Synthetic Phonics and the screening check

Test rolling out this year         


Despite the best efforts of teachers and parents, last year 15% of  pupils did not reach the expected level in reading at the end of Key  Stage 1. At the end of Key Stage 2, 16% of pupils were below level 4 in reading, and 8% of pupils were below level . The Government says that the evidence shows that systematic teaching of synthetic phonics is the best way to drive up standards in reading.  Nick Gibb, the schools minister, has been a long time advocate of synthetic phonics.

The Rose Review (2006) concluded that: High quality systematic phonics offers the best and most direct route to becoming skilled  readers;  Phonic work is also ‘essential’ for the development of writing, especially spelling. The so called Clackmannanshire research project(2005) aimed to compare the effectiveness of synthetic phonics with  analytic phonics in teaching reading and spelling in around 300 children of Primary age in  Scotland. The much cited research concluded that children who were taught with a synthetic phonics  programme made more progress in reading and spelling than children in the other groups.

Nick Gibbs view is ‘Phonics is the most effective way for children to read words, and parents and the public should  have confidence that children have grasped this crucial skill. Phonics is a prerequisite for  children to become effective readers, but it is not an end in itself. Children should always be taught phonics as part of a language rich curriculum, so that they develop their wider reading  skills at the same time.’

The Government  has developed  a  phonics screening check. It has  been designed to confirm that children are able to decode using phonics to an appropriate  standard by the end of Year 1, and to identify those pupils who need additional support. The  check aims to provide parents and teachers with the reassurance they need that each child has  learnt the basic code of the language. Pupils taking the test must read aloud a list of 20 words and 20 “non-words” to a teacher. The “non-words” ensure that children are decoding and not repeating words they have learnt already


The test is due to be rolled out nationally this year (2012) – the cost of the policy has not been released although the trial is costing £250,000. The screening check  was piloted in a representative sample of approximately 300  schools in  June 2011.

It is expected to take about five to ten minutes per pupil and the results for each pupil will be given to parents. The school’s results will be recorded on RaiseOnline and available to Ofsted for use in inspections but will not be published in performance tables. National and local authority results will be reported.

Guidance on the tests says that the policy is aimed at encouraging schools to pursue a rigorous phonics programme but that this does not mean schools should delay teaching pupils wider literacy and comprehension skills.

The DfE is issuing three pieces of guidance for schools in relation to administering the year 1 phonics screening check. The first is the assessment and reporting arrangements (ARA) which explains the statutory requirements for administering the check in 2012. The second is a check administration guide and the third is a video version of this guide. These guides are more bespoke to the nature of the check and they refer to the responsibility of schools to ensure provision is made to meet the needs of all children with special educational needs. One of the reasons for producing a video version the DFE says is that this medium can most clearly provide advice to teachers administering the check to pupils with speech, language and communication needs.

The Year 1 phonics screening check is ‘ designed to identify children who need help with decoding using phonics at an early stage in their schooling. The Government want as many children as possible to access the assessment, including those with special educational needs.’

The Standards and Testing Agency is currently analysing all of the data from the pilot and will provide a technical evaluation of the Year 1 phonics screening check, including information relating to Ofqual’s common assessment criteria of validity, reliability, minimising bias, comparability and manageability. The technical report will include a dedicated section on the experience of children with special educational needs, including those with speech, language and communication needs. The Department intends the report to be published in spring 2012.

The screening test though has been controversial. The Guardian reported that ‘ For Greg Brooks, emeritus professor of education at the University of Sheffield, and an advocate of phonics whose research is cited by the government, the test is an “abomination”, partly because it would occur too late in year 1 for teachers to identify pupils who need help as problems develop. Much better, he said, would be to get teachers to identify the minority of pupils needing help by the middle of year 1, and direct resources to these children. He says: “This is a huge sledgehammer approach: what’s the point of testing 600,000 six-year-olds in order to identify the 100,000 pupils or fewer who need help, when these pupils should be obvious to their classroom teachers much earlier anyway?”

Brooks says the technical work needed to develop and standardise the test makes it potentially expensive, the UKLA describing it as “enormously costly [and] exceptionally hard to justify in a period of financial restrictions”.

Johnston, R.S. and Watson, J.E. (2005) The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading  and Spelling Attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. The Scottish Executive.



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