Over on the DDOLL network, Jennifer Chew has shared a new piece of research on the impact of the phonics screening check in England. The study by researchers at the University of Oxford was published in July of last year, but I was previously unaware of it. The study is not an experiment, it is a longitudinal analysis.
In England, children first sit the phonics screening check Year 1. This consists of them reading 40 real words and pseudo-words. The pseudo-words are presented as the names of alien characters and their pronunciation follows the typical correspondences found between letters and sounds in English. Children read the 40 words aloud to their teacher and a child who successfully reads 32 or more of the words is deemed to have passed the check. Students who fail the check then sit it for a second time in Year 2.
The purpose of the check is to assess whether students have learnt the most common letter-sound correspondences in English under the assumption that this is an important basis for further reading development. The reason for using the alien names is so that it is impossible for children to simply have memorised all the words as sight words.
The researchers compared three groups of children. The first group passed the check in Year 1. The second group failed the check in Year 1 but passed it in Year 2. The third group failed it on both occasions. Importantly, the researchers were able to compare students in the fail-pass group with students in the fail-fail group who had equivalent scores on the first check.
They found that students in the fail-pass group outperformed students in the fail-fail group even when controlling for performance on the first check. This was apparent both on the “Key Stage 1” standardised reading assessment sat one year after the check and on the international PIRLS reading assessment sat four years after the check. Of particular interest is that both of these assessments only indirectly assess phonics knowledge – they are mainly assessments of reading comprehension. As might perhaps be expected, children who passed the check the first time tended to outperform both the fail-pass and the fail-fail groups.
So the results show a clear association between a growth in phonics knowledge and later reading comprehension.
Of course, anyone who is sufficiently motivated to drive a bulldozer through these findings is able to do so. It is a correlation rather than the result of a randomised controlled trial. Students in the fail-pass group may be systematically different to students in the fail-fail group despite having the same baseline score and it could be this other factor, or a combination of other factors, that accounts for the difference in reading comprehension.
But a policy such as the phonics check cannot easily form part of a randomised controlled trial, so correlations are about as good as you are going to get. Add this to the swathes of other evidence for the importance of phonics knowledge and the question arises: If you are still not convinced, then what exactly would convince you?