In this, my final look at David Reedy’s contribution to the debate about whether the phonics screening check should be continued, I want to look at more of the claims he has made.
Reedy complains that when administering the check the class teacher ‘may [...] be out of the class for three days or more’. As I hope to show, this is certainly true but then surely the time is well spent if the check identifies children who are not able to read most of the words in the check without making errors? But more than that, the check should be telling teachers what maladaptive strategies the children are using – are they guessing, are they missing out consonants in consonant clusters, are they flipping sounds around in words [reading ‘silver’ for ‘sliver’], are they looking at the first sound and guessing, do they get <b>s and <d>s mixed up?
All of the above errors are likely to cause problems in reading. So much so that if they are frequently made, children don’t expect to make any sense of the texts they read and are likely to give up. This is why teachers need to be aware of the kinds of errors they are likely to come across and how to correct them. In fact, this is central plank in the Sounds-Write training course. At another level, the check should also make teachers accountable to the head teacher and to the parents for the success or otherwise of their literacy tuition.
As for the ‘most worrying aspect’ of the 2012 UKLA survey findings, Reedy claims that the check ‘seriously disadvantaged and in some cases impeded, successful readers’. Many teachers felt that the impediment was caused by the presence of too many nonsense words in the check. Supporters of the UKLA position feel that reading is exclusively about meaning. Whilst not disagreeing that the whole point of reading is to construct meaning, where advocates of phonics would disagree is that in order to derive meaning from the words on the page, one has first to be able to make sense of the words by decoding them. In other words, UKLA put the cart before the horse. Of course, the learner may be able to decode successfully and still not derive meaning because the word isn’t in the learner’s repertoire.
The example that opponents of the check have referred to most often was the example of ‘strom’ in last year’s check. They complained that many of their ‘more able’ readers read the word as ‘storm’. Well, the error could be an anomaly! After all, many six-year-old children are likely to make some mistakes. This is where we come back to the kinds of errors pupils make, how frequently they make them, and how ell teachers are able to correct them. Furthermore, if a pupil is scoring below thirty-two out of forty, I would have thought this would merit further investigation, which would also question whether the teacher is doing the job of teaching phonics properly.
Very often errors such as the ‘strom’/’storm’ example go unnoticed or unchecked when pupils are reading many of the popular reading series in which they have been taught to guess words by looking at the pictures or other contextual features. In addition, as I’ve argued, because many teachers don’t know exactly how to correct errors like this, they simply tell the pupil what the word is and, having learnt nothing of value, two pages further on, the pupil makes the same error again.
For all of these reasons, the inclusion in the check of nonsense words, I would argue, is welcome. To summarise:
· Firstly, non-words give us a very valuable insight into what strategies learners use when they are reading. Alison Clarke, of Spelfabet in Australia, refers to them as words ‘we haven’t met yet’.
· Secondly, as many phonics practitioners have already pointed out, there are lots of everyday words that many pupils don’t yet have in their repertoire. As far as the pupils are concerned, all of these words are ‘nonsense’ words.
· Then again, many polysyllabic words contain syllables that don’t in themselves make any ‘sense’ at all, yet need to be decoded accurately if the syllables are to be put together and the word read accurately.
There is so much more with which to disagree with David Reedy, one thing in particular being the claim that the check encourages teachers to label children as failures. In truth, I don’t believe that there are teachers who tell young children they are failures and if there are any such teachers, they shouldn’t be teaching. There might be some truth in the suggestion that the school’s relationship with parents might be put under strain if a child isn’t managing to decode three-quarters or so of the forty words successfully. But surely if the teacher isn’t teaching children to read, then perhaps that relationship ought to be put under strain!
UKLA are short on evidence and wrong in their arguments and it is up to us to challenge their misconceptions at every opportunity.
The discussion continues on the RRF.