Alice and her class mates achieved with this approach!

    I provide a great deal of information about phonics, including free alphabetic code and alphabet material and also about the Year One Phonics Screening Check which has many advantages. The year on year improvement in phonics results indicates for a start that teachers have become more mindful of effective phonics teaching.

    I happen to agree with you, however, regarding what was accepted for the pronunciation of the word ‘vead’. If I was still teaching, it is highly likely that children in my class would be very clear that there are three main pronunciations for the ‘ea’ grapheme. Although ‘ea’ as code for /ai/ is not in many words (the root words are great, steak and break as you may well know) nevertheless those words themselves are not uncommon.

    It’s good to see you posting on the internet. Keep up the good work and please do investigate my websites which will provide you with more up-to-date information than perhaps you are receiving at university in that this is my specialism.


    All the best,
    Please feel free to email me with any questions:
    Look on the Free Resources page at Phonics International for the pieces on the Year One Phonics Screening Check!

    • Claire Gilder says:

      Hi Debbie, I have looked over your literature to some extent agree that phonics teaching does have a place within the curriculum. My own children were taught by me & at school, to sound out words & clear up any ambiguity regarding any phoneme found in an nonstandard environment. However, I also agree with keely that the need for a test seems superfluous. Why can’t teachers use their own experience & expertise when assessing a child’s phonetic progress? Surely they are the best judge of how a child is progressing on a day to day basis, (as they have daily contact) rather than a rigid, synthetic test, which is taken completely out of context? How a child performs on any given day may be different from the next. there were many times when my children were learning to read, where they would know a word with ease one day, then completely forgotten it the next! I feel that phonics testing should be part of a child’s overall progress report and not judged as a one off ‘snapshot’ of their ability on a particular day.

      • Hi Claire, Thank you for your response.

        It is national snapshot assessments that allow us to get an understanding of our effectiveness compared to others in similar contexts. This actually informs the teaching profession – and it is this large-scale form of objective snapshot that has allowed us to understand that teaching methods affect reading standards.

        Whatever you may think of the Year One Phonics Screening Check, it has nevertheless demonstrated that teachers’ minds can be more focused on the effectiveness of their teaching when they are aware of results nationally compared to their own.

        Regarding trusting teachers in their own assessments of children, what the check has already shown is that teachers’ ‘understanding’ of decoding ability is not common to all the teachers. Many teachers expressed surprise when some of their ‘better’ readers did not fare so well in the check. Teachers felt that those children were trying to make sense of the non-words and turn them into real words.

        But are those teachers really saying that ‘better readers’ should not be able to readily decode words such as ‘varp’ or ‘blit’ – or whatever those non-words are?

        Many words in literature are not in children’s oral vocabulary therefore they are the equivalent of non-words when it comes to decoding them – and ‘better readers’ should surely be able to decode such straightforward non-words should they not?

        So, the Year One Phonics Screening Check is actually revealing that the teachers do not share a common understanding and that teaching effectiveness across the country varies from school to school and authority to authority – and that teachers might be improving their effectiveness year on year.

        This is not about phonics being needed ‘to an extent’, it’s about professional development of the teaching profession in an era when there is still much intransigence and lack of knowledge about phonics teaching and what the science and leading-edge practice has already shown us about reading instruction effectiveness – and we haven’t even mentioned spelling….

        Kind regards,


  2. Hi Keely and others,

    It has become apparent over the last few years that educationalists have begun to recognise the complexity of the English Language, and have thus ‘tried’ to identify a better means of teaching it. Many areas of the English Language curriculum are highly dependent on a satisfactory foundation of linguistic knowledge which is gained in social contexts before a child enters school and I believe that phonetic teaching of language is not something that is vital to ‘learn’ our language but rather a ‘phase’ or ‘trend’ that will possibly die out in due course.

    I am a firm believer on the traditional methods of literacy which were being taught to read and write in a whole-word approach if you will. However, this seems to be supplemented into an emphasis on ‘oracy’ which, is being taught the ability to speak and listen (Crystal, 2003).

    I agree with Keely, that the phonetic approach to language teaching is maybe less effective in the sense that our language is so complex with the articulation of many monothongs and dipthongs. For example, in relation to specific pronunciations such as /ri:d/ and /red/ which both spell ‘read’. At such a delicate age it would be easy to get pronunciations such as the above and many more incorrect. Alternatively, I believe a whole-word approach would be much more effective with each word in context so the child could see the word in a functional sense.

    My question to Debbie would be, ‘how do you reference the fact that many children are leaving primary school without the ability to read and write?’ There have been articles published that suggest literary standards are dropping and many of these standards are present whilst this ‘phonetic trend’ of language development has been in place. Let me focus your attention to a BBC article (which I will publish below) where the head of OFSTED, Christine Gilbert says that 1 in 5 fall stubbornly short of adequate reading and writing skills (2010). It became apparent that reading skills aren’t as bad as writing skills and this is a worry for me as both need be at a good standard in order to pass exams which seems to be the way Michael Gove wants to go with educational assessments.

    Moreover, it seems other countries who effectively learn English as a ‘second language’ do not seem to use a phonetic approach to acquisition but they seem to grasp it excellently and is the most spoken language in the world. So, what makes phonetic teaching such an integral and important factor in the teaching of language when the traditional whole-word approach was an effective enough method?

    lastly, I do believe that the phonetic approach to teaching will take time to become a dominant and effective method for language use but how long will it take when, the BBC article discussed and my example on pronunciation of certain words shows clear holes in this approach?

    What makes the whole-word approach so ineffective that it can’t even be considered alongside the phonetic approach in many educational establishments to form a blend of the two? I’d like to know your thoughts, Debbie.

    Many thanks,
    Daniel Walker

    English Language undergraduate, University of Chester.

    • Hi Daniel,

      May I suggest you investigate the research into reading which for many years has demonstrated the advantage of phonics teaching – and the better the phonics teaching, the greater the advantage. For well-referenced sites go to http://www.dyslexics.org.uk and http://www.rrf.org.uk .

      Not only do we benefit from phonics teaching for improving literacy standards, we need good phonics teaching and we need enough of it to reach all the learners’ needs.

      You will find that good phonics teaching of learners who are older and still struggle can improve their alphabetic code knowledge and blending skills significantly. You presume too much if you think we have had good phonics teaching in all our infant and primary schools to date – and that schools know how to support learners who need teaching beyond the infants.

      If phonics teaching was not important, significant and effective, do you really think it would be increasing in popularity around the world (which it is) even where English is being taught as a second language. Many schools in Spain teach English as a second language with a synthetic phonics approach and this method is spreading in South America and other countries right now.

      Feedback is very interesting when teachers overseas describe how their pupils make much greater progress when taught English with synthetic phonics – not only that, but this type of teaching can have knock-on benefits in the mother tongue. A number of teachers in Spain and South America, for example, have described how the phonics teaching in the English language has enabled their very young pupils to write stories in the Spanish language much earlier and better than is usual.

      There is no problem with words like ‘read’ and ‘read’ which require different pronunciations dependent on their meaning. Simply teach about pronunciation alternatives as part of the alphabetic code. “In some words ‘ea’ is code for the /ee/ sound and in some words ‘ea’ is code for the /e/ sound. Try /ee/ first and then try /e/ in unknown words.”

      It seems that you may have a very limited view of how well we can unpick the letter/s-sound correspondences of the English alphabetic code and how well we can teach it. The English language remains hard work in terms of spelling but nevertheless, most literate adults use a sound-to-print phonics skill to spell longer and more challenging words and a print-to-sound phonics skill for decoding new, longer and more challenging words without even realising it. In other words, they have acquired the alphabetic code sub-consciously and apply it for reading and spelling sub-consciously – and this may well include you!

      Learning to read and spell by whole words is nothing short of a nightmare for many learners – there are thousands and thousands of words in our spoken language and in literature.

      I do hope you are sufficiently interested to read up on this further. See also my range of free alphabetic code charts at http://www.alphabeticcodecharts.com to note how we can unpick much of the code to make it teachable and learnable.

      Kind regards,


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