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Phonics Screening Check

Accurate information about the Phonics Screening Check.

England’s year 1 Phonics Screening Check (PSC) assesses children’s ability to accurately decode single words using their phonics knowledge and skills. It does not assess their language comprehension, visual memory for high-frequency words or ”reading ability”. Note, children’s English language comprehension is assessed in the KS2 Reading test taken in the final year of primary school.

By the time of the PSC in mid-June, most year 1 children will 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 lower-frequency real words and twenty pseudo words. All forty words are composed entirely of common (high frequency in print) sound-spelling correspondences which the children will have been taught in their phonics lessons previous to the check. 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). To guard against phonic deficits causing decoding difficulties for pupils in later years, The Reading Ape recommends a ”Year Three phonics pseudo-word check that assesses the whole alphabetic code, including polysyllabic level…” (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.

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)

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 that 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 basic phonics decoding. Clearly, the check had uncovered major malpractice; the essential phonics knowledge and skills 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 pseudo words because they are so used to reading for meaning. If children were competent decoders they did well on both pseudo 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.”

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 every 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)

Giving children lists of pseudo words containing illegal or statistically improbable English spellings for homework, to practise for the check, is likely to have a negative effect on children’s spelling abilities. 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.

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

”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)

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