The Times Educational Supplement (TES), a British trade newspaper, has published an article titled, “Why the phonics screening check doesn’t work.” The article summarises the responses of two researchers, Jonathan Solity and Anne Castles. Solity makes the point that the phonics screening check does not rigorously test all of the possible 85 grapheme-phoneme-correspondences (GPCs – the ways that sounds relate to letters or groups of letters). However, he seems to think this is fine because children only really need to know the most common ones. Solity seems more concerned about how children are prepared for the check.
Anne Castles, on the other hand, makes the unrelated point that the check uses half real words and half made-up words (these are presented to children as the names of alien characters). To Castles, the check should be constructed entirely of made-up words because this would then demonstrate whether children are actually decoding each word rather than recognising it from memory. I am inclined to agree with Castles – there is an opportunity cost associated with using real words for half of the check. However, it appears that real words were put in there as part of a compromise to get the original assessment off the ground. A check with half real words and half made-up words is better than no check at all.
By this point, you may be wondering why the TES have chosen to present these arguments as supporting the contention that the check ‘doesn’t work’. You are not alone. Anne Castles is not very impressed:
This is not the first time that people have taken issue with the way that the TES has presented their views. Back in 2016, the TES reported that E D Hirsch Jr had suggested, ‘Mainstream science doesn’t support direction instruction and small class sizes’. As I am familiar with Hirsch’s work, I suspected there was an issue with this claim and after contacting Hirsch, I was able to clear this up.
More recently, Sean Harford, national director of the English schools inspectorate, Ofsted, and Christine Counsell, an influential academic, both took to Twitter to protest about the way their views were presented.
What’s going on?
There are some excellent journalists working in the field of education, but what tends to distinguish them is their knowledge of the field and their willingness to do the homework when that knowledge is lacking. Lesser education journalists are generalists who are simply passing through. Indeed, many of these errors can be explained by the journalists involved simply lacking relevant knowledge. This is perhaps why we have seen such an explosion of teacher blogging over recent years – it is often better informed.
In the case of the phonics article, the journalist in question is a former English teacher and so is someone who we might expect to have a pretty deep understanding of the subject. However, the problem is with the headline rather than the article itself and the journalist is very unlikely to have chosen the headline – that would be done by an editor.
Journalists and their editors face the same problem as young teachers when they first venture down education’s rabbit hole. They may assume that because they are politically progressive, they need to subscribe to the largely unrelated philosophy of educational progressivism. This would explain why, without any need for conscious bias, many of the TES’s reporting problems tend to centre around progressivist touchpaper issues such as the curriculum, phonics and direct instruction.
Update: The problem with the phonics article might not be just the headline as Anne Castles explains here.
Further update: The TES now appear to have corrected the issues in the body of the article after Anne Castles contacted them.