Drop the nonsense words and the Phonics Screening Check

Learning to read opens up a whole new world. It’s about discovering the meaning and joy of words and language. But the year 1 Phonics Check is the opposite of this: it reduces this exciting time to a test, causes confusion through the use of nonsense words, and brands five- and six-year-olds who don’t pass as ‘failures’.

Most teachers now use ‘synthetic phonics’ to teach children to read. These are letters or groups of letters that children learn as sounds, which they blend together to make a word. Confusingly, the Phonics Check uses both real words and nonsense words to test their understanding, which confuses young readers. And if they don’t achieve the required pass mark, they have to re-take the test in year 2.

Teachers, and headteachers and education experts strongly disapprove of using nonsense words. They see no point in preparing for the Phonics Check because they don’t believe the tests tell them anything new about their pupils’ progress. And because schools are expected to increase the pass mark year after year, many are now streaming and setting pupils for phonics as early as nursery.

Parents also disagree with the test. They’d rather enjoy reading books with their children than help them to recognise alien nonsense words in preparation for a test. And for children with additional needs or those for whom English isn’t their mother tongue, the test is unfair. Researchers note that what the government describes as a ‘light-touch assessment’ actually causes discomfort, anxiety, and perplexes good readers.

Learning to read is vitally important. The last thing five- and six-year-olds and their teachers need is yet more pressure.

Child holding a phonics card

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