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Why Are Our Best Readers in School Failing the Government's New Phonics Screener?

02/08/2013 11:15 | Updated 01 October 2013

We keep hearing about strong, confident readers who have failed the government's new Year 1 phonic screener. Is it that our six year olds haven't mastered the art of reading readiness (the point at which a person is ready to learn to read) or is the government assessing the wrong skill?

The first thing to say is that parents shouldn't be getting panicked by these results. It's important to remember that the screener isn't a reading test; it is a measure of how well children can decode words using synthetic phonics.

This synthetic phonics system of learning to read is relatively new. The initiative started in Clackmannanshire, Scotland about 15 years ago and has only been used nationwide for around five years and therefore is an unknown approach to most parents of school age children. Don't get me wrong, this is a fantastic tool for our children to master and I see the results of this on a daily basis. All reception age children attending Explore Learning centres work on phonics and this is the best platform for launching into reading. It gives them the confidence very early on to read phonetically spelled words. This is, however, one of many skills that children need to use when reading the English language.

Once a child has learnt this 'Basic Code' of synthetic phonics, they also need to learn the 'tricky' words that don't fit (of which there are many!) For this, children use their visual memory and also start to look out for context clues. For children that have moved beyond the stage of just reading phonetically and are tackling tricky words I believe the new government test can be particularly challenging. The nonsense words appear odd and children may try and make a 'real' word out of them thus pronouncing them incorrectly. Ironically those that move quickly ahead in the system could fail to measure up to the new test.

So if a child has 'failed' to decode a number of nonsense words, should the school and in turn the child, get a black mark against them? What is the end result we are looking to achieve? Surely it's for children to be able to read confidently and with understanding.

The synthetic phonics system helps with the first steps of reading and spelling. Our children then need to spend time reading with understanding, building a wider vocabulary. If a child can do this then is it right that they should have to re-sit the test the following year? And what about children who have learnt to read before starting school? Should they go back and revisit the code simply for a test rather than progressing in their reading development? Are we going to find that parents and the school prioritise practising a skill that the child should really be moving on from?

The phonics screener is relevant but it needs to be measured alongside a more traditional reading assessment to ensure that our children, those that are reading well already, are not unnecessarily held back on a skill that gives them limited use in the English language. I would argue that for children already reading before they start school that the screener needs to happen sooner, not later. Able readers could sit the screener at the end of reception instead whilst they are still relying on their phonic knowledge for decoding in reading. Then they should move on. After all, unlike Finnish which has one of the most phonetic writing systems, English is definitely not a phonetic language.

A language that is phonetic means that you can look at the written word and know how to pronounce it or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. The English language is over 1000 years old and has the wrinkles to prove it! It doesn't follow a set pattern and is focusing too much on the phonetic code alone, then children will find this wonderful language a challenge. Some things we just have to learn using our knowledge and understanding of context. So let's make sure the balance is right - otherwise how else would we know how to say though, through, cough, rough, plough, ought, borough?!