Saturday, 10 December 2011

Che-re-is-te-me-as: Why Phonetics can only take you so far.....

"Two-thirds fail new primary phonics reading check" announced the BBC yesterday in response to the publication of the results of the pilots of the new phonetics screening check for 6 year olds that the Department of Education officially announced the introduction of yesterday.

The BBC pointed out that 32% of pupils taking the test failed it, and went on to express the view of the General Secretary of the National Society of Headteachers, Russell Hobby, who said that "large numbers of teachers who used the test during the pilot found it...less useful than their existing means of diagnosing early reading ability."

I was upset by my initial reading of the story, as I couldn't make sense of the statistics as the BBC went on to say that the test results were inconsistent with the results of national curriculum tests which show that 8 out of 10 children in England routinely meet the levels expected of them at age seven and eleven.

I studied statistics at school, at university, and as part of my chartered accountancy qualification.  I know how statistics work and how easy they are to manipulate.  But because I am particularly interested in teaching my children to read well, I thought I'd delve deeper in to this story to understand the discrepancy.

It turns out that it's pretty simple.  The new test only tests the 'method' the child is using to decode words.  It tests whether the prescribed 'phonetics' system is being used.  It includes non-words, to ensure that the children  literally read sound-by-sound the word in front of them regardless of whether the result is a word they recognise or not.

Of course you will get inconsistencies in results.  Because straight away you could have children that will 'fail' to decode non-words using this system.  That can read perfectly fluently and enjoy stories, but are confused and thrown by these words that they have never seen being presented out of context.

So as a tool to check if the 'system' is being used, then it will probably give correct results.  But to use the new screening test as a tool to present children's ability to 'read', that would be a mistake and would provide unhelpful results.

All children learn in different ways*.  Learning in context is really important.  My daughter will get stuck on a word, and her method for decoding it is to continue reading the sentence.  She'll get to the end of the sentence, and based on the context of the story and the letters she can see in the problematic word, she can 'work it out'.

Assuming that 'just' phonetics will create better readings is a blinkered, naive, potentially dangerous view.  People are not all the same.  People do not learn the same.  One 'method' will work for some and not for all.  Learning methods should be tailored to the individual child, not enforced on all.

Besides, using phonetics alone, without context, would give a very strange version of the word "Christmas" now wouldn't it?

The BBC News report can be found here.
The Department of Education website detailing the introduction of the new test and the associated materials are here. 

*I learn through visualisation, meaning that even now, in my late thirties, I still picture a chocolate cake in my head when I'm doing fractions so I can 'see' the fractions and percentages involved.  (Being an accountant, that probably explains my almost constant chocolate cravings at work!)  My husband tends to learn 'rote', that is, you tell him something and it sticks.  He doesn't necessarily need to work it out again in future instances, he just 'knows' it.  A big difference between us is memory function.  My visualisation technique works fine and enables me to work out things through logical steps, seeing the results.  That is until I am asked to do mental arithmetic that requires breaking down the workings in to more than say five chunks, because my short term memory is so shockingly bad, I will have forgotten what answer I got to the first chunk by the time I get to the last chunk.  And so I have to write a lot of things down.  Step by step.  That's me. 


  1. I so agree with you when you say phonics on its own can't work. I read another articles in the week a few weeks ago about the fact that english is one of the hardest language to learn to read. My son is in reception and has just started to read, and I can see why phonics can't always work. One word he had to read recently was saw and well a is not pronounced o, and there was another word like this, walk maybe. And same with i, you have I or will. The only way is knows is 1-he knows the word or 2-he can guess from the rest of the sentence.
    English is actually a pretty difficult language to read.
    There is no way you can learn to read with only the phonics.

  2. That's why I found learning German easier than French. German words sound like they look. French words are often pronounced completely differently! There's a thread on Mumsnet on this at the moment with some more interesting views and useful information.


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