In May, the Australian government suggested adopting a phonics check similar to the one used in England.
The point of such a test is to figure-out whether children have mastered the ability to decode simple words. The check uses real words and pseudo-words. The latter are presented to children as the names of aliens but they follow conventional decoding rules, for example, “beff”, “shup”, “doil” and “charb”.
One of the problems with any kind of assessment is validity – does it test what we are actually trying to test and give us accurate diagnostic information? This is why there are pseudo-words in the phonics check. They can only be decoded using phonics. Standard words can be remembered by students as a ‘sight’ word and so don’t necessarily tell us about a child’s ability to decode using phonics.
Why is this important? Phonics is probably the most well researched topic we have in education and the evidence is overwhelming – the best approach to getting the greatest number of children reading is to teach them systematic synthetic phonics (see here, here and here). This is the process of learning how to build up words from blending together the individual graphemes that represent distinct sounds. This is the process needed to decode the pseudo-words in the phonics check.
Jennifer Buckingham of the Centre for Independent Studies has released a report today on how we might bring the phonics check approach to Australia (see here and here). I was generally aware of the success of the check in the UK but I didn’t know the details, which are pretty stunning. After the introduction of the check in 2012, the pass rate rose each year, for students in both in Year 1 and Year 2. This ultimately means little unless it leads to an increase in reading ability more generally and the evidence suggests that it did. Having been fairly stable between 2005 and 2011, the proportion of students reaching Level 2 and the proportion reaching Level 3 on the end of Year 2 reading assessment has steadily increased since the introduction of the check.
Reading is critical. It is a skill that unlocks other academic skills. Reading is not just about decoding – you also need knowledge of the world and a good vocabulary, and we probably could be doing more than we are at present to develop these. But failure to decode will limit a child’s progress. A phonics check, properly implemented, would mean that we can assess this essential skill early and intervene if necessary. It would provide a useful tool for teachers in designing interventions.
In her report, Buckingham makes a number of recommendations and cautions us against expanding the check into a more comprehensive literacy assessment. I agree. That would be premature and might even set up a few red-herrings. We need to keep it simple, valid and focused, if we are to obtain the same benefits as England.