‘Geck’, ‘chom’ & ‘thazz’! TIFFANY WOODWARD asks: ‘Are UK five-year-olds being taught to read through meaningless words?’

Since 2006, and the publication of the Rose Review on the teaching of reading and writing, the UK government has promoted the use of a literacy method, known as ‘systematic synthetic phonics. This is where children are taught the 44 sounds of English in a specific order – ‘d’ and ‘g’ before ‘ch’ and ‘th’, for example (Jolly Learning; Rose, 2006). Upon learning the sounds, the youngsters then face the challenge of blending them, to pronounce the words of English (Neaum, 2017, p. 2). The majority of educators seemed to understand the reasoning behind the promotion of this method. After all, the Rose Report (2006) was heavily based upon a multitude of research. In an investigation by Johnston and Watson (2005) in Clackmannanshire, children exposed to ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ had a reading age of more than three years above their actual age (Gibb, 2014). Clearly, teachers everywhere wanted their pupils to excel in this way. If the suggested method was to work best for the children, then this was what they would adhere to.

As we might expect, this ceasefire in the so-called ‘Reading Wars’ was relatively short lived. The introduction of a compulsory Phonics Screening Check (test) in 2012, has been strongly opposed by many, not only those teaching phonics (Gibb, 2014). The check assesses the phonic knowledge of children in Year 1, and requires them to read aloud 40 words (Richardson, 2014), which seems like a somewhat straightforward task. However, the checks have been criticised for a variety of reasons, from their extortionate cost (Clark, 2014, p. 13), to the negative influence that they are found to have on the confidence of young and fluent readers (UKLA, 2012).

For many though, the crux of the matter is that half of the words that children are presented with during these checks, are not real words. What are they, if not real words? They are non-words, or ‘pseudo’ words, such as “voo” and “spron” (Richardson, 2014), that children, age five, are expected to be able to break down into sounds, and then blend, to read the word aloud. Spending even a small amount of time in a Year 1 classroom, allowed me to experience the sheer weight that schools place upon learning these non-words. The Year 1 teacher that I observed, spent a significant amount of time practising these non-words with the children. It is difficult to see how rehearsing these non-words, solely in preparation for the checks, helps the children to become better all-round readers.

The check, described by the Department for Education (DfE) as a “short, light touch assessment” (DfE, 2013), is nothing of the sort, according to 87% of teachers questioned, all of whom disagree with their implementation. Ninety-one per cent of teachers questioned, claimed that the checks did not give them any additional insight into the children’s reading abilities (ATL/NAHT/NUT, 2012), which leads many to question whether the checks are fit for purpose. The teachers surveyed claimed that the non-words were a very confusing element for the majority of children, who, in an attempt to make sense of what they were reading, read words like ‘thend’ as ‘the end’ (UKLA, 2012, p. 4). These errors significantly affected their marks in the tests (UKLA, 2012, p. 4).

Of course, avid supporters of the checks refer to a range of advantages associated with their use. Gibb (2014), who claims that phonics should be used as “the sole method for teaching children to decode and identify words”, is one of a number of individuals, who consistently support the use of the checks. The DfE (2013) claim that one of the main benefits of early testing, is that children who might be struggling with reading can be spotted from their cohort at a young age. Teachers and support staff, therefore, will be able to implement the correct support and guidance, to help the child catch up with their peers, and essentially, “close the gap” (Grant, 2014, pp. 22-23).

It is understandable that the early identification of issues in reading, for children is essential to their successful development throughout the key stages. However, it is also important to recognize that the effects of these checks, on teachers, and more importantly, the pupils sitting them, have been negative. If the aim of teaching children to read using a systematic, synthetic phonics method, is to improve the early reading abilities of children, then why are these reading abilities being tested through the reading of words that are not real? Unless five-year-olds request to read Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ (Davis, 2013, 29) every day, then it seems that the checks will not help them become better readers.

TIFFANY WOODWARD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

ATL/NAHT/NUT (2012, July). Teachers’ and head teachers’ views of the year one phonics screening check.

Clark, M. (2014). Whose knowledge counts in Government literacy policies and at what cost? Education Journal, 186, 13–16.

Davis, A. (2013). To read or not to read; Decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy (No. 20). 

Department for Education. (2013). The phonics screening check.

Gibb, N. (2014, 16 June). Phonics tests show progressive teaching is doomed to failure. Daily Telegraph

Grant, M. (2014). The effects of a systematic synthetic phonics programme on reading, writing and spelling.

Johnston, R., and Watson, J. (2005). The effects of synthetic phonics teaching of reading and spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. The Scottish Executive Central Research Unit.

Jolly Learning Educational Publisher. Teaching literacy with Jolly Phonics.

Neaum, S. (2017). What comes before phonics? London, United Kingdom: Learning Matters.

Richardson, H. (2014, 28 January). Able readers damaged by phonics, academic says. BBC News. 

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (The Rose Report), Nottingham, United Kingdom: DfES.

United Kingdom Literacy Association. (2012). UKLA analysis of schools’ response to the year 1 phonics screening check.

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2 thoughts on “‘Geck’, ‘chom’ & ‘thazz’! TIFFANY WOODWARD asks: ‘Are UK five-year-olds being taught to read through meaningless words?’

  1. Matt says:

    Hi Tiffany. Thanks for the blog. Very thought-provoking. It is interesting that you mention The Jabberwocky at the end there. This ‘nonsense’ poem is often great fun for children to read and is full of Lewis Carroll’s invented words including ‘slithy toves’ who ‘gyre’ and ‘gimble’ in the ‘wabe’. I have nothing against invented words being used in a school scenario, but I find it problematic when they are used out of context. Carroll’s words are not random. Their morphology is carefully considered so that they fit the syntax of the poetic lines they inhabit, and therefore make some kind of sense. ‘Slithy’ ends in a ‘y’ as do many English adjectives and is placed in a typical adjectival position. ‘Toves’ has a plural ‘s’ and follows the adjective, and so on. But reading made-up words isolated from context feels to me like a chore. In fact, arguably an invented group of sounds / letters is not even a real word. For something to be a word, it must have as a minimum, some kind of conceptual or referential basis – i.e. it refers to something, or performs a function. Otherwise it is just a random noise. In the Jabberwocky, Lewis stretches the concept of the word rather far, but they do trigger some kind of conceptual representation because of the conventional words around them. So if I say “I’ve just seen some slithy toves in the wabe” you at least know that there is more than one tangible thing which has been viewed within some kind of bounded area (triggered by the preposition ‘in’) so as a minimum you can build your own mental picture of what these things might mean to you. But this is unlikely with pseudo-words. Still, I wonder if the process of joining sounds up and blending them will at least give pupils the opportunity to understand the relationship between phonemes and graphemes in the English spelling system? What do you reckon?

  2. Natasza Bogstad says:

    Dear Tiffany
    Your blog post was an interesting read and especially great in that you had the opportunity to see the phonics screening check preparation in person.
    Both from personal experience and experience as an English tutor, when studying for a test, children will often focus much more on the topics they know will appear on a test than anything else they are learning alongside. Therefore although it is just a “short, light touch assessment” as stated by the DfE, I would imagine that the young students will automatically focus much more on learning the made up words, as they know they will be tested in them, rather than real ones. You also mentioned that the children will get confused with words that are of similarity to each other such as “thend” and “the end”, and as you have had some experience in a Year 1 class I was wondering whether you knew if this confusion was a momentary issue, disregarded when corrected or did some of the children continuously have problems, even after the check, with segregating the real words from the made up ones? I can only imagine that when focusing so much on these nonsense words in order to pass this test, that their brain will become more tuned to them rather than actual words. On that case could this then also affect their speech?
    Another issue is, although being quite capable of ‘normal’ reading, that is to say with the use of real words, what if they (the children) fail/get a low grade on the phonics test? Would their confidence drop and/or would they think of themselves as less capable because they could not fully grasp some made-up words?
    Although I agree that the teaching of phonics is beneficial in spotting reading problems at an early stage, I join you in wondering why then the children are tested by the use of made-up words.

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