I am not against phonics – I say that despite being labelled a phonics denialist.
I teach phonics. I know my phoneme from my grapheme, I can split a digraph (or diagraff as my daughter calls it) at 40 paces, I can spot a medial vowel sound from an initial blend.
So, why am I so against the phonic check?
Well the clue is in ‘check’.
The idea is that while learning to read some children do not pick this up automatically. These students need more explicit teaching and this instruction, say the DFE, is by Systematic, Synthetic Phonics (SSP). Extra support for these children should be via a structured and cumulative approach, but sole use of SSP over analytic phonics, balanced reading, vocabulary/comprehension methods is not, in my opinion, so clear cut. Let’s pretend it is though…
The check is supposed to be a screener to seek these children out. It is not a diagnostic tool to find out why decoding is difficult. Once, we work out who is not a ‘reader’ from the check, support can be put in place. Early intervention is key the DFE say, so the check identifies indiscriminately, with no concerns for the why, the children who need this help. If the check highlights difficulties (by that I mean fail to sound out more than 32 ish out of 40) it is repeated in year 2 to see if they still have problems decoding words and as of next year, the proposal (of a pilot) is to repeat this check in year 3.
The argument from SSP advocates is that there are 20% of adults who are functionally illiterate – the check, they say, will prevent any child being unable to read. That reading changes lives – we would be mad not to agree, of course. My experience however is that it is the few not the many who require support and these needs should be personalised; listening to a child reading diagnostically will capture this. Analytic phonics may be required alongside SSP for instance, or work on vocabulary might be important. Do they have memory difficulties? Poor phonological awareness? Slow processing speed?
So does the Phonics Check sound Tippitty Top still?
Well not really, for a number of reasons:
1. It is high stakes (RAISEonline, OFSTED, PRP) – therefore it is not a check but a test. There’s even a wall chart – I judge government initiatives by the complexity of their wall charts. This distorts the curriculum creating stress and pressure in schools and leads to confusion and a ‘teaching to test’ culture rather than embedding phonics into a literacy strategy.
2. This confusion has led to a multitude of consultants, all claiming that their programme is superior to others, and that teachers are ‘doing it wrong’. (many strategies are designed for 1:1 or small group not whole class).
3. It is too rigid; some children who need language support before phonics (language is the precursor to reading – Snowling 2014).
4. It takes up precious time which teachers would otherwise spend on literacy in a language rich environment.
5. The children who it identifies are withdrawn from this language rich environment to be taught separately (sometimes by an untrained TA rather than the classroom teacher).
6. It confuses reading with decoding (Even Nick Gibb mixed these two concepts up at a recent conference).
7. There becomes a disconnect between reading for meaning and decoding; currently, comprehension is becoming the ‘problem de jour’. Take away balance and what you gain in one area you lose in another.
8. The children who are ‘at risk’ of becoming functionally illiterate adults need sustained support, probably up to secondary school – the check, in my opinion, should begin in year 3 (if at all) – teachers know in year 1 which children can and can’t decode – it becomes more complicated later up the school chain.
9. It is expensive and time consuming (in the DFE report 2013 larger schools cited 3 to 4 days of supply teaching was required).
10. It is not evidenced based – it has become a crude tool to measure teachers and schools rather than a diagnostic tool to pinpoint where children need help with their reading skills.
This system has been forced upon teachers with claims from the DFE and SSP advocates that it is the magic bullet to curing adult illiteracy. It’s a heavy handed approach which is unnecessary – phonics was being introduced in primary schools across the UK as evidence emerged but it is still not clear cut; many teachers are sceptical of the SSP claims and frustrated that they are blamed for phonic check scores being below the national average – another stick to beat them with.
We do have students who cannot read, and they must be identified and helped but this blanket approach does not help them nor does it help the majority who can read.
The illiteracy model is being peddled by those who will benefit. It is their wares which are claimed to be the cure.
The Mother Courage of the reading wars.