Thursday 3 May 2012

My thoughts on the Year 1 Phonics Screening Test

1. Using phonic methods in the teaching of reading is fine. 

2. We must be absolutely clear what these are, what they do and what they don't do.

3. Phonics are only and always only part of the system by which we make correspondences between sounds and letters (or combinations of letters). We also do this through recognising whole words (as with what the synthetic phonics materials call 'tricky words' and the like. We also do it through such processes as prediction, part recognition by phonic methods (eg initial letter or letters), part by sense and meaning and so on. Many words in English cannot be entirely decoded using synthetic phonic methods. One example: the two meanings and sounds of 'wound'. Producing both correct sounds will not of itself produce the right word. This can only be arrived at through context and meaning. 

4. Finding correspondences between letters and sounds is not 'reading'. It is, as the phonics advocates will say,  'decoding' and only 'decoding'. 

5. It is quite possible to learn how to decode any written language without knowing the meaning. Many of us have had that experience when learning languages other than our mother tongue. Opera singers are particularly good at this!

6. Reading is what we do when we make a correspondence between whole passages of written language (words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, articles, chapters,whole books etc) and meaning.

7. Doing synthetic phonics can only ever be a contributory factor in the process of how we 'learn to read' in this full sense of the meaning of 'read'. 

8. Whatever the role of SP in learning to read for meaning  in schools, it must never be the sole one, or indeed the main one.

9. We need to address every day of a child's life in school the matter of 'reading for meaning' in the full sense of this phrase. How do we enable children to make meanings from words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, articles, chapters and whole books? 

10. We also need to address urgently the matter of what aspects of the curriculum hinder 'reading for meaning'? 

11. It is clear to me that the phonics test at the end of Year 1 is precisely one of those aspects of school work and life which will do just that. It is causing anxiety amongst teachers, pupils and parents. Any anxiety around the complex matter of learning to read will be counter-productive for many children. There is already anxiety enough around the matter, when in reality it should be a matter of fun and pleasure derived from discovery and the meaning of the texts. 

12. The test is already being called a 'reading' test both by the popular press but also in DfE materials. This is disastrous. It leads teachers, parents and children into thinking that they are either successes or failures at 'reading'. They are not. They are successes or failures at 'decoding'. This is a very different matter. What's more, not all children arrive at decoding through learning phonics. My generation is evidence of that. Those of us who learned to read did that through a mix of phonic techniques (not synthetic phonics), whole word recognition, repetition of high frequency words and reading for meaning. 

13. The test is reinforcing the notion that one-size-fits-all in learning to read. This is illogical and counter-factual. It is clear that many children learn to read using different methods but are already being squeezed into this purely phonics method (first, fast and only). We even hear that 'multi-cue' is 'dangerous'. Ancedotal evidence is emerging telling us that children who are already reading books are being 'sent back' to do phonics because it's being deemed that they have to 'catch up' on decoding. There is no evidence that would suggest that good readers need to go back and do phonics to teach them to read.

14. A further problem with the test is that it encourages the notion that reading is a matter of being able to read single words. In fact, reading for meaning, asks of us to make sense of what has been called 'wording' ie words strung together in meaningful chunks. Spending great effort and time on sounding out words detracts from the urgent matter of children 'getting' the written code or 'unlocking' it, as we might say. Many children hear very little of the written code. They live in a largely oral world, they don't hear the kind of speech performance of, say, radio scripts, recordings of stories, or pre-scripted oral performance (political speeches and the like). The written code (the particular 'dialect' which strings words together in the way that is very different from the way we do it in everyday speech) has to be learned, as well as 'decoding', as well as learning what this or that single word is. We have to learn this in order to read for meaning. Preparing for this test will get in the way of the enormous amount of work teachers need to do, to familiarise children with this written code  which they do through reading stories outloud, getting the children to learn poems and songs, putting up a good deal of fresh interesting and accessible writing material around the walls, giving children plenty of books to take home for parents and friends to read to the children, giving children time in the school and local libraries, enabling the children to browse and choose books that attract and interest them. 

(If you want to get a good idea of how different the written and spoken 'codes' are, just find a passage in any book or newspaper and try saying it out loud as if it's in the middle of a conversation.)

15. In built into the year 1 phonics test is failure. I think this is disastrous when it comes to teaching to read. We must, must, must shed failure and the fear of failure from the process. Instead, we will be elevating and prioritising failure in terms of its importance because schools are obliged to tell the parents and carers of children who score less than 32 out of 40 that the child in question has failed. Many parents will see this as a failure in 'reading' and be anxious. This anxiety will be a hindrance for children learning how to read for meaning. Anxiety is counter-productive. 

16. The marking of the tests is highly problematic. If one views the DfE guide on marking, it is clear that there are ambiguities and grey areas in how children sound out and then arrive at what a word 'says'. The pronunciation of phonemes is nowhere near as clearcut as is being made out here, nor is it in everyday speech, nor is it in children whose languages made different phonemic distinctions. Just as examples, the l,r distinction is different for some Asian languages, likewise b,v and in Spanish s,sh and th. 

There is also the question of dialect and accent. Nominally, the film in question allows for this eg the 'free' pronunciation of 'three' which some London speakers show. However, with social mobility the 'substrate' of accent, dialect and mother tongue is not always apparent and children can easily get confused and 'wrong' over this. My own son has become so confused over 'th' and 'f' that he has started saying and reading 'three' for 'free'. Vowel sounds are often even more problematic with the rigidity of the test. Because the children can only be wholly right or wholly wrong, this distorts how we learn which is more often than not through a process of being partly right and partly wrong.

17. The encounter with the tests is already proving to be distressing. However, even more distressing are the endless hours of mock-testing, or lessons which approximate to the testing, being forced on teachers wanting (quite rightly and understandably) to do well by the children and the school. 

18. The creation of the nonsense words is of itself neither better or worse than all this. In a general broad-based system of teaching to read, nonsense words are a great, fun way happening to show how decoding works. However, the function of nonsense is to encourage the human mind to make leaps into the possible, and the imaginary - not to perform a rigid, compulsory test. A vibrant cultural tradition is being enlisted in order to deprive it of the one thing that makes it so powerful - namely its humour and fun. 

19. By making the tests universal, compulsory and public, the government is putting undue and unfair pressure on teachers, schools, children and families. Of course teachers need to sit down with children and find out what they can and can't do. This can be done in the way it has always been done, with intimate one-on-one conversations and reading using standardised words and passages. These most certainly do not need to be part of some elaborate public accounting scheme. Again, those of us of a certain age, have a strong memory of teachers asking us to read to them, and teachers filling in a register of our scores to keep a check on our progress. This was in the 1940s and 50s and was more than adequate for the job.

20. Many children coming from families with high-level literacy and many books and printed material are mostly in a situation where this phonics test will be not much more than an irritant or a bore. Their reading for meaning is enriched daily by input from home reading materials. This enables them to 'get' the point of reading, to 'get' the written code (it's in their ears). However, those children who are after all the ones who are most subject to the concerns about illiteracy are the very ones who are not being given what I'm calling the 'point of reading' and not being given a chance to hear and 'get' the written code. It's vital that all children, without exception get these opportunities. For many children, school will be the first and only chance for them to do this. We must not on any account jeopardise or endanger this.

(Presented to the National Union of Teachers as part of their considerations re the Phonics Screening Test)