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Facts about the phonics screening check

By Jennifer Buckingham - posted Monday, 28 August 2017


It’s astonishing that much of what is written in opposition to the Phonics Screening Check is inaccurate, given that information about it is very easy to find.

The UK government publishes a collection of official statistics and makes available a useful amount of data on the results of the Phonics Screening Check each year. Technical reports and evaluations are also easy to find.

Sadly, the Check’s critics seem to not bother to research their subject, leading to the spread of misinformation and impoverishing public debate over its value.

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There are a number of common criticisms of the Phonics Screening Check, all of which have been repeatedly refuted, but which are worth revisiting.

Claim 1: The Phonics Screening Check is advocated by people who claim that phonics instruction is sufficient alone to learn to read.

The Facts: All reading specialists and researchers know that phonics is essential but not sufficient for reading, but there is good reason to believe that phonics is not being taught well and deserves particular attention.

Claim 2: A ‘balanced approach’ to teaching reading is the most effective.

The Facts: A ‘balanced approach’ to teaching reading has no evidence of effectiveness, partly because there is no accepted definition. In practice, a balanced approach tends to mean a mixture of learning lists of words by sight, the ‘multi-cuing’ method of guided reading, and some incidental phonics teaching. Each of these elements of a ‘balanced approach’ has been consistently shown to be less effective than explicit systematic phonics instruction, especially synthetic phonics, within a comprehensive program that includes explicit instruction in vocabulary and comprehension.

Claim 3: Decoding is ‘not synonymous with reading’ and therefore the Phonics Screening Check serves no purpose.

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The Facts: Decoding is the first step to reading. A child can have a well-developed vocabulary, but if they cannot accurately identify the words on the page, they cannot read. There is a vast amount of evidence supporting the ‘Simple View of Reading’ – that children require both decoding and language comprehension skills, and that decoding skills are a strong predictor of later reading ability.

Claim 4: There have been no improvements in reading since the Phonics Screening Check was introduced in England.

The Facts: There have been clear improvements in performance on both the Phonics Screening Check in Year 1 and Key Stage Reading tests in Year 2. The proportion of children who achieved the ‘threshold’ score in the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check has increased each year, from 58% in 2012 to 81% in 2016. Paul Gardner attempts to minimise this improvement, claiming that “students that 'failed' the test in 2012 had to re-take it in 2013 and would have been included in the figures for the higher pass rate.” This is not true. While it is that case that students who do not achieve the threshold score in Year 1 do the Check again in Year 2, their scores are recorded separately and therefore do not contribute to the higher pass rates in Year 1.

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About the Author

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow with The Centre for Independent Studies.

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