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Facts about the phonics screening check

By Jennifer Buckingham - posted Monday, 28 August 2017

There were also important improvements in Key Stage Tests in Reading in Year 2. The proportion of children who did not achieve the expected standard in Reading fell from 15% to 10% after the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check — in real terms, this means a third fewer children below the expected standard. The achievement gap in Year 2 reading between children eligible for free school meals (low income families) and their peers closed by a similar amount. While it is not possible to conclusively prove a causal connection, the PSC was the major literacy policy change that occurred prior to the improvement in results. Furthermore, children’s performance in the PSC in Year 1 is a very strong predictor of their performance in the reading test in Year 2, which in turn is a strong predictor of their performance in reading tests in Year 6.

Claim 5: Any improvements in performance on the Phonics Screening Check that might be real are attributable to teachers ‘coaching’ students to pass the check.

The Facts: The only way teachers can improve student performance on the Check is to teach phonics well and improve students’ ability to decode. If ‘coaching’ means drilling using sight words, this will be ineffective, as the pseudo-word component specifically prevents this.


Claim 6: ‘Good readers’ are disadvantaged by the pseudo words in the Check because they try to read them as real words.

The Facts: Item analysis of the Phonics Screening Check results has shown pseudo words that look similar to real words are not read incorrectly more often than other pseudo words. In addition, a reading error is a reading error: Children in Year 1 come across many words they do not recognise in the books they read. Many ‘good readers’ have memorised a large bank of words but cannot decode unfamiliar words because their phonics knowledge is poor. They need to know how to decode accurately to read proficiently beyond the simple and predictable texts they are given in the early years of school.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of reason to believe many Australian children have not been taught phonics well and do not know how to use the alphabetic code to read and spell. Numerous studies of teachers have found weak knowledge of the evidence base and the language constructs that underpin effective reading instruction. Initial teacher education degrees in Australian universities are by and large not providing teachers with effective strategies for teaching phonics.

Some schools are teaching phonics well, but the Phonics Screening Check would highlight any deficiencies in phonics instruction around the country and also identify students who need help with this fundamental skill, including the apparent ‘good readers’.

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About the Author

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

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