In case you don’t know, the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) is a test given to 5-6 year olds at the end of Year 1 in order to establish whether pupils are able to phonically decode to an appropriate standard. The purpose is twofold: firstly it’s a policy lever designed to ensure schools are teaching Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) effectively, and second to identify those children with specific learning difficulties who need extra help to improve their decoding skills. It should not be mistaken for a test of children’s reading ability.

The check consists of 20 real words and, controversially, 20 pseudo-words that children read aloud to a teacher. You can have a look at some test materials here.  One criticism of the PSC is that it holds back otherwise able readers who stumble over the pseudo words because they substitute a similar sounding word which they know. For instance, in 2015 ‘strom’ was incorrectly decoded as ‘storm’ by lots of children considered able readers. But pseudo words serve an important function in preventing the check being biased against children with poorer vocabulary. The point is to check whether all children can decode unfamiliar words, not to see if they have remembered familiar ones.

The government decided to set the pass mark for the check at 32/40. My contention is that this ought to be possible for all children in mainstream education. Of course, there will always be host of imponderables which prevent this from being the case. There will, no doubt, always be children who for a whole variety of perfectly good reasons under perform on the day. There will also be many different groups of children who are harder to teach. Let’s agree all that. But still – even with the certain knowledge that some children won’t – we ought to expect all children to be able to pass this check. This is certainly the case at St George’s Church of England Primary School, Wandsworth.

I should point out that the PSC is quite different to assessments at KS2 which are discriminatory and intended to show the differences between children. It’s unfortunate that the DfE chose to use the phase ‘expected progress’ – as if there were such a thing – but the point remains that while 100% can pass the PSC, the KS2 assessments are designed to produce a normal distribution of abilities and not all children are statistically able to ‘pass’.

Why is this important? Because decoding is not correlated with intelligence. As I’ve argued before, reading difficulty is a teaching problem not an intelligence problem. Representing the sounds we make (phonemes) with symbols (graphemes) is not something our brains are naturally wired to do. It requires some kind of instruction. English is a particularly complex alphabetic code with 44 phonemes represented by over 170 graphemes. Despite this, many children – probably a majority – learn this with relative ease and go on to be fluent, accurate decoders. Reading instruction is akin to driving instruction: we accept that pretty much everybody can learn to drive and while there will be a normal distribution of ability, everyone passes their driving test in the end. So it should be with reading.

But still, a sizeable minority struggle to learn to decode and so efforts have been made to determine the most effective way to teach the skill of decoding and the consensus is (although there are plenty who strive mightily to ignore or disprove this) teaching using SSP is the best way to ensure the majority learn to read as efficiently as possible. That’s not to say SSP is the only way to learn to read; there are other, less efficient instruction programmes out there which depend on so-called ‘mixed methods’. These work with many, perhaps even most students, but consign the minority to failure.

Here’s the difficult bit. Accepting all the caveats above, if most children in a school are unable to decode at least 32 out of 40 words on the PCS, what does this tell us?If we accept that learning the connections between graphemes and phonemes is not dependent on intelligence, then why might some children struggle to decode? Is it the students’ fault or the teachers? My argument is that if significant numbers of children are failing (say, 5-10% in a cohort) that is an indication that teaching might be ineffective.

That’s not intended as an insult, or as a statement of fact; it’s a recognition that maybe something needs fixing and that maybe we should have a good look to make sure. The point of the PSC is not only to reveal those children who, for perfectly good, understandable reasons need extra intervention, but also to help us spot and rectify teaching deficits.

Now, I accept that in a high stakes accountability system, schools will sometimes feel under pressure to do silly things and unfairly pass on anxiety to children. I also accept that chronological age is perhaps the most important data set to cross-reference against the PSC. Clearly a child born in September has had an extra year’s cognitive development over a child born in August. These two graphs make interesting reading:

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The one on the left shows an unnatural leap at the pass mark which suggests some teachers might have been gaming results before, in 2014, the DfE refused to announce the pass mark before the test. The graph on the right shows the effect of birth month on the likelihood that children don’t pass the check. Clearly, there’s more at work than just teaching and any analysis of the data needs to keep this in mind. But still, when considering the acquisition of a biologically secondary skill, effective teaching must play a part and schools whose children consistently underperform should expect to have the practices scrutinised.

Of course, the alternative is to suggest that being able to decode is too high an expectation for some students and that we can only do our best.

A final point: none of this should suggest that phonics and the effective teaching of decoding is all that’s important. Decoding is just one aspect of reading. Unlike word recognition skills, language comprehension is highly correlated with intelligence as well as breadth and depth of vocabulary and general knowledge. If anything, phonics is the easy bit: a necessary but insufficient step towards skilled reading. Fluent and accurate decoding is crucial for understanding. Once phoneme/grapheme relationships have been safely stored in long-term memory, children’s fragile working memories are left free to infer, hypothesise, anticipate and – inshallah – enjoy reading.

Figure 1 source: