The latest issue of Teach Primary carries a debate entitled ‘Is it time to ditch the phonics screening test?’ In actual fact, its correct title should be ‘Is it time to ditch the phonics screening check’ but we’ll come back to this point.
In any event, it pitches Debbie Hepplewhite against David
Reedy. As most readers of this and related blogs will know, Debbie is a leading
light in the campaign to get good quality phonics teaching into schools from
the moment children start in Foundation 2 or Reception. Perhaps, less well
known is David Reedy of the United Kingdom Literacy Association, an
organisation that in reality does everything it can to impede the
implementation of good quality phonics programmes, even though, as we shall see
from Reedy’s piece, the UKLA are occasionally forced to concede that phonics is
In this series of postings, I’m not going to examine
Hepplewhite’s piece because I believe it to be a clear, fair and well set-out
statement of what the phonics screening check is designed for. What I do
propose to look at in some detail is the Reedy piece. This is because, as a
statement of the UKLA’s position on the screening check, with its customary
deployment of rhetorical devices, it is highly representative of its attitudes
towards the teaching of phonics.
From the outset, the UKLA identified what it perceived as
the screening check’s weakest link – the introduction of non words or pseudo
words. This is because it suspects, in the absence of a clear and unequivocal
rationale being presented to teachers and parents for the introduction of such
words, this aspect of the check will prompt an immediate reaction against it. It
is intended to provoke a knee-jerk reaction. So, it comes as no surprise that
Reedy’s article should begin by foregrounding the inclusion of pseudo words.
The UKLA’s preferred qualifier ‘pseudo’ should not go
without comment. ‘Pseudo’ is much more likely to have pejorative connotations
than the more neutral (adjective) ‘non’. This coupled with several examples –
Reedy uses ‘mip’, ‘glimp’ and ‘brunk’ – is designed to produce the ‘common
sense’ reaction to their use of the order of ‘Why on earth would we be asking
children to read words that aren’t real?’ Well, as we shall see, there are very
good reasons but, if you have an ideological aversion to phonics or you are a
person, be they teacher or parent, who lacks knowledge of the whys and
wherefores of the case, then Reedy’s blandishments seem reasonable.
The UKLA’s visceral antipathy to the check is then
moderated to the seemingly sensible claim that it ‘has considerable concerns
about the imposition of the test’ (sic). ‘Concern’ has an empathetic ring to
it, patronising to be sure, but suggesting the air of the headteacher telling
the assembly calmly what is and is not good for us; while, of course, ‘test’,
rather than ‘check’ is calculated to raise the stakes, to infuse the argument
with a degree of anxiety on which he builds further on in the piece.
The check, he tells us is ‘narrowly conceived and does
not give a clear picture of children’s development as readers when they are six
years old’. In fact, it is not narrowly conceived. It is narrowly focused.
There’s a difference. The focus on phonics is a fundamental first step because
phonics teaches pupils that the sounds in their speech are represented by
written symbols. Moreover, the best phonics programmes teach from simple to
more complex and they go on to continue to have an important role in enabling
pupils to read and spell much more complex words as they progress through
Of course there are other aspects to reading: the
richness of a pupil’s linguistic environment or the cultural capital they have
accumulated is of enormous importance. But, what Reedy and the UKLA can’t seem
to understand is that if a pupil can’t decode, they can’t read, never mind
‘read avidly for purpose and pleasure’.
Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at Reedy’s report on the
research survey the UKLA undertook and some of the claims he makes.