Sunday, 23 June 2019

Some brief thoughts on the Phonics Screening Check and SPaG Grammar

As it’s summer: some brief thoughts on the Phonics Screening Check and SPaG Grammar:

The phonics screening check is designed to test solely the 'alphabetic principle' - the ability to apply the principle of decoding graphic symbols (letters) in relation to a sound or sounds that we make with our mouths. It does not test for understanding anything.

The test is based on the idea it's best to create stages in learning to read: first, learn the alphabetic principle, then read for understanding, but 'understanding' means in English schools, 'comprehension' and is greatly limited to retrieval, inference, chronology and presentation. This overlooks multiple meanings. The tests forbid multiple meanings. There can only be one meaning.

The stages principle ('first, fast and only' for phonics, then 'read real books' later) involves, in its purest form, preventing children at the phonics stage from looking at the texts of real books.

The theoretical issue here is common to a lot of learning: just because we CAN break things down into stages or simple and more complex elements, it doesn't necessarily follow that these created stages represent the best process by which all of us learn something. We don't learn to speak or walk that way.

We should always remember that these elements or stages are not God-created, they are simply categorisations that we have created. It doesn't necessarily follow (it may or may not) that we can best learn something by following the categorisations we created in the first place.

Another example, is when people claim that it's best if we learn to write by learning sentence grammar. This leaves out the possibility that we might learn to write better, for example, by learning other kinds of grammar, or, say, by imitation-and-adaptation, or by immersion ('reading for pleasure') etc

'Sentence grammar' is not the 'building block' of how we learn to speak. We also know that children who read 'widely and often' for pleasure will write well, quite independently of whether they've been taught sentence grammar or not.

'Sentence grammar' has no explanations as to why we use language in the social sense - whether that's for face-to-face oral situations, or in writing in the many and overlapping 'genres' of writing out there. In other words, sentence grammar can't explain the very thing we have language for.

This means that when we teach decontextualised sentence grammar as in the SPaG/GPS test, we are not giving pupils the means or the help to know why they might say or write one thing rather than another.