Mixed views on Phonics Screening Check

The evaluation report issued today by the DfE on the Phonics Screening Check https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/198994/DFE-RR286A.pdf seems to offer some interesting messages.

The research report conducted by NfER concluded that;

One of the key messages to emerge from the evaluation so far is that many schools appear to believe that a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods. Evidence from the case-studies and surveys suggests that most teachers are overwhelmingly positive about phonics teaching and its contribution to reading development. However, it is less certain that this is an endorsement of the recommended approach of systematic synthetic phonics taught first and fast. Whilst nine out of ten literacy coordinators agree, at least to some extent, that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics has value in the primary classroom, a similar proportion, somewhat contradictorily, feel that a variety of different methods should be used to teach children to decode words, suggesting there is widespread misunderstanding of the term ‘systematic synthetic phonics’. Thus, it appears more likely that the reported level of agreement with the value of systematic synthetic phonics actually represents support of the more general use of phonics within the primary classroom, and that teachers in general have not yet fully adopted the practices recommended in the Department for Education’s policy and evidence paper, The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading.

Within this broad acceptance of phonics teaching as part of a mixed approach there was less certainty reported about the Phonics Screening Check. The researchers created a typology of four different types of approach:

Supporters of synthetic phonics and the check – 28% of literacy coordinators

Supporters of synthetic phonics but not of the check – 39% of literacy coordinators

Supporters of integrated literacy teaching – 5% of literacy coordinators

Supporters of mixed methods – 28% of literacy coordinators

So, this first evaluation of the check suggests that phonics has found a place in teaching reading, and indeed probably always did have such a place in primary schools, but around a third of literacy coordinators, and presumably their schools, use phonics as a part of mixed methods or an integrated approach. A further 39% don’t see the value of the check, although they support synthetic phonics. Just over a quarter of literacy coordinators both support synthetic phonics and the check.

The next question must be around what is the evidence about outcomes in relation to the typology? Do schools teaching synthetic phonics and using the check do better than similar schools that use missed methods and ignore the check or is the check just a waste of money that forces teachers down an inappropriate route when teaching their pupils to develop the skill of reading?

Personally, I want well trained teachers working with young children, and indeed learners of any age, that can produce results using appropriate methods. I am not an expert about teaching reading, so I don’t know what the sensible approach is, and whether different children respond to different methods.

It would certainly be disappointing if using the check provided better information to parents, but that outcome resulted in more cramming, as if learning to read was some sort of examination rather than a skill that children need to develop. From the point of view of the teacher, experience in the classroom may mean a screening check can seem too simplistic and not necessary, but equally the challenge must be to find a method to help every child read that can do so, and create as much understanding from those with special educational needs. If teachers can do that then I don’t mind what method they use; if they cannot do so without structured help, such as the phonics screening check, then so be it.

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