All Year 1 teachers in English primary schools were asked to conduct a "phonics screening check" on all children aged 5 and 6. This new, statutory assessment took place during the week commencing 18 June 2012. The phonics test comprised a list of 40 words that children read one-to-one with a teacher. The list was a combination of both real and pseudo-words (such as 'Osk' and 'Snemp') to allow the assessment to focus purely on decoding using phonics.
Using phonics and encouraging children to decode unfamiliar words plays a significant role in the teaching of reading. However, as the former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen and others have argued "doing synthetic phonics can only ever be a contributory factor in the process of how we 'learn to read'. Authoritative studies have shown the superiority of a balanced approach which includes not only phonic decoding and sight recognition of words which are not phonically regular but also, and of great importance, the syntactical and semantic clues which help children to attach meaning to the symbols put before them.
At worst the danger of such a 'high stakes' test is likely to place too great an emphasis on decoding skills at the expense of other reading skills such as enjoyment, comprehension and wider reading.
The challenge for teachers
Teachers working with children in the all important earliest years now face a major challenge. Do they allow the test to dominate their teaching or will they continue with a sensible and balanced approach to teaching reading?
At best the Year 1 phonics screening check will tell teachers nothing that they do not already know about the reading skills of the children in their class. At worst the danger of introducing such a 'high stakes' test is likely to place too great an emphasis on decoding skills at the expense of other reading skills such as enjoyment, comprehension and wider reading. As one teacher in the NUT survey commented "The pass threshold is set so high that only around 33% of children passed the test in the pilot. What do we achieve by informing two thirds of children and their parents that they have failed to pass the phonics test in Year 1? Five years old is too young to fail!'"