Leading literacy experts will today urge the Government to abandon plans for a compulsory national reading test for all six-year-olds next summer.
Ministers argue the assessment, which will see pupils reading real and made-up words to test their phonics skills, will help identify slow readers. However, the experts say a pilot of the test ended up baffling the brightest youngsters and warn it could even end up lowering reading standards.
In a letter to the Education Secretary Michael Gove, they and teachers' leaders – who include Professor Robin Alexander, the Cambridge don who three years ago headed the most thorough investigation into primary schooling in the past 40 years – say the Government has misinterpreted the findings of a pilot of the test.
The Schools minister Nick Gibb argued that "the check will be of real benefit to pupils but takes just a few minutes to carry out and is a positive experience for most children".
However, the letter says 72 per cent of schools found difficulties with the use of "pseudo words", which led to some of their most able readers becoming confused. The trial assessment included 20 real words and 20 made-up ones.
The signatories say the findings confirm their worries that the test "could actually harm standards in the longer term with able readers mistakenly identified as needing further teaching of phonics and being held back as a result".
They also take issue with Mr Gibbs' claim that the evaluation takes "just a few minutes". They say the average time teachers devoted to it in the pilot was 15.5 hours. They urge ministers to reconsider the introduction of the test. "The signatories of this letter would welcome an opportunity to discuss how teacher assessment of reading would identify and help young readers who are slow to start," they add.
It is signed by Professor Alexander; David Reedy, chairman of the UK Literacy Association; and John Hickman, chairman of the National Association of Advisers for English. Fellow signatories include several teachers' leaders.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education accused the authors of the letter of misreading "much of the evidence" from the pilot tests.
She added: "Only last month we learned that one in 10 boys can read no better than a seven-year-old at the end of Key Stage 2 (11-year-olds). We cannot let this continue."
Sound out: The test
The test consists of 40 words – 20 made up and 20 real – that children have to read out aloud.
Some examples of what they have been assessed on include: blow, cat, cow, glimp, mip, koob and zort.
A pilot assessment carried out this summer revealed that bright youngsters were flummoxed by the unreal words because they suspected something was wrong.
However, they were then identified as being in need of remedial help with their reading.
The Government argues that the test will strengthen phonics teaching in schools, which research has shown is the best way of teaching young pupils to read.