Tuesday, 3 April 2012

This summer's phonics test is not a reading test.

Apologies for banging on about this again but I think it's crucial.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, there is going to be a 'phonics screening' test this June for all Year 1 pupils in state schools including Academies. The pass mark is going to be 32 words correctly read out of 40. Families of children failing will be informed that they have failed.

This test will be of individual words and non-words. Pupils will be asked to show that they can offer the correct readings for the real words and plausible readings for the non-words ie pronouncing the letters and letter-combinations with the sounds that the children have been taught. So, for example a non-word with the 'ou' letters in the middle could be pronounced either as 'ou' in 'sound' or as 'ou' in 'wound' (as in 'hurt') (all southern English pronunciations). Whether they could pronounce it as the 'ou' in 'touch' is, I think, unlikely. We shall see whether 'rare' pronunciations will be allowed when the actual test comes out.

Here is an article describing what's coming from the Mail Online:


The article is to my mind not unreasonable and quotes Dominic Wyse from the Institute of Education. However, there is one major misconception at the heart of the article: that is, this test is going to be testing 'reading'.

The word 'reading' is highly problematical. Yes, most of us will say of a child reading a page of print out loud that she is 'reading'. However, if we talk about 'reading' or try to come up with adequate definitions of reading, we will of course always include some sense of understanding what the signs on the page, screen or wherever signify in the culture that language is part of. Reading is about some kind of transfer of meaning, or interaction with meanings intended by authors and meanings made by readers. Meaning is at the heart of it. Why else would we bother?

So, why should this matter? If the children do the test, surely it doesn't matter what it's called...? I suggest the opposite. I believe there is a massive push going on to treat 'decoding' (ie reading phonically) as a sufficient condition of that broader meaning of 'reading' I'm talking about. There is much, much more anxiety going on about 'decoding' than there is about 'understanding' or any other forms of reaction to writing eg 're-enactment', 're-presentation' through other art forms, informed discussion and so on.

In other words, by isolating and elevating phonics into this prime method, testing it and then describing it as 'reading', we are in serious danger of losing sight of what reading is for. Or put another way, we're in serious danger of producing some (how many?) five, six and seven year olds who can 'bark at print' but who are 'getting' very little from what they're reading. In which case, I and most of us would say, what's the point?

To be fair to the inventors and advocates of synthetic phonics, they by and large are careful to talk about 'decoding' and 'phonic screening'. In part, this is a matter of how politicians talk, their press offices deliver press releases and unthinking journalists circulate what they're told. The big irony here is that journalists spend hours every day wrestling with words in order that they should be read for meaning!

Further, watch this space for all kinds of analyses when the test results come in, where again, people of all sorts will talk about this or that percentage of children 'failing' a 'reading-test'. Again, they won't have done. They will have failed a decoding test. We should remember here that the phenomenon of barking at print is matched by its opposite, the child who is understanding a good deal but might not be able to produce accurate decoding to the level of 32 out of 40 words.

If either of these two propositions sounds a bit far-fetched, then if you have tried to learn a language other than your primary language, it doesn't seem so far fetched at all. I was taught how to pronounce Italian - it's pretty regular with strong correspondence between letters and sounds. So, give me a page of Italian, I can read it out loud. I can decode it. What I can't do,. though is understand it.

Alternatively, there are some people who are good at learning languages who put together meanings of phrases in simple passages of prose who may well not have bothered too much about matching exact letters or letter-combinations with the appropriate sounds.

Of course, this latter category is what phonics people think of as bad reading. However, it may not necessarily be so. Parents who have sat with their children reading to them and with them night after night, can often recall a moment where the child appeared to make a breakthrough - or several. That is, moments where the child appeared to suddenly 'get' it. It is quite possible that the way such children 'get' it, might not correspond to what is being tested in a phonics screening/decoding test. If this test hits such children at an early point in the way such children (I'm thinking of mine, actually) are learning to read, I could well imagine them failing and me being told they have failed, them asking me if they've failed and me telling them they've failed....

At six or seven years old.

Again, I know that many people will talk about them failing a 'reading' test. We'll be saying to them, you're no good at 'reading'. Telling very young children that they have failed something is a lousy way of getting them to do something well. In fact, it's a crap way.

So what's happening here is that a system of teaching to decode which many tests show is indeed efficient at getting children to decode is getting inflated into a practice of 'reading' ability. On that basis I can foresee an expansion of phonics catch-up into Year 2 where more of the same will expand and take up yet more time, even though the remedy for some reading difficulties may be different approaches not more of the same...and even more time being spent neglecting the meaning of writing, even though ultimately, that's what it's all for.

Luckily, most schools are spending a good deal of time and effort trying to keep going with the 'meaning' side of writing ie books, poems, stories, rhymes, good non-fiction and of course the children's own writing. Even though there is very little on this coming from government, they know that phonics without reading for meaning doesn't work in the long term for the children they teach. People who bark at print, don't know what's going on.