Why should we support the introduction of the UK Phonics Check? Print

What is the UK Phonics Check?

The UK Phonics Check is administered nationally within the United Kingdom to all students towards the end of year 1. The 7 minute screen involves presenting 40 words for students to read. These words are a mix of real and nonsense (or pseudo-words) which assess a student’s ability to sound out and blend phonemes to read words. The UK Phonics check provides teachers with information about students phonic decoding ability and assists teachers to identify gaps in students decoding ability and phonic knowledge which may require further teaching. Early detection of students who are not learning to sound out words well, prevents these students falling too far behind. The design of the test focuses on decoding ability and will identify those students who give a false impression they are learning to read when they are mostly guessing words from pictures and context.

Within a relatively short time of it’s implementation, the screen has had a significant impact on the teaching occurring within the UK classroom and literacy levels within the country as a whole. Not only have reading skills improved, but the gap between low socioeconomic status students and their peers has begun to close. The proportion of students achieving the expected standard on the screen has increased each year from 58% in 2012 to 77% in 2015. Evaluations of the implementation of the screen have identified that most schools have made changes to the teaching practices to improve phonics instruction and incorporate more frequent, systematic phonics instruction with better monitoring and assessment of student progress. For more information see HERE.

Why should we support it’s introduction?

The use of the test in England has led to a greater emphasis on the teaching of phonics using a systematic and explicit approach. This same structured synthetic phonics approach to literacy instruction was recommended by the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in Australia.

Research has shown such an approach to be the most effective in early literacy intervention and has established that students must learn to sound out words accurately and quickly if they are to become proficient readers. PLD’s structured synthetics phonics approach to literacy is built on this foundation of research.

Early identification and support improves literacy skills

Across the school systems in Australia, there is an awareness that early identification of students who are experiencing difficulties is vital. Students who struggle in the early years struggle to catch-up and therefore difficulties in the acquisition of literacy skills needs to be identified and supported much earlier.

Assessments such as the UK Phonics Check assist in identifying students who require help and also assist with the appropriate allocation of funding and resources where gaps are identified. For this reason PLD supports the introduction of the UK Phonics Check within Australia as a tool for early detection of phonic knowledge (sound-letter knowledge), and as part of a structured synthetic phonics approach to teaching literacy. As Dr Lorraine Hammond, LDA president, reminds us, “if you don’t properly measure something, you can’t properly manage it.

Providing teachers with usable information about students phonic knowledge

The UK Phonics Check provides for teachers information about a student’s ability to blend phonemes to read words and which phonemes they may have difficulties with requiring further teaching. The use of non-words or pseudo-words is important as it allows the screen to focus on the assessment of phonic knowledge (letter-sound knowledge) and the strategy of decoding in an objective way.

Misconceptions about the UK Phonics Check

There has been significant debate about the introduction of the UK Phonics Check within Australia and much of this is based on some common misconceptions. Criticisms have included that the UK Phonics Check includes nonsense words, doesn’t focus on comprehension, and is perceived as an unnecessary test.

Although phonics is recognised and may be taught within many Australian schools, literacy levels are still below where they should be. This suggests that Australia’s approach to teaching phonics is not yet a consistent, synthetic phonics approach. Teachers do already assess students, however there is no universal tool and no central data collection that specifically looks at phonics, which is an important precursor skill to reading ability.

Why should we support the introduction of the UK Phonics Check?

Questioning the inclusion of nonsense words

There has been some criticism about the inclusion of nonsense words, however this is key in allowing the screen to focus objectively on the assessment of phonics (sound-letter knowledge) without the advantages of previous exposure to words impacting results. Some students can give a false impression they are learning to read when in fact they are mostly guessing words from pictures and context. Using nonsense words allows the screen to focus on phonic decoding without the aid of pictures and context to impact results.

Comprehension is not factored in

Other criticism raises concerns that comprehension is not factored into the assessment. There are other testing tools which focus on reading comprehension, however the need for a tool to specifically address phonics, and a deficit in the assessment of phonic skills within reading assessment has been identified, and this screen meets that specific need.

Do we really need more testing?

Finally there has been some concerns regarding the need for testing at all, and suggestions that testing does not improve performance. However there is a need for a scientific way to monitor progress and identify areas of strength and weakness. The results in the UK would suggest that the implementation of this screen at a system level has contributed to significant improvements in reading ability.

What were the outcomes of the 2017 trial of the UK Phonics Check in SA?

In South Australia, all Year 1 Education Department classes complete the UK Phonics Check. The state level adoption comes as a result of a 2017 trial which produced interesting results. The feedback from the teachers, school leaders and students was positive. Teachers reported that all students (even the struggling readers) responded positively to the short reading task and schools were positive about the useful and practical information the screen provided and the ease of administration. However, the screen highlighted that after 18 months of schooling (i.e. Reception and Year 1) many of the students had poor decoding skills. Read more about this HERE.

The following links will enable you to view the full version of the last 3 years of the screen.

2016: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-screening-check-2016-materials

2017: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-screening-check-2017-materials

2018: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-screening-check-2018-materials

The interpretation of the results is quite straightforward. After 18 months of schooling (i.e. the Foundation school year plus half a year in Year 1) students should be able to decode a minimum of 32 words contained within the screen.

Where do we go from here?

PLD supports the national roll out of the UK Phonic Check which is likely within the next 2-3 years. In preparation, or purely as a useful exercise, it is recommended that in Term 3 all Year 1 teachers present the screen to Year 1 students as an indication of how well the school is operating in the initial years of phonic and reading instruction. If students read 32 words correct, then an adequate job is being done with teaching and learning. If large numbers of students score under this level, we recommend that you contact the PLD office and lodge a general enquiry.

Further reading:

Federal phonics check for Year 1 kids to sidestep states (The Australian, 2019)