national test for phonics

The flawed thinking behind a mandatory phonics screening test

The New South Wales Government recently announced it intends to “trial an optional phonics screening test” for Year One students. This seems to be following a similar pattern to South Australia where the test, developed in the UK, was first trialled in 2017 and is now imposed on all public schools in the state.

The idea of a mandated universal phonics screening test for public schools is opposed by the NSW Teachers Federation, but is strongly advocated by neo-liberal ‘think tanks’, ‘edu-business’ leaders, speech specialists and cognitive psychologists. The controversy surrounding the test began in England, where it has been used since 2012. As in England, advocates of the test in Australia argue it is necessary as an early diagnosis of students’ early reading.

No teacher would dispute the importance of identifying students in need of early reading intervention, nor would they dispute the key role that phonics plays in decoding words. However I strongly believe the efficacy of the test deserves to be scrutinised, before it is rolled-out across our most populous state, and possibly all Australian public schools.  

Two questions deserve to be asked about the tests’ educational value. Firstly, is it worthwhile as a universal means of assessing students’ ability in reading, especially as it will be costly to implement? Secondly, does it make sense to assess students’ competence in reading by diagnosing their use of a single decoding strategy?

Perhaps these questions can be answered by interrogating the background to the test in England and by evaluating the extent to which it has been successful.       

What is in the test?

The test, which involves two stages, consists of 40 discrete words that the student reads to their teacher. They do so, by firstly identifying the individual letter-sound (grapho-phonic) correspondences, which they then blend (synthsise) in order to read the whole word. So, in fact what is specifically being tested is a synthetic phonic approach to reading, not a phonic approach per se. It could even be argued that calling the test a ‘phonics’ check is a misnomer since analytic phonics is not included.

Students pass the test by correctly synthesising the letter blends in thirty-two of the forty words.  In order to preserve fidelity to the strategy and to ensure students do not rely on word recognition skills, the test includes 20 pseudo words. In the version used in England, the first 12 words are nonsense words.

The back ground to the phonics screening check in England.  

We can trace the origins of the phonics screening check in England to two influential sources: ‘The Clackmannanshire Study’ and the ‘Rose Report’. In his 2006 report on early reading, Sir Jim Rose, drew heavily on a comparative study conducted by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, in the small Scottish county of Clackmannanshire. After comparing achievements in reading of three groups of students taught using different phonic methods, the two researchers concluded that the group taught by means of synthetic phonics achieved significantly better results than either of two other groups. These other groups were taught by means of analytic phonics and a mixed methods approach. Although the study received little traction in Scotland and has subsequently been critiqued as methodologically flawed, it was warmly embraced in England, especially by Rose who was an advocate of synthetic phonics.             

The 2006 Rose Report was influential in shaping early reading pedagogy in England and from 2010 systematic synthetic phonics, not only became the exclusive method of teaching early reading in English schools, it was made statutory by the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Coalition under David Cameron. The then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and his Schools’ Minister, Nick Gibb, announced a match funded scheme in which schools were required to purchase a synthetic phonics program. Included in the list of recommended programs was one owned by Gibb’s Literacy Advisor. This program is now used in 25% of English primary schools. In 2012, Gove introduced the phonics screening check for all Year One students (5-6 year olds) in England, and in 2017, Gibbs toured parts of Australia promoting the test here. 

To what extent has the Phonics Screening Check been successful?

In its first year, only 58% of UK students passed the test, but in subsequent years’ results have improved. Students who fail the test must re-sit it at the end of year Two. By 2016, 81% of Year One students passed the test, but since then there has only been an increase of 1%.

Gibb cites this increase in scores, over a six-year period, as proof that the government has raised standards in reading and advocates of the test in Australia have seized upon the data as evidence in support of their case.

At face value, the figures look impressive. However, when we compare phonics screening check results with Standard Assessment Test (the UK equivalent to NAPLAN) scores in reading for these students a year later, the results lose their shine. In 2012, 76% of Year Two students achieved the expected Standard Assessment Test level in reading, but last year only 75% achieved the same level. Clearly then, the phonics screening check is not indicative of general reading ability and does not serve as a purposeful diagnostic measure of reading.

In a recent survey of the usefulness of the phonics screening check in England, 98% of teachers said it did not tell them anything they did not already know about their students’ reading abilities. Following the first year of the test in 2012, when only 58% of students achieved the pass mark, teachers explained that it was their better readers who were failing the test. Although these students were successfully making the letter-sound correspondences in nonsense words, in the blending phase, they were reading real words that were similar to the visual appearance of the pseudo words.

The conclusion is that authentic reading combines decoding with meaning.

Furthermore, as every teacher knows, high status tests dominate curriculum content, which in this case, means that by giving greater attention to synthetic phonics, in order to get students’ through the test, there is less time to give to other reading strategies.

Whilst the systematic teaching of phonics has an important place in a teacher’s repertoire of strategies, it does not appear to make any sense to make it the exclusive method of teaching reading, as is the case in England. To give it a privileged status as a test does exactly that.

Perhaps this is the key reason why, in England, phonics screening check scores have improved but students’ reading abilities have not.

I don’t think Australia should be heading down the same dead-end path.

Dr. Paul Gardner is Senior Lecturer in Primary English, in the School of Education at Curtin University. Until 2014, he taught at several universities in the UK.

Teaching of synthetic phonics in Australia based on flawed evidence

What is phonics for? Where does it fit into an overall pedagogy of literacy? Without clear answers to these questions, the contestants in the phonics debate will continue to circle each other like blindfolded prizefighters.

The aim of literacy teaching is to produce readers who tackle texts on paper or screen with confidence and understanding, so that they can learn, enjoy their reading and, when appropriate, read aloud with fluency and expression. But to beginners the marks on the page are arbitrary, meaningless squiggles. Even those which correspond to words they understand when spoken to them cannot yet be related to meaning. Therefore the overriding aim of phonics is the efficient identification of unfamiliar printed words.

So who needs to be taught phonics and when?

Some children are enabled to bridge that gulf by being read to copiously, and joining in the reciting of the texts they have heard so often they have them off by heart, until they twig the essential insight that what they are saying is represented by what they can see. For them, phonics is not only unnecessary, but may be a hindrance. Therefore phonics has no place in the teaching of reading to young fluent readers, and testing their ‘phonic knowledge’ is irrelevant and risks causing them to regress in their learning.

What of the children who arrive at school not yet reading? Their most important immediate task is to learn to read, so for them the purpose of phonics is to provide a quick start on the identification of regularly-spelt words, alongside the essential (for English, with its complex orthography) learning of some basic high-frequency but irregularly-spelt words as sight words.

The experimental evidence shows clearly that phonics in this context works for both normally-developing children and those who are falling behind. But the same body of evidence also shows that (a) the teaching must be systematic and not incidental; (b) it must be embedded in a broad and rich language and literacy curriculum, because there is much more to reading than just word identification, and therefore phonics alone does not constitute teaching children to read.

The flawed case for teaching only synthetic phonics

The message about embedding phonics in a rich curriculum is there loud and clear in the Rose Report (2006), which was published in England and used as evidence to impose a national phonics test in England. Advocates of the phonics test, and the associated teaching of “synthetic phonics”, in Australia regularly cite this report, especially to argue that Australia should impose the teaching of synthetic phonics on all school beginners.

I was present during the presentation of evidence for the Rose enquiry and I believe Jim Rose overstated his case for synthetic phonics in the subsequent report. Nevertheless, Rose’s message about embedding phonics in a rich curriculum, which is a very basic message, got lost in the controversy his report stirred up around whole-word versus phonics.

Jim Rose mostly stuck to saying phonics teaching must be systematic, but in places elided that into saying that systematic phonics is synthetic phonics, which the experimental evidence did not justify, and still doesn’t. There is as yet no evidence that any one form of phonics teaching produces better progress than any other form of phonics.

Following the Rose Report there was a noticeable increase in the number of phonics-based intervention schemes for struggling readers in England, but it was only after the change of government in 2010 that strong official pressure was put behind synthetic phonics, often using a flawed and partial interpretation of the research evidence, and Rose’s conflation of systematic phonics with synthetic phonics. This was expressed in the misleading slogan-like mantra that ‘Synthetic phonics is the best way to teach children to read’, ignoring all the caveats about embedding phonics in the broader curriculum and the dearth of supporting evidence.

It is ironic that that line is actually at odds with the latest (2013, p.13) version of the national curriculum for English in England, which has this to say:

Skilled word reading involves both the speedy working out of the pronunciation of unfamiliar printed words (decoding) and the speedy recognition of familiar printed words. Underpinning both is the understanding that the letters on the page represent the sounds in spoken words. This is why phonics should be emphasised in the early teaching of reading to beginners (i.e. unskilled readers) when they start school.

This is much more balanced than many public pronouncements. Moreover, it implies that phonics teaching is essentially time-limited. As soon as children ‘get it’ or are seen to have ‘cracked the code’, only occasional reinforcement of sounding-out and blending for unfamiliar words is needed. As Jeanne Chall put it 50 years ago in Learning to Read: the great debate, once children have developed the ability to identify written words, teaching further phonics ‘is sheer madness’.

Teachers don’t need a national test to tell them about their own students

What of those children who don’t ‘get it’ the first or second time? There are a few for whom phonics simply doesn’t work, but they are rare and exceptional. An Australian friend who taught in an Infants school (Years 1-2) in England for over 30 years says that she was unable to unlock the door of initial literacy for just one child in all that time. There are others who struggle and fail to progress well. Observant teachers know perfectly well who they are, and need deep professional knowledge to understand them and work round their difficulties. Teachers don’t need a test to identify children who are struggling. When teachers in England were asked about the phonics test a great many said it didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.

What teachers of initial literacy do need is better support for helping the strugglers, which was supposed to be part of the follow-up to the phonics test, but is notable by its absence. Money put into that would be well spent, which the money spent on the phonics test is not.

In the first three years of national operation, the phonics test in England cost £44,000,000 – what a waste! Spend your Australian dollars on good professional development instead!


Greg Brooks is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, UK. He was a member of the Rose Committee (2005-06). Greg was the chairperson of Federation of European Literacy Associations (2013-16) and has researched and written widely on the initial teaching of reading and spelling, especially through phonics. Find more about Greg Brooks here.

Greg is a contributor to the book Reading the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning edited by distinguished researcher Margaret Clark (OBE) that will be launched at the AARE 2017 conference in Canberra on Wednesday 29th November. Other contributors to the book are Misty Adoniou, Terry Wrigley, and Henrietta Dombey.

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