The phonics check: what does it prove?

drawing on research by Professor Margaret Clark

The ‘phonics check’ is one of the most insane tests ever invented. It is not a real test of children’s reading, but designed to monitor whether teachers are teaching reading in the government-approved way. That is why half the words aren’t words at all.

nonsense words CHTXjnzWUAAHebP

It’s a bit like doing your driving test in a car park with the engine switched off, based on accuracy in changing the gears and working the indicators.

  • It only includes regular words – and of course ‘non-words’.
  • It excludes some of the most essential words in English such as ‘the’, ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘there’ – words that appear in almost every sentence.
  • Words are taken completely out of context.
  • It isn’t a test of understanding, just reading aloud.

Failing a test because you’re too young? 

Professor Margaret Clark has been investigating the ‘phonics check’ since it began. (For details, see part IV of her updated book ‘Learning to be literate‘)

Clark 2016 9781138186958

Through a Freedom of Information request, she obtained pass rates for each birth month. It turns out that August-born children are twice as likely to fail as September-born. In fact, a third of children born in August are being failed, when they are simply not old enough.

It is scandalous that parents of 5-year-olds are being told their child has failed!

In most countries such young children would be at kindergarten, not school. They certainly aren’t being subjected to tests which require them to read without any visual clues, and without being able to make sense of words in sentences.

The pass rate worsens gradually by month of birth, from the oldest to the youngest. Overall, the data suggests that a third of the children who fail would have passed if they had been born in September.

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Nonsense words

Professor Clark questions why the test begins with nonsense words, which many children find offputting. Indeed, fluent readers are likely to mistake them for similar-looking real words, just as adults overlook misprints. Some children just give up because the first ten words don’t make any sense.

It is absurd that teachers are now spending time teaching children to read nonsense words.

Teachers know the pass mark is 32 out of 40. There is a surge in the marks at 32, suggesting that many desperate teachers are helping children past the post.

See our other posts on the lack of evidence behind this Government’s insistence on the ‘synthetic phonics’ method. 

Phonics: myths and evidence

The Scottish phonics miracle: myths and evidence

The Rose Report on phonics: playing fast and loose with ‘the evidence’

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