Teaching to the T-E-S-T: phonics is working for most children

Spell it out. Alphabet soup via Brian Mueller/Shutterstock

Teaching children to read with phonics has been a central plank of recent “Govian” education policy. A new set of statistics shows that 74% of children in the first year of primary school now meet the expected level on a phonics screening check, rising to 88% in Year 2 – a marked improvement on two years ago.

But dig down behind the numbers and it’s clear that there are still big disparities in how children perform on phonics tests based on region, gender and whether they qualify for free school meals.

Introduced in 2012, the purpose of the phonics screening check is for teachers to check that young children in Years 1 and 2 can apply a system to “decode” the sounds of words, some of which are “nonsense words” and make no sense in the English language.

Initially controversial, with teacher unions arguing that the new test told them nothing new about their pupils, the test was part of the government’s broader strategy to continue testing young children. Based on a variation of phonics known as systematic synthetic phonics or SSP, the test is now part of a litany of testing and accountability now embedded in our school system.

The 2006 Rose Review into the teaching of reading saw phonics as one element to support early acquisition of reading skills. The review saw SSP as part of a broader strategy for beginner readers which should include: “a rich curriculum that fosters all four interdependent strands of language: speaking, listening, reading and writing”.

Poverty and gender gaps

Although the headline figures in the latest statistical release for the phonics test show a general overall improvement, as the graph below shows, it is the detail of how different groups perform that is worthy of greater focus.

The same statistics show that the gender gap is still wide and girls continue to outperform boys at this early stage. This is not new, nor is it restricted to phonics. Ongoing academic research has consistently highlighted the gap between girls’ and boys’ achievement across the education phases. However, the gap narrows as both groups get older.

Social deprivation – as measured by whether a child is eligible for free school meals – still has a significant impact on children’s early acquisition of language and their ability to read and decode words. Although narrowing by 1% between 2013 and 2014, the gap between those eligible for free school meals and other children is a staggering 16%. But when we take into account the same group of children’s performance a year later in Year 2, the gap narrows to ten percentage points.

The new Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, may wish to consider further policies on narrowing the gap in educational achievement, or persuade her cabinet colleagues to commit to eliminating social deprivation as a focus for new policies, or even a new government.

Ethnic variations

The picture is made more complicated when ethnicity is taken into account. Children from an Indian heritage scored the highest in the phonics test with “travellers” having the lowest score. Breaking this down even further, those children from Irish heritage had a slightly higher score (33%) than those from Gypsy/Roma backgrounds (28%). The gap between children of white backgrounds and black Caribbean backgrounds has narrowed completely with each group seeing a significant improvement to more than 70% passing the phonics test.

As one might expect, those children with special educational needs tend not to perform well using this type of assessment – less than 40% achieve the threshold measure compared to more than 80% of children with no identified special need. There may be a need to consult those experts who work with children with special educational needs as to what might be an appropriate way of measuring their early reading performance.

Type and location of school

The statistics also highlight the different performance across different type of schools. Converter academies and locally maintained schools outperform sponsored academies. The Department of Education’s release argues this is due to the historic legacies of sponsored academies – which tend to operate in challenging communities and with more children eligible for free school meals. But the information is not there to see if this really is the case since there are currently no comparisons made with similar schools.

And there’s a regional difference too – with some areas in London and urban areas in the north and north-west doing particularly well. Yet across the country, there is a gap of 18% between the Year 1 children who perform the best and those who don’t, falling to 13% for children in Year 2.

Successful implementation

What these statistics do show us is how good our excellent teachers have become at implementing central government policy and in using phonics alongside other strategies to develop fluent, reading-loving youngsters.

The new National Curriculum for English ensures that teachers focus on two aspects of reading: word reading and understanding. It places emphasis on reading for enjoyment and understanding, and sees phonics as a tool for children to “decode” words only.

It’s still up for debate whether teachers needed a phonics test to tell them about their children’s ability to read. But now that we have the statistics, perhaps Nicky Morgan may want to focus on how we can best support children who are consistently performing less well in these and other tests.