Teaching unions raise fresh concerns over reading test

Phonics
Six-year-olds across England are to be tested on made-up words Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

As six-year-olds across England prepared to take the Government's controversial new reading test, three teaching unions raised fresh concerns that the check is "flawed" and could do more damage than good.

They have suggested that including made-up words will frustrate youngsters who can already read, and confuse those with special educational needs, or for whom English is a second language.

Plans for a reading test were announced by ministers last year, amid fears youngsters with poor reading skills were slipping through the net.

  • The Year One Phonics Screening Check is taken by pupils at the end of their first year of formal schooling (Year 1)
  • The check is based on phonics, a system which focuses on sounds rather than recognising whole words
  • Pupils are asked to sound out or decode a series of words, some of which are made up, to test their reading skills
  • This includes non-words like "voo", "terg", "bim", "thazz", "spron", "geck", "blan" and "fape".

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) are calling on ministers to re-think the test.

Phonics should not be the only game in town; it is just one of many equally valid and useful methods of teaching children how to read. Phonics checks for six-year-olds risk doing more damage than good."

– ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted
Phonics
Teaching unions are calling on ministers to re-think the test Credit: David Davies/PA Wire

Phonics is an essential part of early literacy, but this approach risks distorting teaching and reduces freedom."

– NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby

They argue it will not help to improve pupils' reading, assess whether a child can understand the words they are reading, or let parents know how well their youngster is doing in the subject.

The NAHT has also warned that it could boycott the reading test, which will be taken by pupils for the first time this week.

Delegates at the NUT's annual conference in Torquay at Easter passed a resolution arguing that the mandatory testing of phonics is "unnecessary and inappropriate".

They called for concerns to be raised with ministers about the test "at every opportunity" and for the union's executive to prepare a campaign, including a boycott, if the test is used towards league tables in the future.

The government has this morning backed the controversial new reading test. Schools Minister Nick Gibb spoke to Daybreak.

There is a weight of international evidence which demonstrates that phonics is the most effective way of teaching early reading.

"It is crucial for children to master the basics of reading as early as possible so they can go on to develop a real love of reading.

"Parents want to know exactly how well their children are performing and, if they need help, what their teachers are doing to provide it. This check will help teachers to keep parents fully informed."

– Schools Minister Nick Gibb
Phonics
Phonics is the word used to describe the sounds the letters make Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

What are Phonics?

  • Before children are introduced to books, they are taught individual sounds to construct words.
  • For example, when taught the sounds for the letters t, p, a and s, the children can build up the words "tap", "pat", "pats", "taps" and "sat".
  • Phonics is the word used to describe the sounds the letters make. In simple terms, the word 'cat' can be read from its three sounds: c-a-t.
  • These are not the names of the letters as we say them in the alphabet, but the sounds these letters make.
  • Likewise, the word 'thick' is made up of three sounds: th-i-ck, where pairs of letters combine to make a single sound. Similarly, 'rash' is made up of three sounds: r-a-sh.