A new phonics test for Australian six year olds is a BAD idea

By Robyn Ewing

The recent announcement by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, of a nation-wide phonics assessment for six year olds is of great concern to me. I believe, as do many of my fellow literacy expert colleagues, this new test will not help improve our literacy levels.

Australian children have been “marking time” or “falling behind” when compared on international benchmarks like PISA since high-stakes testing has been introduced and ramped up in this country. This latest mandate is part of the political cycle associated with testing regimes. Continuing this kind of assessment will not improve student literacy outcomes.

Evidence from the UK and USA, where similar tests have been used, may show improvement in performance on the phonics test over time but do not correlate with an improvement in children’s literacy levels. In fact what can happen is a narrowing of the literacy curriculum.

No evidence that phonics training preceding meaning making helps

 As renowned English author Michael Rosen explains, the difference between a phonics test and learning to read is that a phonics test merely requires children to pronounce a list of words, while learning to read is about making meaning of a text.  Phonics is only one part of the literacy story. And there is no evidence that phonics training should precede meaning making in literacy learning. It is much more productive to address decoding skills in meaningful contexts.

Absolutely the drilling of phonics will help some children do better in phonics tests, but there is no correlation with ultimately learning to be literate.

What the evidence says

We do know that six year olds should not be subjected to this kind of assessment. There is emerging evidence that teachers and students are finding the test-driven approach to education in Australia is anxiety producing.

Early childhood contexts and the first years of schooling should be centred on engaging in creative play with language including poetry, songs and rhymes, developing children’s confidence in talking about and responding to story, building a rich vocabulary and developing an understanding and love of literature.

One of the best predictors of literacy success is access to books in the home, as well known research tells us. In addition, shared reading, storytelling, talking about books from an early age and the opportunity for children to read widely are all important in learning to be literate.  Many children living in poverty do not have access to a wide range of books and shared reading experiences from an early age. If we want to spend more money in Australia to develop literacy we should be investing in the provision of quality literature for all Australian children and better resources for teachers who teach disadvantaged children. We need more teacher librarians in our schools. At the moment, however, we are seeing a reduction in teacher librarians in public schools.

A new research brief from Save our Schools supports the argument that the continuing gap in access to education resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the world and the OECD. Disadvantaged students in Australia continue to be denied equal opportunities to learn because they have less access to qualified teachers and resources than their more advantaged counterparts.

Data from PISA 2015 published in a supplementary report by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more teacher shortages, higher teacher-student ratios and more shortages or inadequacy of material educational resources than advantaged schools.

If we are serious about improving literacy levels in Australia we should be investing our money more wisely than in another useless test. Widening socioeconomic inequality will be a much larger determiner of children’s literacy achievement than performance on a phonics test.


Robyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices. 

26 thoughts on “A new phonics test for Australian six year olds is a BAD idea

  1. Marie Cullen says:

    Thankyou, Robyn, for an intelligent appraisal of how children become literate and how resources can be best invested.

  2. Robyn Ewing says:

    Thank you Marie,

  3. Ann Ryan says:

    Students who slow down to decode while reading are at risk of losing meaning, regardless of context. This becomes amplified for students with poor working memories. Strong readers are able to lift words off a page with accuracy and ease, so that meaning-making flows. If students are unable to decode at the word level, we need to target the core skill deficit and teach it explicitly – a ‘meaningful context’ is not needed to do this efficiently.

  4. Naomi Nelson says:

    Seriously? The language we use at any time is determined by the context in which it is being used. The approach you describe is like producing nice bricks but no plan because it doesn’t help students comprehend and compose texts designed to achieve specific and relevant purposes.

  5. Robyn Ewing says:

    thank you Ann – yes students will have different needs – it should never be one size fits all. Robyn

  6. Maureen McDaniell says:

    Robyn, I find your comments very disconcerting. I’ve been using an excellent linguistic phonics program for just under 4 years with very good results in comparison with traditional phonics and whole language. I believe having a phonics test is quite simply identifying the base line to commence teaching and measuring progress. I can’t understand why any teacher would have difficulty in establishing where their teaching should start. More significantly, I think the discussion needs to be much more around how we can support teachers to identify and be cued into the essentials of literacy and how the appropriate schemas in the brain can and are developed by effective literacy education.

  7. Jane says:

    Agreed. Well stated.

  8. Robyn Ewing says:

    Most teachers do the diagnostic assessment Maureen – I don’t believe a test is the way to go.

  9. Ania Lian says:

    “And there is no evidence that phonics training should precede meaning making in literacy learning” — b/c a reading class should not be about “here are your sounds and now say “A”, “B”..”C”, etc..” but with socialisation into the complex world where print materials are as critical to one’s cultural development as is oxygen, and students learning about their own power through this “breathing”
    best wishes and thanks

  10. Robyn Ewing says:

    I agree Ania thank you.

  11. Yes thank you Robyn.

    Such good sense.

    I wonder if any of the supporters of the phonics test have read the article by Gibson & England –

    {Gibson, H., & England, J. (2016). The inclusion of peudowords within the year one phonics ‘screening check’ in English primary schools Cambridge Journal of Education, 46(1), 491-507. doi:10.1080/0305764X.015.1067289}

    I quote:
    ‘many teachers thought that the Check misidentified pupils who came to school already seeing themselves as readers and who were beyond the stage of phonetic decoding: “In several cases successful fluent readers did less well in the Check than emergent readers . . . Most schools surveyed indicated that the phonics Check seriously disadvantaged, and in some cases impeded, successful readers” (UKLA, 2012, p. 3. See also Lewis & Lewis, 2006, p.15)”‘ (p. 494).
    How can this be something we want for Australian children?

  12. Robyn Ewing says:

    Thank you for these readings Noella – very helpful.

  13. Narelle Daffurn says:

    Thank you Noella. I appreciate this article link!

  14. eileen honan says:

    Thank you for these comments Robyn summing up some of the arguments supported by research against the introduction of a phonics check. It is important to note that you are not advocating against the use of phonics in literacy instruction in the early years of schooling. Rather, the money spent on a ‘phonics check’ could be better spent supporting our teachers and schools in delivering a rich, intensive, focused, and balanced literacy program that is based on research completed by literacy researchers,

  15. Robyn Ewing says:

    Thank you Eileen – yes a rich and balanced literacy program is not an argument against the use of phonics.

  16. Josie says:

    It is very important to note phonics is only a small part of learning to read and write- mainly due to the English language. Many of our common words simply cannot be “sounded out”. For example was, who, said to name a few. Phonics should be taught together with a range of other strategies, such as meaning (using pictures or what wod make sense), memory (sight words) and others. Students who rely heavily on sounding out words become very weak readers.
    I strongly believe a phonics test in grade one is not needed. I get information I need by testing already done with my students that is not threatening or scary. These children are 5/6 years old. The amount of stress they are put under is ridiculous.

  17. Robyn Ewing says:

    Thank you for your comments Josie – I couldn’t agree more. More tests will not mean improved literacy.

  18. Susan Mahar says:

    Thanks Robyn. This latest proposal for a phonics assessment in grade one is seriously flawed. I believe Simon Birmingham has good intent but he needs to consult with experienced p-2 classroom teachers in a range of situations,as well as experts in the literacy field, to understand the diversity of strategies required to develop early literacy, particularly reading.

    To rely on a single phonic strategy would be to seriously hamper some children’s chances of ever getting enjoyment or even meaning from print. Especially concerning is the idea of confusing early learners by using nonsensical words to test phonic knowledge (as is the case in the UK).

    There is no such thing as ‘light touch’ testing as Simon Birmingham imagines. Any test costs time and money and, most significantly, puts pressure on students and teachers. Experienced classroom teachers can readily identify the early learners in need of support. Instead of testing let’s use the money to provide appropriate support for these children within a meaningful and stimulating classroom environment.

  19. Lucy Stinson says:

    I find myself perplexed by professional teachers being caught up in the renewal of decoding as the primary focus of reading instruction and assuming meaning follows, yet I can understand those people outside education ( politicians of course) taking this simplistic view. Perhaps it is the coping mechanisms of teachers faced with the stress of reaching targets, not being receptive to or being offered quality professional development or the impact of commercial interests producing materials that promise the easy to follow steps. – their reach is far and wide with the sharing on social media that is not necessarily based on any credible research or understanding. Of course it is easy to have a false sense of success when children decode accurately on narrow given materials, but the real test comes when levels of inferential thinking are required as children progress through school. It is not either phonics or not, it is a balance with all aspects of literacy instruction.

  20. Narelle Daffurn says:

    Very insightful Lucy. This test will undoubtedly be misused and poorly implemented in some schools to the detriment of students’ self-esteem. More support for authentic approaches to assessment is needed.

  21. Bruce Lyons says:

    Good one Robyn.

    I am glad phonics is back as part of the several strategies employed to teach reading. However I heartily agree that the mooted compulsory phonics testing is a waste of money and teacher time not to mention the stress it might cause 5/6 year olds. Effective teachers will already be quietly diagnosing the language skills that the youngsters bring to school and moving them on from the results of this diagnosis.

    Lets not overlook the value of phonics in enhancing spelling.

    Our federal pollies seem to be in a state of panic about where our students rate internationally. They must have faith in the teachers and ensure that school principals have sufficient funds to enable teachers to hone and improve their teaching strategies. Focus on strengthening the teachers, not on compulsory test regimes that have dubious value. Within schools get teachers talking with one another about interpreting the curriculum requirements for English language skills and about how best to move the students on based on mastery of the required prerequisites for the new learning to come.

    Teachers under compulsory state and nation wide testing regimes may well feel pressured to move students on to the new learning even though the prerequisites for such have not been mastered. Thus gaps accumulate and we see the resultant outcry that year 10, year 11 and year 12 students can’t read and write.

  22. Patrick Donnelly says:

    Great article and a timely reminder of the importance of meaning. Is it possible that the introduction of phonics synthetically is about a pedagogy that increases automaticity and has the potential of accelerating learning, as evidenced by the place of synthetic phonics in the following two reports, rather than an ideological throwback to the 50s?

    Loudin, W. (2015) High Performing Primary School: what do they have in common?; and

    A 2010 OFSTED study called Reading by Six: How the best schools do it, identified 12 primary schools that were rated as ‘Outstanding’ and had higher than average Key Stage 1 (Year 2) reading results over three years. Notably, these schools varied widely in terms of socio- demographic characteristics. The report found the teaching of reading in these schools had a common characteristic — “rigorous and sequential” instruction in all areas of literacy, including systematic synthetic phonics (all used Read Write Inc., Letters and Sounds, or Jolly Phonics).

    Not every school that uses synthetic phonics is successful however 18 schools identified as outstanding and coming from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds in two different studies from two different countries, one in WA and the other in the UK, ALL used synthetic phonics program. Why aren’t other approaches bubbling up so readily?

    Phonics is such a small part of literacy, the response seems disproportionate to the issue. Governments as financiers of education have a right to impose accountability measures, on the surface this one is probably the least intrusive and consistent with what is happening already in schools; maybe this is just a consistency measure useful in gathering comparable data and not the thin edge of the wedge as it is being portrayed.

  23. Bruce Lyons says:

    Phonics is only one part of the set of strategies used to teach reading but I am glad it has experienced a revival. It had fallen into disrepute for s number of years.

    Effective teachers disgnose the youngsters’ skills at school entrance and move them based on the evidence from the diagnosis. Compulsory testing as mooted by the government is unnecessary. Spend the money on teacher in service.

  24. Jackie Manuel says:

    Thank you, Robyn, for a very informative and instructive article. You highlight the research about the extent to which such tests provide only limited evidence of a young person’s holistic achievements. I’m grateful that you have also drawn attention to the actual and potential deleterious impact of such testing on our youngest students entering school.

  25. Pat Stone says:

    Phonics has had a big effect on the teaching of reading and writing (not so much on results) for English 4, 5 and 6 year olds since the Phonics Screening Check was introduced in 2012. Phonics has become its own separate curriculum subject with children being drilled every day in order to pass the check in May of UK year 1, for 5,6 year olds. They are drilled in combining letters into non-words, just to decode them meaninglessly because some of these meaningless non-words are in the check. When children come across a non-word, they must blend it into an acceptable pronunciation. When the see a real word, they must pronounce it properly as that real word. So they have to (ingeniously) switch their natural urge to search for meaning off and on again arbitrarily. The check is meant to tell teachers whether the children are able to ‘blend’, as THE fundamental reading skill, and non-words are included because children must be tested on their blending with no meaning to go on. Teachers know this, however, long before the PSC is administered.
    Special resources are bought in, pushed by commercial scheme writers, including ‘decodable’ books, which contrive language to decode that uses only the recently taught GPCs. GPCs are taught in certain orders that limit what children are allowed to read and write about. What has been ignored for so long because the phonics took over – vocabulary, fluency, comprehension – are now being put back in, after much clamour, in separate chunks, and with fresh opportunities for someone to sell resources. Reading for pleasure is also being thought about as a separate curriculum area.
    I would recommend fighting this abomination with all your strength, if I were you.
    If you are not convinced about the disaster of the UK PSC, have a look at who wants it most and have a look at what class teachers have to say about it.
    Here is a blog I wrote about the PSC in England, if you haven’t heard enough yet – I have been involved with the age group since the PSC started:

  26. Pat Stone says:

    I forgot to link the blog.
    It is whatdoiknowdotco

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