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