What is the Phonics Screening Check for?

//What is the Phonics Screening Check for?

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 22.22.02

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.

2016-07-18T13:59:35+00:00July 17th, 2016|reading|


  1. Summerdayyz July 17, 2016 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Hi Dave, I managed 87% this year. The reason why some children fail is sadly at the age of 5 & 6 parents don’t do anything with their children. Despite my best efforts they are already behind – the problem with the test is they also have to blend, which they find difficult. In addition, their vocabulary is very weak which means they can’t distinguish between a real word and a pseudo word. Since you think it maybe the teachers fault. What do you suggest? Also these children have behaviour issues and are not summer born.

    • David Didau July 18, 2016 at 8:03 am - Reply

      I’m sceptical of the blame parents approach to explaining why some children fail the check. It’s designed as as not to advantage children who may have had early reading experiences and just tests that which ought to have been taught to all children by the end of year 1. As I explained in the post, vocabulary knowledge is also an irrelevance for this test – as they’re not being asked to distinguish between real words and pseudo words they won’t be penalised for any inability to do so.

      I very carefully avoided using the word ‘fault’ or blaming teachers. The likely culprit is ineffective instruction not poor teachers. This can hopefully be remedied with training.

      You’re correct to point out bad behaviour as a massive hindrance to effective instruction and I would advise sorting this out from the beginning of school by establishing very clear routines and certainty (rather than severity) of consequences.

      Best of luck.

  2. Debbie Hepplewhite (@debbiehepp) July 17, 2016 at 11:43 pm - Reply

    Reposted via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction:


    Thanks for this post, David.

    Sadly, as you can see yourself from the Twitter discussions, far too many people in the teaching profession don’t understand the value of the phonics check for continuing professional development.

    They simply see it as yet another official assessment to put teachers and children under pressure – and it is very worrying that so many really don’t understand the full picture of research findings and the danger of multi-cueing.

    The teaching union leaders, and leading figures in organisations such as the United Kingdom Literacy Association, and children’s authors and illustrators (led by Michael Rosen who is vociferously against the check – or anything else coming from government auspices for that matter) are all against the check – but many of their arguments simply don’t hold water when it comes to both research findings and best classroom practice (as you illustrate with your reference to St George’s achievements).

    What might be of interest in this thread are the following documents I’ve put together to address the issue of the phonics check and phonics provision:



    The bottom line is teachers should be willing to look closely at why some children in some schools achieve significantly higher than children in similar schools. I know a number of schools where teachers welcome the check to guide them with regard to their effectiveness and where teachers are keen to change or improve what they do for the sake of the children.

    Such teachers don’t bang on negatively about phonics provision or the phonics check or try to justify their lower results – they aspire higher and do something about it.

  3. Pat Stone July 17, 2016 at 11:52 pm - Reply

    Circa minute 24. “There is only phonics.” https://youtu.be/e5QT8kEQ_zU

  4. Debbie Hepplewhite (@debbiehepp) July 18, 2016 at 12:37 am - Reply

    David – you might be interested in this article that I wrote about the phonics check and teaching effectiveness:


  5. Nic Price (@NicJPrice) July 18, 2016 at 9:19 am - Reply

    Thanks for this very accurate summary of the PSC.

    I have a theory that the PSC (in it’s current form) may be past it’s usefulness in a few years. That is, those schools with the capability to improve will have implemented SSP and this will stick. A small number of schools that don’t adequately teach SSP and lack the capability to improve will be continue to be identified but PSC won’t be sufficient to improve their practice.

    Meanwhile, the expectation ‘decoding well enough to pass PSC at end of y1’ becomes an ingrained standard. This is actually a very low standard for many pupils (my eldest – and July-born – son could have passed at the end of reception). Some schools will focus so much effort on PSC in y1 that it hinders further progress.

    This is a fundamental problem with using this sort of measure as a policy lever. The only way to counter it is to adapt to the new landscape. I think it is important that PSC proponents are thinking about these challenges and about what may come next.

    • geraldinecarter2014arter July 18, 2016 at 9:53 am - Reply

      Schools with a firm grasp of the alphabetic code, and good instructional materials, plus decodable books that provide plenty of practice in accurate decoding, don’t need to make a meal out of the PSC. It’s merely a 10 minute check – with perhaps a short session or two to alert children to the fact that non-words are included. Unfortunately there is still a long way to go while up to 90% of teachers mix phonics with other methods. Until that practice stops the PSC is essential.

  6. botzarelli July 18, 2016 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Interesting piece. As a parent there were a couple of things which stood out for me when my son did the phonics check in Y1. First, he had absolutely no recollection of having done it – the first I heard about it was from other parents moaning about how awful it was that their children were being tested at such a young age that week (although I don’t think my son was alone in being oblivious to having been subjected to a “formal test”). Second, those parents then stopped moaning about the test and instead became very concerned when their children came back with scores below 10 even though the teachers had not highlighted any issue about their reading. The school then put additional focus on literacy for the class in Y2 and the group overall came out above local and national average at KS1.

    Obviously that’s anecdote from one single form entry primary school, but is at least suggestive that the tests if administered sensitively and the results taken calmly and seriously can do what they are meant to do and provide a diagnostic for teachers in planning how to ensure children get to learn to read adequately.

    While things are different for KS2 SATs on the basis that they are designed so that not everybody can or should “pass”, the very least teachers and parents could do is to remember the point about administering the tests sensitively. If they are treated by teachers as the sole aim of KS2 and the children trained into viewing everything through the prism of getting high marks in the test and/or if parents moan to their children or indulge their children’s moaning about the principle of them they’ll end up being more stressful and diversions from the bulk of children’s learning than they need be.

  7. Susan July 18, 2016 at 10:07 am - Reply

    Nic Price commented: ”the expectation ‘decoding well enough to pass PSC at end of y1’ becomes an ingrained standard. This is actually a very low standard for many pupils”

    Yes, I absolutely agree. Most of the words in the check use common spellings found at the initial / simple alphabetic code stage of phonics teaching.

    Debbie Hepplewhite worries that, ”Teachers will be overly confident that children are ‘OK’ if they have reached the benchmark at the end of Y1 without being sufficiently aware that this does not mean that such children know the alphabetic code letter/s-sound correspondences comprehensively enough” (RRF message board)

    Jim Curran adds, ”There is presently a danger that many stop teaching synthetic phonics once the PSC is done and over with in Y1 and the advanced code never gets thoroughly taught – fine for the ‘boot-strapper kids’, but many children need direct and systematic teaching of all the advanced code” (RRF message board)

  8. Debbie Hepplewhite (@debbiehepp) July 18, 2016 at 11:13 am - Reply

    A Reception teacher with good phonics provision might expect/achieve two thirds of the Reception class reaching or exceed the benchmark of the phonics check.

    It is right that the check should not be seen as the be all, and end all, of phonics provision. The English alphabetic code is very complex – and phonics for spelling needs to continue as part of the spelling provision beyond the infants.

    This IS a matter of training and continuing professional development – and it is such a tragedy that the check itself has not been presented as a tool to inform teachers about this field in a really positive light – and that reading instruction, including phonics provision, seems not to be viewed as on a continuum. But we are on a continuum of discovering how well we can teach all children.

    We have achieved much in England thanks to the official promotion of the need for systematic synthetic phonics provision – and we are much further ahead, generally speaking, than other English-speaking countries in this regard.

    I am forever grateful that David Didau gets this.

    • Nic Price (@NicJPrice) July 18, 2016 at 11:43 am - Reply

      Hi Debbie, that two thirds figure seems plausible to me but is there any national data on what proportion of children would pass at the end of Reception?

      I do wonder if a more continuum-reported test could be the next stage. More like a reading test where the complexity increases. Could that work given that different programmes introduce things in a different order?

  9. Brendan Hassett (@Proud_HT) July 18, 2016 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    The PSC checks the children’s skills at recognising phonemic blends in individual words. It is not contextual and relies on a child’s ability to switch off the “decode” button in their heads for the 20 words that are alien. It is NOT a measure of a child’s ability to read and should never be considered as such. The use of synthetic phonics is one piece of a child’s arsenal in learning to read independently.
    The children who sometimes are the ones to miss out on a “pass” are those early readers who have developed sight reading and decoding skills that have served them really well for the first 5 terms of their schooling.
    It is however a measure of a school. We get asked to justify or celebrate why our scores have gone down or have gone up as based on previous years or why they are lower or higher than national and local figures.
    In our school, it does not tell us anything we do not already know or anything actually that we need to know. The cost of the whole testing programme would be better spent on allocating funding to schools to be spent on a range of supportive resources for the learning of reading at all abilities and by a range of methods.

    • David Didau July 18, 2016 at 2:04 pm - Reply

      Hi Brendan – I make the point that this is not a reading test in the first paragraph. I agree with you that some children who do less well on the PSC have developed multi-cueing methods which work well for them, most of the time. The problem comes when unfamiliar words are encountered and this is the point of the check: are schools teaching in the most effective way to enable students to decode unfamiliar words.

      And you’re quite right to say the check doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) reveal anything you don’t already know. If results come as a surprise that would indicate sub-optimal instruction.

      My position is that until we have done away with ideological opposition to phonics instruction we will continue to need the PSC. In fact, I’d go further – I’d like to see another check at the end of Year 3 to ensure best practice is continued.

  10. Tim K July 18, 2016 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    My children are 5 and 3. Since birth they’ve been read to every day. My eldest is in reception and has come home with a book every day from school to be read that evening. I’d estimate that 95% of her exposure to reading has been with her completely untrained, mixed method, guess from context, parents.
    Her school always do well on the phonics check with either 100% passing or close to since it has been up and running. However I’m not convinced at all that phonics is why my child can read well. Nor am I convinced that her school actually do “proper” phonic as the books provided are from lots of different schemes and the comments in the early pages of her reading log often said things like “did well guessing words from the pictures”.
    I will be very interested to see how quickly my second child picks up reading as he is 6 months younger within the school year than his older sister. He has had the same exposure to books but isn’t as clear a speaker as his sister was at the same age and struggles to make many of the sounds used in phonics teaching although he can understand them.

    • David Didau July 18, 2016 at 4:54 pm - Reply

      Hi Tim – you’re right to suggest that the comments don’t sound too promising but if the school gets 100% they must be doing something right 🙂
      Please not that the ability to decode (which is what phonics addresses) is just one part of reading. As I said i the post, it’s necessary but not sufficient – all the stuff you do at home will certainly make a huge impact on your children’s vocabulary and background knowledge. Keep it up!

  11. Kelly Draper July 18, 2016 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    I was with you until you made the analogy with driving.
    I gave it my best shot with driving but quit after failing my second test. My difficulties with sequencing, hand eye coordination and so on were too much. I’m not that clumsy but as it turned out, clumsy enough to be dangerous.

    Are there children who cannot decode graphemes because the information their eyes send to their brain is corrupted on the way? Is there a way of teaching that could compensate for that?

    • David Didau July 18, 2016 at 4:56 pm - Reply

      Oh, there are loads of children who for one reason or another “quit after the second test” when it comes to reading but I don’t believe this means they are incapable of fluent reading anymore than I believe you are incapable of driving safely. I am, however, completely prepared to accept that the effort of becoming a safe driver (or a fluent reader) doesn’t seem worth it.

      • Kelly Draper July 18, 2016 at 8:57 pm - Reply

        I quit mostly because I was making my driving instructor feel bad!

    • Nic Price (@NicJPrice) July 18, 2016 at 5:36 pm - Reply

      Hi Kelly,

      What you describe is a possibility but, given present practices, very hard to distinguish from poor initial instruction. For example, one of the potential causes of Dyslexia is a less powerful phonological short term memory / processing. This would be demonstrated by lack of response to SSP intervention. In reality intensive SSP intervention tends to help most – suggesting the issue could have been initial instruction.

      (On another note, it is important for all teachers to recognise the additional difficulty experienced by those with visual, hearing or speech impairments. Communication difficulties, and EAL also relevant. Regardless, SSP does seem to be best instructional approach.)

      • Kelly Draper July 18, 2016 at 9:05 pm - Reply

        That’s interesting. I suppose it is hard with this particular age group to research the effects different interventions have for students with different impairments because things like dyslexia only show up once someone can’t read even after instruction.
        One thing I learned in my teacher training in Swansea that stuck with me: Welsh speaking children are recognised heaps earlier than English speaking children because Welsh is pronounced as written.

        • Nic Price (@NicJPrice) July 19, 2016 at 9:37 am - Reply

          This is true of several languages (I think Spanish and Norwegian are the ones most commonly cited). There should be less difference between learning Welsh and learning English if using proper phonics schemes (which stick to simple transparent code).
          It is also true that Dyslexia is much less common in countries with a more transparent code.

  12. Dick Schutz July 18, 2016 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    Terming the measure as a “Phonics” screening check contributed to the opposition to the Check. The check is actually a quick but valid and reliable means of determining if an individual has been taught/learned how to handle the Alphabetic Code. That information is important because the Code is the link to spoken language, and written language is the greatest of all human inventions. The title of the Check has diverted attention away from the history and structure of the Code, which are “empirical facts” rather than “arguable opinions.”

    A corollary contributor to the opposition and arguments has been the decision to set a “cut score.” The “32” is arbitrary: any capable reader can read all 40 words easily, so any score lower than this is a “deficiency.” Had the interpretation of the deficiency been left to the teacher rather than to the Check, the undesired consequences of the cut score would have been avoided: no “blip at 32,” no “test pressure” and so on. It’s true that teachers know “which can read.” The child knows; other kids know; parents know. What the teacher doesn’t know is what to do with the information, other than to attribute it to “individual differences,” or to a deficiency in the child, parents, or society and go on with “more of the same. The Check “does what it says on the tin; “it identifies children who need further (phonics) instruction in handling the Alphabetic Code.

    The onus for action regarding Check scores should be on schools, teachers, publishers, and educational/governmental authorities, not on the children or the Check. Analysis of the Check results will provide “evidence” to sort out the “specific instructional deficits of schools, teachers, publishers and educational/ governmental authorities. The data that have been collected in England from 2011-2016 are “crying out” for this analysis. The “crying out loud” has so far been louder, but it’s early in the game.

  13. Debbie Hepplewhite (@debbiehepp) July 18, 2016 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    Hi Nic,

    I know of no national data, nor national interest, in looking at what Reception children can decode by the end of the Reception year. Wouldn’t it be great if some schools volunteered such information because the staff are professionally curious and ambitious for the children. What such a finding might do is to place into context just how relatively easy, or hard, the 40 word phonics check really is.

    However, I think children’s reading reflex (habits) and their reading profiles are very important to understand. Many children can pick up reading from their wide and varied experiences at home and in the school through a mixed methods route, but I’ve seen too many precocious readers stumped when reading higher level material and the words within the books are beyond their spoken vocabularies. Without speech to back up a multi-cueing approach, many children take a stab at a new word, or blur over it somewhat – or, if reading silently/privately, will just skip over it.

    I’m going to suggest that we have wide-scale ‘skipping’ of words when silent reading is taking place – even of ‘able’ readers – and parents and teachers may be unaware.

    Even children who make an apparently good start using various cues, plus the level of their own vocabulary, to read well – may not fare quite so well when the vocabulary becomes increasingly challenging. Without being able to allot a pronunciation to new words, the meaning can be deduced at the moment of reading the book (that is, in context), but the new words cannot be added to spoken language without the accompanying pronunciation.

    The issue of ‘how’ children read privately and for the long term has not been sufficiently understood in the profession generally. If it was better understood, there would not be so many phonics critics and so many people defending multi-cueing reading strategies so vociferously.

  14. Dick Schutz July 18, 2016 at 9:25 pm - Reply

    The decision in England to administer the Screening Check at the end of Yr 1 was reasonable. With instruction starting in Reception, this gives schools two years to teach children how to use the Alphabetic Code to read the words on the Check. However, the decision had the undesirable consequence of focusing attention only on Yr 1. (The decision to check again at the end of Yr 2 for children who didn’t pass the Check in Yr was smart, but not to follow-up in Yr 3, as David suggests was not smart.)

    Administering the Check “anytime” after a child enters school would benefit children who have “somehow” learned to read before entering Reception. If a school is using a programme in which the instruction starts with teaching the child a grapheme correspondence for all 40ish phonemes, children should be able to pass Part 1 (20 items) of the Check at that point. Some will. Many more will be able to “pass” by the end of Reception.

    We know that 91-92% of children in England “pass” by the end of Y2, whatever the instruction. But there is very wide variation in LEAs and in schools within LEAs. The “promise” of SSP was that it would teach all kids how to read (with very few exceptions). That “promise” is still “in the cards,” by schools and teachers who by law are all “teaching phonics” are clearly playing the cards differently–some very well, and some not.

    In due time, we’ll get a round TUIT that will enable us tountangle what schools, teachers, and programmes are actually doing in reading instruction, and we’ll be able to slough off what schools say the doing and conflicting opinions of what people say they should be doing.

    My understanding is that Australia is in the “process” of implementing a “Phonics Check.” It’s possible that AU authorities will avoid errors-in-retrospect that UK authorities made. We’ll see.
    The US is “far behind,” but time will tell on that also.

    • Nic Price (@NicJPrice) July 19, 2016 at 9:24 am - Reply

      Hi Dick,

      I’m not sure there are that many errors in retrospect to be taken from the UK. There is a clarity and simplicity in one universal check at one point in time. Whilst there are more sophisticated ways of administering a PSC, the primary purpose was as a policy lever and it was probably successful in that sense.

      The only glaring error was publishing a ‘pass’ mark in advance. The other difficulties have been largely about perception – it became seen as a party political issue rather than just requiring best practice.

  15. Debbie Hepplewhite (@debbiehepp) July 19, 2016 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    Nic – you are absolutely right with regard to perception and the resultant anti-phonics responses, anti-assessment, and anti-government complications that complicate the picture in England.

    You said:

    “The other difficulties have been largely about perception – it became seen as a party political issue rather than just requiring best practice.”

    What a pity the politicians concerned did not attempt to fully inform and rationalise the need for the phonics check. It was large-scale testing of reading that alerted people to the links between teaching approaches with consequent reading standards over the years.

    Further, the government itself needs to be accountable for methods and resources officially promoted and publicly funded. The government, rightly, needs to get a handle on the consequences of changes in practice that have been encouraged by politicians and which are now statutory in the national curriculum.

  16. Dick Schutz July 19, 2016 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    As David says: 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’

    One of the mistakes-in-retrospect was the failure of the DfE to make this point clear to teachers and citizenry. (I doubt that DfE personnel in general understand the distinction, and I’m sure that teachers and citizenry in general don’t understand it, but that’s a whole nother story).

    If you look the 2014 distribution in David’s Figure 1, it’s clear from visual inspection that the most frequently observed (modal) score is 40, the highest score possible on the Check. When all children are taught how to read, the “long tail” of the distribution will be virtually eliminated.
    The SATs, in contrast, would not permit this to occur; the intent to compare student “ability” is thwarted by the absence of variability, so they would add items beyond what students have been taught in order to “provide ceiling.” The net consequence is to make the SATs sensitive to differences in socioeconomic status, but not to instructional differences. The PSC, on the other hand, is sensitive to differences in instruction, but what these differences are has yet to be examined; the “evidence” is in the database but has not yet been investigated.

    In short, the “anti-phonics responses, anti-assessment, and anti-government complications” that Debbie refers to could have been avoided–in retrospect. What the future holds for the PSC in England and elsewhere in the world remains to be seen. That Nick Gibb was reappointed Ed Minister portends well for England, and that the PSC is being “implemented” in Australia is a positive harbinger.

  17. Dick Schutz July 19, 2016 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    Reid Smith published an informative blog about his experience in an Australian school that is relevant to David’s blog:

    Reid mentions that teachers found the individual item difficulty values (the percentage of pupils able to read each item) of the PSC to be useful. These stats can be access in the Tech Reports published annually from 2012-2014, but the information is buried in a Table under a column labeled “Facility” rather than “Difficulty,” so the information has gone largely unnoticed. Reid explains how teachers use the information to improve their instruction.

    One of the mistakes-in-retrospect, is that the DFE discontinued collecting any item data after 2014, so Tech Reports with this information are no longer being published. However, it is information that teachers do NOT “already know.” Schools and LEAs can easily compile the information for their personal situation–which is more pertinent than the “England-national” information. Schools and LEAs in England and anywhere else could do the same.

    The information is comparative, but it focuses on comparing instructional effects rather than comparing students. Item-level analysis is where the nuts and bolts of instruction become visibly “obvious.” These “gory details” are obscured in analysis that stops at the score-level.

  18. oldprimarytimer July 24, 2016 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    Mainstream education is pretty inclusive these days, so100% might be stretching it with a fair few pupils. A few years ago we had a child in year 1who had global learning delay, was autistic, blind and had no speech. He did lots of pre Braille activities sensory activities but from my (ignorant) standpoint he mainly seemed to bag the table loudly and make loud noises. I doubt he will ever pass the phonics check.
    Then last year we had a child who seemed to make no progress in learning any letter sounds at all throughout nursery or reception, where we teach SSP. So in year 1 the Senco worked with him for an hour a day on SSP. He scored 2/40. The next year our best TA taught him 1:1 SSP. He got 2/40 again. We’re going over to whole word recognition in year3 for him. He’s had 4 years of SSP and can decode 2 words in a check situation. Then the child with an EHCP with massive speech and language disorder. She got 12.
    Then we had two children will appalling attendance. They got 7 & 8 out of 40. Not a failure of SSP obviously. It’s really hard to get courts to take low attendance seriously- especially in ks1 – infuriating. Then the child that joined us a week before the check. So that’s 16% off the check already.
    That leaves two children who scored 30. Those two we hold our hands up to. We will run the check again in October- I’ll expect them to be solid by then. But we will also try and work out if we could do things better in future.
    We use read write inc from nursery and have termly development checks. Our practice is evaluated as very good. If we did the check at the end of reception there is no way 2/3rds would pass. 2/3rds would pass part 1. Children ( to state the obvious) vary enormously. I took the rwinc letter sound cards home one weekend when my son was 3 and he learnt them all. But just because my son found it easy does not mean every child does ( as some commentators seems to think). Some children take a really long time to get blending.

    And you are dead right about teaching decoding being the relatively easy bit.

  19. Bella July 24, 2016 at 10:48 pm - Reply

    This is the main reason I will never teach ks1. I think SATs are stupid but the phonics test is just so beyond reason that I have no time for it whatsoever.

    • David Didau July 26, 2016 at 3:22 pm - Reply

      Bella – all I can say to that is that I’m also very grateful you don’t teach KS1/

  20. […] minority of children. In fact, we’ve become so certain of this that phonics is mandated and a screening check has been introduced to try to ensure schools are teaching it properly. Of course this doesn’t mean that phonics continues to be the best approach to teaching […]

  21. Margaret Parsons March 18, 2017 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    This just confirms what I already felt was the case. My 7 year old grand daughter excels at the phonics tests, yet is consistently underachieving in her reading, because she has been taught to painfully work her way through all the phonic rules systematically to decode new words. She becomes very distressed when a word is atypical (hiccough for example) and when she first came across the word ‘want’, she threw major temper tantrums and refused point blank to spell it any other way than ‘wont’, ‘because that is what the phonics say’ (her words). SP teaching has forced her to focus so much on the rules themselves and their myriad exceptions, that she has lost faith in the system and more seriously, lost interest in reading completely. The stories in the phonic readers bore her, there is no available alternative, and so as a consequence, she now hates school too.

    I will say that my grand daughter has a history of learning things atypically, preferably without active instruction, mostly alone and often by trial and error. She is a very creative and imaginative child, and an excellent problem solver (she thinks a lot around the box). Initially she loved the PS teaching, extrapolating every new phoneme in her writing, convinced that school was giving her the perfect system for reading and writing on a plate, but as soon as all the exceptions and alternative letter combinations started flooding in, she became, initially very distressed, then later disenchanted with a system which she had originally thought would very quickly help her read the kind of books she was interested in (mostly science books) but in reality was too cumbersome and unreliable, and hence a stumbling block to the immediate fluency she was looking for.

    I do feel that SP has an important place in the initial decoding and blending of letter sounds, but that it should never be used without other, complementary teaching methods, sometimes even pupil specific ones. Simply decoding letters is not, and never will be, reading. Where my grand daughter is concerned, her mother is now trying to ‘undo’ the rigidity of 3 years of SP teaching, and instead re-fostering in her daughter a love of books for their own sake. With the SATs imminent, she is having to persuade her daughter that she should ignore what she is being taught at school, and follow a reading program at home where fluency is achieved by guessing words (using contextual clues, similarity to other words and word repetition) Fluency is applauded more than accuracy, slow decoding is discouraged, skipping or substituting difficult words is ignored and only dealt with afterwards if necessary. What counts is that she enjoys and understands what she reads. Of course the school doesn’t like it, and it doesn’t engender faith in the school system for my grand daughter either. There are unresolved conflicts of interest here. The school is following DFE guidelines and looking for good SAT results, my daughter is looking to best help her own daughter avoid disaffection in her future education, regardless of these early SAT results. However it is becoming clear even after only a few weeks that this non-SP method has already considerably improved my grand daughter’s confidence and reading fluency. She is starting to read with purpose and interest, rather than purely as a meaningless decoding exercise.

    • David Didau March 19, 2017 at 5:52 pm - Reply

      “Simply decoding letters is not, and never will be, reading.” No one – and I really mean *no one* – ever said it was.

  22. James Clarke (@mavbonica1) May 19, 2017 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    Simply decoding letters is not, and never will be, reading – but neither is guessing the words from context or pictures (and these strategies will be useless with scientific texts). Who is teaching this little girl ‘phonic rules’ rather than phoneme-grapheme correspondence?

    • David Didau May 19, 2017 at 1:12 pm - Reply

      Reading is and always has been decoding. The other stuff, language comprehension, exists without the ability to decode. Our ability to comprehend spoken text is analogous to our ability to understand written text. The only thing that distinguishes them is turning the squiggles on a page into sounds.

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