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Phonics Screening Check

Accurate information about the Phonics Screening Check.

England’s year 1 Phonics Screening Check (PSC) examines children’s ability to accurately decode single words using their phonics knowledge and skills, not their language comprehension, visual memory for high-frequency words or ‘reading’.

By the time of the check in mid-June, most year 1 children should have received at least five terms of almost daily, discrete synthetic phonics teaching. Their average age will be 6 years and 4 months.

The check consists of twenty low-frequency real words and twenty pseudo-words. All forty words are composed entirely of common (high frequency in print) sound-spelling correspondences. The words are changed each year to avoid any possibility of children being taught to memorise them solely by sight.

”For most children, it will probably be the last time that decoding will be formally assessed in their education” (Ricketts & Murphy. ResearchED Literacy p53). Timothy Mills suggests that “A Phonics Screening Check at Year Three that assesses the entire code would go some way to militating against phonic deficits debilitating pupils in later years.” (Timothy Mills p95) ‘The Reading Ape’ also recommends ”a Year Three phonics pseudo-word check that assesses the whole alphabetic code, including polysyllabic level with a threshold set at Bloom’s (1968) mastery expectation of 90%. And just in case we’re worried about over-testing, do this instead of KS1 SATs.” (TRA blog: Decisions, decisions – can research help identify the best phonics programme?)

The year one PSC is a quick (it takes about 5 minutes for a child to complete), easy and valid** way to identify, at an essential early stage, those children who are in need of extra help with their phonics code knowledge, segmenting and blending skills. Children who do not meet the expected standard in year 1 are required to retake the check in year 2. Be aware that pupils who achieve the expected standard score or just above it in the year 2 check, are one year behind in their phonics word decoding.

The ‘pass’ mark is released after the PSC has taken place. It has been 32 since the first check took place in 2012. This “appropriately challenging” expected level was set by about 50 teachers whose schools were involved in the pilot study.

”The actual PSC takes less than five minutes. A fluent reader can complete it in under two minutes with zero errors” 
(Y1 teacher & SENCo)

Note that children’s English language comprehension (English vocabulary and inference) is assessed in the KS2 Reading test taken in the final year of primary school.

The PSC is, in the opinion of many teachers and academics, ”valid but unnecessary”. They assert that the check does not tell them anything that they didn’t already know and regular teacher assessment is the best way to discover if a child is struggling with any aspect of reading. However, the check quickly proved its necessity when the 2011 pilot study (298 schools) revealed that only 32% of the children were able to decode single words with common spellings accurately. The following year, the 1st actual check flagged up that nearly half (42%) of year 1 children were in need of extra help with elementary phonics decoding. Clearly, the check had uncovered major malpractice; the essential phonics decoding component of teaching children to read was missing or being very badly taught in the majority of primary schools and regular teacher assessment had failed to find the problem.

There is good news though. In its final evaluation (2015), NFER found that the PSC’s introduction only three years earlier had catalysed an improvement in phonics teaching and assessment: ”These changes consist of improvements to the teaching of phonics, such as faster pace, longer time, more frequent, more systematic, and better ongoing assessment.”

The phonics check ”is quick, objective, and based on a model of reading (the Simple View) which stands up to scientific scrutiny, unlike the widely-used but slow and subjective Running Record, which is based on a model of reading so far from reality that nobody has ever come forward to admit they made it up.” 
(Alison Clarke. Phonics tutor and speech pathologist)

After the first phonics check in 2012, some teachers complained that the children they judged to be ‘good readers’, including a few they had registered as gifted and talented for reading, did badly in the check. A year 1 teacher grumbled, “I had over 50% of my class fail the check and, given some of the children are reading above the level they should be in Year 2, to have to report to their parents that they have not met the standard in decoding seems ridiculous. Many children made mistakes trying to turn pseudo words into real words – ‘strom’ became ‘storm’. The lack of context meant many children made mistakes they would not have made if the word was in a sentence.” (London Evening Standard 03/09/2012)

The phonics screening check 2012 technical report’s data provided evidence that there was little basis for the argument that good readers (fluent and accurate decoders) did fine on the real words but fell down on the non-words because they are so used to reading for meaning. If children were competent decoders they did well on both non-words and real words, and if they were poor decoders they did badly on both types.

The NFER’s final independent report on the PSC confirmed the technical report’s findings above:
”Over the course of the study, a small number of respondents have expressed concerns that the check disadvantages higher achieving readers. However, as reported in Chapter 2, the analysis of the NPD data found no identifiable pattern of poorer performance on the check than expected in those children who are already fluent readers.” (NFER PSC report 2015 p10)

‘Do nonword reading tests for children measure what we want them to? An analysis of Year 2 error responses’: ”We conclude that nonword reading measures are a valid index of phonics knowledge, and that these tests do not disadvantage children who are already reading words well.”

Another common complaint is that the phonics check is ‘high stakes’ for early years teachers and their schools. Debbie Hepplewhite responded robustly to those complaining: ”The ‘high stakes’ are, to be frank, the high stakes for the children themselves. Let’s not dress this up, some teachers are teaching reading and writing a lot better than others even in challenging contexts. This is a BIG issue”.
Prof. Pamela Snow agrees. She says ”It’s disappointing to see the “high stakes testing” trope hasn’t died though. Let’s reserve “high stakes” discourse for the lifelong burden of illiteracy.”

”A phonics assessment is a gift for teachers and the teaching profession to understand the importance of effective phonics provision and whether the teaching is effective – or not – or getting there. This is invaluable CPD.” 
(Debbie Hepplewhite)

The check is not strictly diagnostic and its purpose is to quickly identify children at risk of phonics decoding difficulties. Teachers need to thoroughly assess the phonics code knowledge and skills of each child who fails to reach the expected level. Once assessed, an individually tailored phonics intervention needs to be put into place rapidly. All the DfE validated phonics programmes must provide guidance on using the programme for intervention: ”Children who are at risk of falling behind need extra practice to consolidate and master the content of the programme. Programmes should provide guidance on how to support these children so that they keep up with their peers. Options for support could include 1 to 1 tutoring. They should not suggest or provide a different SSP programme for these children.” (DfE. Phonics Validation Criteria. Note 9)

DfE: Interpreting and responding to the results of the phonics check.

Giving children pseudo words for homework, to practise for the check, is unhelpful and unnecessary. Elizabeth Nonweiler points out that there are plenty of real words even able six-year-olds are unlikely to have come across before. Using low-frequency real words will provide plenty of the practice children need to read the pseudo words in the phonics check and increase their language comprehension.

Here are some examples of low-frequency, one and two-syllable real words with common spellings:
newt     scribe    farthing    sphinx    paw    ploy  tar   ail    glide    joist    prime    glade   void  adorn   croak     gloat    shoal    shorn    theme   thorax    bait    twine    plight    mope    probe   hark    yarn    larva    moat    curd    lurch    spurn    bane    dale    stoat    hake    abode

Why we should be using but not teaching nonsense words

What people need to know about the use of pseudo or ‘nonsense’ words in reading instruction
”(T)he prolific production and use of nonsense words based on illegal/inappropriate spelling patterns lays bare the lack of professional knowledge and understanding of phonics teaching and practice

In 2013 the government published NFER’s first independent evaluation of the PSC:
The following is on p.23: ”A high proportion of schools are clearly teaching phonics, but not necessarily in the way a systematic synthetic approach would prescribe” (bold in original).

The second (2014) NFER report flagged up yet again that most teaching was still not consistent with a genuine ‘systematic synthetic phonics approach’- on p28: ”However, 90 per cent also ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed somewhat’ with the statement that a variety of different methods should be used to teach children to decode words. These percentages mirror almost exactly last year’s findings, and indicate that most teachers do not see a commitment to systematic synthetic phonics as incompatible with the teaching of other decoding strategies”

”(S)uccess in the Y1 PSC, whilst indubitably a vitally important indicator, does not in itself guarantee the application of SSP as the route to decoding all unknown words. Here in the UK at least, we have some schools that teach discrete phonics well enough to give children success in the check, but still encourage the use of multi-cueing when the same children are practising reading” 
(Gordon Askew)

”Children hot-housed for a few months in a desperate attempt to get them through the Screening Check never to do any phonics again are going to fall back on whole word memorisation and guessing to the detriment of their education and the chronic, long tail of underachievement will go on”

A headteacher wondered why, despite excellent scores in the Y1 PSC, his school struggled ”to transfer them into fluent spelling and reading as the children progressed”. Linguistic phonics trainer Charlotte MacKechnie explained:
– A score of 32 or a score of 40/40 are both reported as a pass, but a child scoring 32 can get by with just Phase 2 & 3 code knowledge (i.e. what is commonly taught in Reception). Passing PSC ≠ ‘knowing phonics’.
– The PSC includes only four 2-syllable words – 80% of the English language is polysyllabic. Children need to be taught to deal with 2-6 syllable words through phonics teaching in KS1+.
– Children may have been taught well enough in Reception and Year 1, but there hasn’t been enough time to cover the whole code by the end of Year 1! They need at least an additional year for enough deliberate practice to commit sound-spelling correspondences to memory.

It’s not me, it’s you – the problem with the phonics screening check:
”The phonics screening check assesses whether a child has learned phonic decoding to the minimum expected standard for a 6-year-old… The phonics screening check does not assess whether a child has mastered phonic decoding” (bold in original)

The arguments against the PSC have been discredited.

What is the Phonics Screening Check for?

Free downloads of the DfE’s past phonics screening check materials.
DfE: Scoring the check: ”For real words, inappropriate grapheme-phoneme correspondences must be marked as incorrect (for example, reading ‘blow’ to rhyme with ‘cow’ would be incorrect). However, alternative pronunciations of graphemes will be allowed in pseudo-words”
N.B. alternative pronunciation of GPCs is also allowed in real words if due to a regional accent.

Prof. Maggie Snowling et al’s independent study focused on the reliability and validity** of the year one phonics screening check.
”We have shown that the new phonics screening check is a valid measure of phonic skills and is sensitive to identifying children at risk of reading difficulties. Its slight tendency to overestimate the prevalence of at-risk readers (as compared with standardised tests of reading accuracy and fluency) is arguably a favourable property for a screening instrument. We agree that early rigorous assessment of phonic skills is important for the timely identification of word reading difficulties” (bold added)

The phonics check, nonsense words and the Jabberwocky

N.B. In his 2018 book ‘Blueprint‘, Prof. Plomin misrepresented England’s phonics check, equating it with the TOWRE (Test of Word Reading Efficiency). The TOWRE, that Plomin used with 7yr. olds in his TEDS twin studies, tests speed and accuracy when reading high-frequency real words (often include unusual or even unique spellings) and pseudo-words with spellings restricted to basic (transparent) code. In contrast, the PSC’s real words are not high-frequency and are specifically chosen to be unfamiliar to 6yr. olds. 
All the words in the phonics check consist entirely of common sound-spelling correspondences (using basic and advanced code) and those spellings should have been explicitly taught in the discrete phonics lessons preceding the check. Reading speed is not a factor and only decoding accuracy is examined.

Plomin’s Blueprint and the Phonics Screening Check: