Why phonics tests spell trouble

Ministers insist the Government's new compulsory assessment can help schools spot slow readers. Teachers argue the brightest pupils fail it. Here, Jennifer Jackson gives a parent's perspective.

Jennifer Jackson
Wednesday 28 November 2012 20:30 GMT
Word games: experts say phonics tests can create problems for children and hold them back
Word games: experts say phonics tests can create problems for children and hold them back

Parents are up in arms about the state of reading and writing in primary schools. Not only, they claim, are teachers preparing children as young as five and six for a new test, they are actively discouraging children from spelling correctly and from working at their own individual pace.

But woe betide a parent who voices concern about the situation. Parents say they are keeping silent because of an underlying fear of retaliation should they dare utter a word. Meanwhile, literacy experts are supporting the concerns raised about the compulsory phonics screening test that takes place in year one.

During the test, children are asked to sound out a mixture of real and made-up words such as "drall", "halp", "snope", "thun" and "flarp", which can be confusing. Many children expect that what they read will make sense, so giving them alien words out of context removes the purpose of reading, which is to understand words on a page.

For example, some children asked to sound out a nonsense word such as "strat" will attempt to make sense of the word and answer with the word "start". However, this learning strategy is not recognised in the phonics test. In some cases, children have been told by their teacher that aliens might use these nonsense words when they come to our planet.

The literacy expert Professor Joan Freeman comments: "It is beyond belief. Any psychologist would say this is crazy. Children should be taught to interpret meaning. Every word is connected to a meaning. Those who designed this test have no idea about what one does with a collection of letters on a page."

She adds: "This isn't the way to help children understand words in context. I'm more than horrified with the phonics screening test."

Phonics is all about the sound a letter or group of letters make, rather than recognising whole words. Children who can already read and write a fair number of words are being encouraged to go back to the basics, rather than being allowed to move forward from the stage they have reached, which can be disheartening for them.

More divisively, children who can spell words correctly are being told that they must change the spelling to read phonetically, which can produce a word that looks like gobbledegook or a variation on a text message written in shorthand.

For example, one child came home and wrote the following: "Wot doo u wont pleez" and "heer iz wun apool". He said the teacher told him he must spell words using phonics and that he's not allowed to spell words any other way, unless she tells him he can in class.

He felt confused. He asked his mother why his teacher wants him to write "wot" instead of "what" and why he is not allowed to spell words correctly. On another occasion, the child came home and said he had written the word "come" in a sentence and that his teacher had told him to change it. He said his teacher asked him to rewrite the word by sounding it out first. He said he wrote "cum" and the teacher told him that was correct.

Teachers are also pressurising the more able children in the class to go backwards, criticising them when they write words correctly and giving them little individual attention in an effort to bring them down to the level they want the class to work at, said one mother.

Correct spelling is not the aim of this game. The goal is to gain flying colours in the new phonics test, which requires each child in year one to read 40 words, half of which are made-up gobbledegook. One parent said: "This approach not only punishes the more able children, it demoralises them, and can create problems for children at every level. They are teaching children to pass the test, not to read and write correctly."

David Reedy, president of the UK Literacy Association, agrees. "We may be holding back some of our most able pupils, who are well past cracking the alphabet code, and giving the wrong message to others.

Making children practise nonsense words and taking them back to an earlier stage in their development can undermine them."

Parents believe that the phonics test is part of a more general attempt to squeeze all children into a shoe that is made for one size only.

If the shoe doesn't fit, then the child risks going backwards, as attempts are made to bring children down or up to a level that is deemed right for all.

Children have varied abilities. They are not all the same. The phonics test, and this approach in a wider sense, does not take this into account. Apart from the risk of setting back the development of children, the love of the English language, both reading and writing, has been placed on shaky terrain.

The phonics test is compulsory for all pupils in year one, who attend a maintained school, a free school or an academy. Private schools can introduce the test on a voluntary basis and some have done so. The test itself involves reading, but its strictly phonics-only approach has spilt over into writing, which appears to help teachers reinforce teaching to the test.

Phonics is only one of a range of strategies that can be used to understand words on a page. Furthermore, the English language is notorious for being irregular, which means that focusing on phonics gives out the wrong message. Not all words can be decoded, such as "one" and "was". In phonic speak, the former would read "wun" and the latter "woz".

In the past, children were taught to read by sight. Schools have now switched to the other extreme of the spectrum, whereby phonics has become the only accepted way to teach reading and writing. There is little flexibility in that. The individual has been removed from the equation. Most children tend to use a variety of methods to read. It is the degree to which each method is used by a child, that differs. Stifle the natural way a child learns and their inspiration may take a knock.

Does this country really want to stifle a generation who will become part of an increasingly competitive world? Professor Freedman and Mr Reedy both stress that reading should be done in context, as the interpretation of meaning is the whole purpose behind it. However, the phonics screening test asks children to sound out words in isolation, half of which are nonsense words, which is the opposite of what they advocate.

Reading also plays a big part in learning to write. What would you say to the teacher who declares that there is a ceiling to what reading stage they permit a child to go up to in reception, year one or year two, for example? If the child reaches that ceiling, they are forced to stay on the same books for months on end, which can be demoralising. Why should a child who is simply good at reading be penalised?

One child was told that he was only permitted to read on certain days.

Mr Reedy says: "What sort of madness is this? I am aghast. Reading is supposed to be pleasure. You shouldn't be told to read on certain days only."

Parents who question the teacher's gospel, do so at their own and their child's risk. Teachers have children in their class under their control for a significant part of each working day and they don't tend to look kindly on parents who do anything other than offer words of praise.

In another case, a teacher was horrified that a four-year-old child was not only able to write, but able to do so using joined-up writing. The teacher criticised the child and tried to change his writing, as she said the child was not allowed to do joined-up writing.

The child felt confused and told his mother. His mother asked the teacher what was going on. The teacher said that the children don't start joined up writing until the end of year one and are not allowed to do it before this. She added: "I'm going to stop doing any writing with him, so that he forgets how to write."

The idea that a child can be talented has morphed into the word "gifted", which some use in a derogatory manner. Rather than celebrate individuals with talent, who are after all our future, and take on board that children develop in different ways and at different ages, some teachers appear to punish the talented.

Parents want their children to be given the chance to move forward at their own pace whatever level they are, with no hurdles placed in their way. If a child is permitted to work to his or her potential, exceptional developments can take place, which can only assist our nation in the future.

Jennifer Jackson is a pseudonym

Phonics the test

The Government's controversial new phonics test was taken by 600,000 six-year-olds for the first time last summer.

Children were given 40 words – 20 real and 20 made-up – to test their spelling and see whether they had mastered the art of phonics.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, believes that the test helps schools to identify readers who are lagging behind in class, but teachers' leaders say the brightest children are failing the test because they are trying to turn the made-up words into real words by spelling "strom" as "storm", for instance.

In all, 58 per cent of six-year-olds reached the pass mark of 32 – compared with around 80 per cent of youngsters who reach the required reading assessments at the age of seven.

Richard Garner

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