Three weeks ago, the government released the threshold mark for the Phonics Screening Check. The check was implemented by the government because it provides a quick and cost effective way of determining whether teachers are teaching phonics effectively. This is because top quality phonics instruction, taught to young children from the moment they enter school, is the surest way to give them access to the written word in all its manifestations.
Whole word/Look and Say approaches to teaching reading are extremely poor by comparison with phonic approaches because they are not generative. With Whole word/Look and Say, every word has to be learned from somebody else. As a corollary of this, a Whole Word ‘approach’, if you can call it that, is enormously time-consuming, each word having to be learned and then practised over and over again, very often without success.
In contrast to whole language, phonics is extraordinarily generative: the moment a pupil has been taught but a dozen sound-spelling correspondences and they’ve been taught to segment and blend, they are able not only to read but also to spell many dozens of words.
And, the check works. See this post from Andrew Old’s ‘Scenes From The Battleground: Teaching In British Schools’, which shows, as Andrew makes clear, that ‘the differences between those who passed first time, those who passed second time and those who didn’t pass are striking’.
Ten years ago, at the end of a three year pilot, we tested fifty pupils from St Thomas Aquinas CPS in Bletchley. You can view the table of results here. What is immediately obvious is that all the pupils in the study, taught using a quality, sound-to-print phonics programme, were not only able to spell to a remarkably high level but that their spelling age bore a conspicuously close relation to their reading and writing SATs results.
Of course, when this study was conducted, there was no Phonics Screening Check. This time round, we are going to try and follow a number of schools who have reported to ustheir Phonics Screening Check results by asking them to use Dennis Young’s Parallel Spelling Test at the end of Y1 and Y2. At the end of KS1, bringing together the results of the PSC, the Parallel Spelling Test and the reading and writing SATs scores should be very interesting and I would fully expect all three to correlate very strongly. For an insight into the shape of things to come, you can see at St George’s CEPS (100% in the PSC in 20115 and 2016) how well the results of the Check correlate with the spelling test here.
However, all of this this doesn’t answer the complaint that the phonics deniers make when they claim that phonics doesn’t impact SATs 2. There is some truth in this but not for the reasons they assert. As I have pointed out before, and as the DfE acknowledge, huge numbers of teachers are not teaching phonics as it should be taught, but are mixing phonics up with a variety of strategies that actually run counter to teaching reading accurately. Principal among these is the maladaptive strategy of encouraging pupils to guess.
Unfortunately, the catchphrase ‘phonics fast and first’ was only partially correct. The ‘first’ bit was right; the ‘fast’ bit wasn’t. This might perhaps sound a bit contradictory coming from someone who is pointing to the kind of results obtained from schools such as St Thomas Aquinas, where 80% of pupils whose average age was still only 7:4 yet were scoring spelling ages of 8:0 and above. The hard truth is what pitifully few people seem to understand: the English orthographic code is complex to the degree that even into Key Stage 2, pupils need plenty of deliberate practice and explicit instruction. To read, never mind, spell words from the government’s recommended list, such as ‘mischievous’, ‘pronunciation’, ‘rhythm’ and ‘sufficient’, phonics is key. Children hot-housed for a few months in a desperate attempt to get them through the Screening Check never to do any phonics again are going to fall back on whole word memorisation and guessing to the detriment of their education and the chronic, long tail of underachievement will go on.
If we want our children to be literate enough to read for pleasure – something that can’t be done unless decoding skills are automatic – and to enable them to read words from the domains of science, mathematics, history, geography, and so on, we must be prepared to train our teachers to teach the most important thing pupils will ever learn: the ability to read and write proficiently. It has been done and it can be done. Parents and teachers themselves should demand nothing less.