Following on from yesterday’s post and some broader observations about the South Australia Phonics Screening Check, I want now to look at the detail of the Check.
I’m not going to go into the issue some people have with pseudo or nonsense words. The rationale for using pseudo words has been explained many times before. You can have a look at my posts about it here and here.
What follows is a very granular (and slightly nerdy!) analysis of the words in the check. It is addressed primarily to teachers working with early years, who need to know exactly what it is they should be teaching, how they should be teaching, the assumptions on which the Check is based, and how fast they should be progressing. I hope they find it useful.
The words in the check
Section1: ‘simple’ pseudo words
lig, mep, gax, emp
frex, criff, haps, barst
beff, shup, doil, charb
Section 1: ‘simple’ real words
chin, deck, horn, queen
tram, press, self, keeps
Section 2: ‘complex’ pseudo words
jigh, woats, rird, phope
glips, floost, splam, stribe
Section 2: ‘complex’ real words
stair, haunt, lied, wove
drank, treats, scram, stroke
‘arrow’, ‘forest’, ‘wishing’, ‘brighter’
All the highlighted words contain sound-spelling correspondences that would have been taught in the first seven months of the first year of schooling in England in schools using a high-quality linguistic phonics program.
The easiest words to read are the consonant vowel consonant (CVC) words made up of one-letter spellings to one sound. These include: ‘lig’ and ‘mep’. ‘Gax’, on the other hand, is a CVCC word because the spelling < x > represents two sounds /k/ and /s/, which makes me wonder whether the people constructing the test were thinking about spellings or sounds.
Nonetheless, none of these words should pose a problem to children who have been taught phonics for more than three or four months. They should have covered all of the following by the end of the first term in Reception:
[Spellings are indicated in chevron brackets; sounds are shown inside forward slashes.]
< a > for /a/, < b > for /b/, < c > for /k/, < d > for /d/, < e > for /e/, < f > for /f/, < g > for /g/, < h > for /h/, < i > for /i/, < j > for /j/, < k > for /k/, < l > for /l/, < m > for /m/, < n > for /n/, < o > for /o/, < p > for /p/, < r > for /r/, < s > for /s/, < t > for /t/, < u > for /u/, < v > for /v/, < w > for /w/, < x > for /k/s/ or /g/z/, < y > /y/, < z > for /z/, plus some consonant two-letters spellings, specifically: < ff > for /f/, < ll > for /l/, < ss > for /s/, and < zz > for /z/ in words with the structure CVC (‘huff’, ‘mill’, ‘kiss’, ‘buzz’), except for < x >, which is taught as a CVCC word.
Children should also be learning that these single-letter spellings are symbols for sounds and that we can spell sounds with one letter and with two letters (conceptual understanding). All of this should be taught in the context of three-sound, CVC words. When they get to < x >, they also learn that it is a single-letter spelling of two sounds.
So far, this would have enabled the children taking the PSC in 2016 to read (and spell) the following words: ‘lig’, ‘mep’, ‘gax’ and ‘beff’.
Let’s say that in instructional terms, using a high-quality linguistic phonics program, over the next three months of Reception, they are taught to segment, blend and manipulate sounds in words of the structure VCC, CVCC, CCVC, CCVCC, using, bear in mind, the sound-spelling correspondences already taught so that there’s no new code knowledge to teach at this point, the focus being exclusively on the skills of segmenting and blending. This being the case, in addition to the first four, they can read and spell all of the following words:
‘emp’ (VCC), ‘haps’ (CVCC), ‘self’ (CVCC), ‘criff’ (CCVC), ‘press’ (CCVC), ‘tram’ (CCVC), ‘frex’ (CCVCC), ‘glips’ (CCVCC), ‘scram’ (CCCVC), and ‘splam’ (CCCVC).
The word ‘drank’ is also a CCVCC word but is complicated slightly by the fact the spelling < n > doesn’t represent the sound /n/; it represents the sound /ng/. Again, like < x >, it’s easy to teach in simple words. but did the architects of the Check spot that?
If we follow this by teaching the sound-spelling correspondences < sh > for /sh/, < ch > for /ch/, < ck > for /k/, the children are able to read another three words: ‘shup’, ‘chin’ and ‘deck’.
So, in my opinion, if children were being given instruction in the kind of very high-quality program I advocate, they would have had little trouble reading and spelling 18 of the 40 words thus far. Not only those 18 but any of the hundreds of words comprised of the sound-spelling correspondences and with the structures (CVC, CVCC, etc.) listed above.
Note that I write ‘reading’ and ‘spelling’. In any high-quality phonics program, children should always be writing: when they build words, they write them and say the sounds as they write; when they read words, they write them and say the sounds as they write
If a parent or carer were to undertake both of the courses I have published online, ‘Help your child to read and write’, which is free, and ‘Help your child to read and write 2’, which is a paid-for course, their child would be able to read and write all 18 of the above words and several hundred more.
What else is there to teach in the Check for the children in South Australia (and in England in 2016) to score the complete 40 out of 40?
The following sound-spelling correspondences cover everything up to the polysyllabic words:
One spelling of /ar/ as in ‘jar’: ‘barst’ (CVCC) and ‘charb’ (CVC).
One spelling of /oi/ as in ‘toy’: ‘doil’ (CVC)
One spelling of /er/ as ‘herd’: rird (CVC) This is surely a bizarre choice if ever there was one! Is there any other simple or complex word with the structure < r > + < ir >?
One spelling of /oo/ as in ‘moon’: ‘floost’ (CCVCC)
One spelling of /air/ as ‘air’: ‘stair’ (CCV)
Two spellings of the sound /ee/ (as in ‘bee’): ‘keeps’ (CVCC), ‘queen’ (CCVC), ‘treats’ (CCVCC)
Two spellings of /or/ as in ‘born’: ‘horn’ (CVC) and ‘haunt’ (CVCC)
Three spellings of the sound /oe/ (as in ‘toe’: ‘phope’ (CVC), ‘stroke’ (CCCVC) ‘woats’ CVCC), and ‘wove’ (CVC)
Three spellings of the sound /ie/ (as in ‘tie’): ‘lied’ (CVC), ‘jigh’ (CV), and ‘stribe’ (CCCVC)
What is obvious from the structure of some of the words above is that if children haven’t yet learned to segment and blend to mastery level words containing adjacent consonants, they will have to remember, for example, the split spelling of /ie/ in ‘scribe’ and to cope with the three adjacent consonants in this word. This is too much to maintain in working memory for many children, hence the reason for teaching the skills of segmenting and blending to mastery level.
The final four words all contain two syllables. They may be split as follows, though some people would choose to split them in different ways.
‘arrow’: a | rrow: /a/ | /r/ /oe/. In ‘arrow’, there’s a new spelling of /oe/ to note.
‘forest’: fo | rest: /f/ /o/ | /r/ /schwa/ /s/ /t/
‘wishing’: wi | shing: /w/ /i/ | /sh /i/ /ng/
‘brighter’: brigh | ter: /b/ /r/ /ie/ | /t/ /schwa/.
The creators of the Check have also made the assumption that, by this time, children know how to read two-syllable words and that they know what schwas (weak vowel sounds) are and how to cope with them. Until a few years ago, people attending our Sounds-Write course hadn’t even heard of the schwa, despite it being the most common vowel sound in English, much less how to deal with it. When spoken normally, ‘forest’ and ‘brighter’ contain schwas. Practice on polysyllabic words should be conducted using words containing sound-spelling correspondences from the Initial/Basic code to begin with. Words such as ‘batman’, ‘sunlit’, ‘chopstick’, ‘desktop’, and so on, provide excellent opportunities for focusing on the skills needed to learn to read and write polysyllabic words. Schwas can then be introduced gradually.
Just to remind readers of the stark figures:
- Just over 20% of Reception children were not able to read correctly a single word on the check
- Reception children were able to read correctly 11 out of 40, an average
- Year 1 children were able to read correctly 22 words out 40, on average
- Only 1 in 6 Year 1 children were able to read between 36 and 40 words out of 40 correctly. That is almost 17%.