Daily Telegraph · Debbie Hepplewhite · Graeme Paton

Debbie Hepplewhite confounds screening check critics

By kind permission of Debbie Hepplewhite, I am posting, in its entirety, her response on the Reading Reform Foundation to an article by Graeme Paton in yesterday’s Telegraph newspaper.

Debbie’s post provides an excellent risposte to many of the issues raised in Paton’s piece, titled “Compulsory reading test ‘should be scrapped’” and straplined ‘Bright children are being “failed” by the Coalition’s controversial new reading test for six-year-olds, literacy experts warned today’.

By Graeme Paton, Education Editor
6:07PM GMT 15 Nov 2012
Pupils with fluent skills are being confused by the assessment that forces children to decode “nonsense” words using phonics, it was claimed.

If the pupils had ‘fluent skills’, they would not have been confused by the ‘nonsense words’. Many words learners need to read in literature are not in their spoken vocabularies so they are the equivalent of ‘nonsense words’ until such time as they are taught, or can deduce, what the new words mean. 
The UK Literacy Association warned that the test – compulsory in all English state schools – may label some good readers as failures and knock children’s confidence.

No-one is saying the good readers are ‘failures’ and their confidence should not be knocked unless the adults in charge are incompetent in their capacity to conduct a short one-to-one word-reading activity with their pupils.

Children who are ‘good readers’ should have been able to read the nonsense words with no difficulty in the same way that they should be able to read new words within literature if they know the alphabetic code of the words. 

In a damning report, it was suggested that the checks were “costly, time-consuming and unnecessary”.

We have a significant and historic record of weak literacy and illiteracy in English-speaking countries. Without large-scale standardised testing, we may never have been alerted to the effect of different approaches to teaching reading. It is essential that we know the effects of our reading instruction approaches in schools – literacy is life-chance stuff.

It is high-time that the union leaders and other professional bodies in the teaching profession distinguished between the fit-for-purposeness of quick, simple snapshot national testing which is objective (same test, same conditions etc) and teacher assessment. There is a need for both types of testing – and, clearly, the outcry about snapshot ‘objective’ testing indicates that the teaching profession does not share a common understanding of reading instruction in our schools – or the need for understanding the picture of teaching effectiveness of our teaching methods.

It is ‘damning’ that various professional bodies such as the unions and UKLA are making such a fuss about the screening check when it need not be a big deal to conduct it if teachers really understood its importance and conducted it professionally. 

The Department for Education has defended the test, which was introduced for the first time this year, insisting that it enabled teachers to identify pupils lagging behind in reading after at least a year of school.

The reality is that many teachers have been surprised by the results of the screening check – which shows that it has contributed to teachers’ understanding of their pupils capability for reading nonsense words. Sadly, however, the comments of many teachers, and others, have demonstrated that teachers do not understand that children who they describe as being ‘good readers’ should be able to read simple nonsense words as readily as they can read their reading books.

The results of the screening check have also given teachers an indication of the effectiveness of their phonics teaching compared to national figures and the picture in other schools. Teachers need to know this information as part of their continuing professional development. This is essential understanding.

It is feared that any failure to improve reading skills at a young age can have hugely damaging effects on pupils throughout primary and secondary education.

This is a valid statement. Even ‘good readers’ may hit their own personal ceiling as they progress through school if they are not able to decode new words as the level of vocabulary in books becomes increasingly more challening. Teachers of young children may be oblivious to this development over time. Our secondary colleagues report to us that too many pupils cannot access the texts in secondary schools.

In the past few days, two teachers in different settings have commented to me, for example that they have children who are apparently ‘good readers’ (‘free readers’ they said) who stick to the ‘safe books’ that they have already read and are reluctant to progress on to more challenging books. 

But David Reedy, UKLA general secretary, called for the tests to be made voluntary.

“This shouldn’t be a compulsory test and we strongly recommend that the Government re-thinks this,” he said.

“We know phonics is important, but for some children it is holding them back. It should be part and parcel of what teachers have to hand and they should be able to use it when they think it’s necessary.”

Phonics isn’t just ‘important’, it’s ‘essential’. There are worrying numbers of people, however, who think phonics is an either/or skill – that some children don’t need it because they have different learning styles or can use a range of reading strategies. In reality, phonics for reading and spelling is adult-stuff and it is a very rare adult who does not use phonics application in some form to read and spell new and more challenging words routinely. Many adults simply don’t realise this because they do it so automatically. When this is drawn to their attention, it opens their eyes to the reality and they begin to understand that phonics is, indeed, really important to us all – young and old alike. Phonics teaching and learning is certainly not ‘holding’ children ‘back’ – on the contrary it is empowering them to read and write.
The check is taken by around 600,000 pupils at the end of their first year of formal schooling. Pupils are supposed to use phonics – a system which breaks words down into a series of sounds – to decode a list of 40 words.

The list includes made-up words such as “voo”, “terg”, “bim”, “thazz” and “spron” to ensure pupils are properly using the phonics system.

A study conducted by the UKLA analysed teachers’ opinions of the test at 494 primary schools in England.

Many schools said the results of the check, which is used as an indicator of a child’s reading skills, “did not reflect children’s reading abilities as there is much more to reading than decoding”.

I suggest that a body such as the UKLA having conducted a survey of teachers’ ‘opinions’ should be very concerned if teachers believe that the screening check results had no contribution to make to our ‘understanding’ of the processes of reading. If teachers were familiar with the Simple View of Reading model, they would not need to protest along the lines of ‘there is much more to reading than decoding’ because absolutey no-one is saying any different from this!
Only around one in six of those questioned said that all of their pupils who were fluent readers achieved the required level to pass the phonics check, the study found.

Then doesn’t this suggest that those children described as ‘fluent readers’ are not nearly so fluent as their teachers might like to think.
Almost three-quarters said that one or more of their good readers failed to meet the expected standard to pass.

Which might indicate that the children concerned were relying heavily on context to access their reading material and their ‘reading reflex’ was not erring towards seeing words clearly and decoding them accurately. This might bode ill for their long-term reading reflex as the vocabulary in the books becomes increasingly challenging.
UKLA’s study found that teachers felt there were “far too many nonsense words”.

“These confused more fluent readers, who had been taught to read for meaning, and therefore tried hard to make sense of the ‘alien words’ they read,” it said.

Children should not be taught to ‘read for meaning’ at the expense of reading words accurately in or out of the context of sentences. Not only that, the children were actually told that the words were nonsense words – so there should have been no confusion whatsoever when children came to decode the words – they even had the ‘aliens’ alongside the words to further distinguish them from the list of real words.
The study warned that the check focuses on decoding words without their meanings, which “goes against everything the children have been taught”.

The check should not have gone ‘against everything the children have been taught’ because the children should have been taught to scan printed words to recognise any letter groups within them (scanning from left to right) and then to sound out and blend the words. By the end of Year One, children should have had the regular experience of decoding thousands of words as words and within sentences.

One teacher told researchers: “The test took longer for some able readers who read for meaning. I felt that words very close to real words were unfair – e.g. ‘strom’.”

And another said: “Almost all children, regardless of ability said ‘storm”‘.

Certainly the word ‘strom’ is the most quoted word as having caused confusion or errors, but it is only one word out of 20 nonsense words and should not have affected the overall result of the check. We need all children to be able to attend to words carefully and clearly – not take a quick stab at coming up with a pronunciation. 

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The phonics check is based on an internationally proven method to improve children’s reading.

“Too many children are not reaching the expected levels of reading whilst at a young age, do not catch up, and then struggle in secondary school and beyond.

“The pilot last year found that the test only takes a few minutes to complete, and that many children enjoyed it.

There are teachers who have described that their pupils enjoyed undertaking the screening check – even asking if they could do something similar the following day. There are also teachers who tried it out on their Reception children with great resuts – and there are teachers who cannot wait until the screening check next year to see if they have taught even more effectively than this year. I know which profile of teacher I would prefer to teach my grandchildren!

“Ensuring all children master the ability to decode and sound out new words is essential if they are to become confident readers. The phonics check will ensure that no child slips through the net still struggling with this basic skill.”

The advent of the screening check is already sharpening teachers’ minds for the need to become effective phonics teachers – and alerting them to the reality of whether they are effective teachers compared to others or not. Where children are not able to decode words through application of phonics knowledge and blending, they are seriously disadvantaged and teachers do a disservice to children if they do not teach them the alphabetic code and blending skills well.

Teachers, parents, people in professional associations should be concerned that there is so much protestation against the government’s efforts to discover the outcomes of reading instruction in our schools when so many people’s life-chances are seriously ruined by weak literacy or illiteracy.

This is very serious stuff indeed