Thursday, March 28, 2013

Phonics screaming check!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/classblog/5708753833/sizes/q/in/photostream/We’re coming up to the second phonics screening check in June and already I hear sounds (no pun intended) of anxiety whispered in school corridors and teaching rooms.
Of course, if teachers have been doing what they should have been trained to do, there wouldn’t be a problem and everyone would relax. The screening check is just something to ensure that most pupils know what they should already know by, more or less, the end of Y1 and that teachers are teaching it.

Still and all, it’s a pity that the Standards and Testing Agency on behalf of the DfE seems so bent on confusing people in the message it gives out.
On page 8 of document ‘Assessment framework for the development of the Year 1 phonics’, it states:
 
“Since this phonics screening check is a decoding check, only words that are phonically decodable have been included.”
 
It seems that the people who wrote this document haven’t yet figured out that ALL words in English are decodable because ALL words in English are comprised of sounds and ALL sounds have been assigned spellings. It's true that some spellings are more obscure than others but, even so, it remains that if all words contain sounds and all sounds in words have been assigned spellings, then all words are decodable – if the sound-spelling correspondences have been taught.
The other problem with the document is that the writers insist on confusing teachers by coding words orthographically. Thus, the word ‘this’ is coded orthographically as CCVC. You may object that, well, the t and the h ARE consonants. And so they are! However, if you want to orient teachers and pupils towards thinking about sounds and spellings, this is NOT the way to go about it. In reality, 'this' is a CVC word because /th/ is a (voiced) consonant sound. Besides, the potential for confusion begins to increase when we get to words (page 15) like ‘head’, ‘lair’ and ‘thigh’, which are coded respectively as CVVC, CVVV and CC VVV. The ea spelling in ‘head’ is of course comprised of two vowels but the vowels /air/ in ‘lair’ and /ie/ in ‘thigh’ are most definitely not VVV.
Really, what purpose does it serve to code words orthographically in this way? The words should be coded in terms of sounds and spellings. Notwithstanding differences in accent, the sounds of the language are stable and consistent. It is the sounds that drive the code and spellings that represent them. ‘Lair’ is a CV word, as is the word ‘thigh’, and in both cases the vowel sound is represented by a three-letter spelling.
If you have a system that is straightforward, i.e. sounds and spellings, spellings and sounds, it is possible to ground it in a way that is simple to understand and relatively simple to mediate. Until the people who write these documents for the DfE begin to realise how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language and how to teach it in a way that is easily understandable, they will continue to create uncertainty.