The Journal of Research in Reading has just published an important and timely paper on the government’s phonics screening check ‘Validity and sensitivity of the phonics screening check: implications for practice’ (Duff, F.J., Mengoni, S. E., Bailey, A.M. and Snowling, M.J.
It asks two ‘critical ‘ questions: First, how well do scores on the screening check ‘correlate with reading skills measured by objective tests’? And, second, ‘is the check sensitive?’, which refers to how sensitive is the check is in detecting children ‘showing early signs of being at-risk of encountering a reading difficulty?’
The study involved eight primary schools in York and included 292 children. Aside from the screening check, an array of other tests was administered. These included school-based assessments, class spelling tests, individualised word reading, comprehension, nonword reading and phonological awareness tests.
So, how valid is the check? Does it measure what it claims to measure? The authors conclude that the check is ‘a highly valid measure of children’s phonics skills’. Moreover, the check ‘showed convergent validity by correlating strongly with other measures of phonics skills and with broader measures of reading’. The latter includes ‘single-word reading accuracy, prose reading accuracy and comprehension’. This should provide strong justification on the part of the government to introduce the check, though as Hans Eysenck once remarked, [i]deological thinking is not easily swayed by factual evidence’*.
The authors also agree with previous studies in concurring that ‘a rigorous assessment of phonics skill is important for early identification of children at risk of reading difficulties’, which they define here as ‘not yet attaining the phonics phase expected by the end of Year1 (i.e., not attaining phase 5)’.
An unexpected boon from the study was that there was ‘a slight tendency to overestimate the prevalence of at-risk readers (as compared with standardised tests of reading accuracy and fluency)’, which the authors, in my view rightly, contend to be ‘a favourable property for a screening instrument’.
Where the authors are more equivocal is around the issue of whether the check is necessary. Although they conclude that it is valid, they also suggest that, where teachers are well trained ‘in the teaching and assessment of phonics, their judgements are sufficient for the purpose’. They go further and add that ‘the use of resources to better equip teachers to conduct ongoing phonic assessments would be more cost-effective, not least because this would place them in the best position to intervene before reading difficulties set in’.
Although it is hard to disagree with the proposition that there wouldn’t be a need for a screening check if teachers were sufficiently well trained to monitor and assess children’s abilities and capabilities in regard to their phonics knowledge and understanding, the authors seem to be ignoring a number of important findings. As Jeanne Chall revealed in her seminal book Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967), teachers have a strong tendency to be eclectic. They find it very difficult to abandon previous approaches, many elements of which can often be seen to run counter to the principles of a new programme. Neither do they easily relinquish their old pedagogical ideologies unless given training that provides a clear rational for what it is they do and the way in which they do it.
More recently, the NFER report ‘Phonics screening check evaluation: Research report’ (May 2014) bore this out. ‘Even amongst those who are strongly supportive of phonics,’ it reported that there ‘was a firm conviction that other strategies were of equal value and that phonics as a method of teaching reading was most successful when used in conjunction with other techniques’.
As was made clear by a number of respondents to the survey carried out by NFER, there is still a huge amount of confusion, particularly around the areas of decoding and comprehending, in the minds of many teachers. Indeed, one percipient teacher remarked, ‘I think the moment you start to use other methods, you aren’t actually doing synthetic phonics’.
Another rather conspicuous omission from the paper was any comment on the match-funding programme initiated by the government and the appalling disclosure that over 90% of allocated funding had been spent by schools on resources (meaning mainly books) and not on training.
Two things: why is it that so few research articles on the teaching of reading spelling ever quote from or comment on the work of Diane McGuinness? And, why is there such a disconnect between the practitioners out there in the field training teaching practitioners (nearly 12,000 alone in the case of Sounds-Write) and academic researchers in our universities? In case you’re listening out there, there is much better stuff out there than the insipid and meagre diet doled out to many children in the form of Letters and Sounds.
* Quoted from Robert Peal's Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools, p.62.