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’. Now, the government has decided that year 1 pupils who missed the Phonics Check due to the Covid lockdown must take in the autumn of year 2.

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.

Following the pandemic that kept children out of school for nearly half a year, year 2 teachers are forced to spend time preparing them for a test that serves little purpose. By this stage, some children will be reading fluently and will struggle to return to phonic decoding; others will need concentrated revision of phonics; and everyone will need to be taught how to read non-words, even though they make no sense.

If pupils fail to reach the expected standard, they’ll have to re-sit the Phonics Check in the summer term at the same time as they’re doing their Key Stage 1 SATs. For some, that will mean three sets of government tests in the year before their seventh birthday!

Learning to read is vitally important. The last thing five- and six-year-olds and their teachers need is yet more pressure. Please signal your agreement by adding your voice to our campaign to reverse this situation.


20th July 2020

The Phonics Screening Check – why all the fuss?

On 15th July the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) revealed proposals to make primary schools in England conduct the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) in the autumn term of Year 2, for children aged 6/7. The PSC is usually done in the summer term of Year 1, but these children missed the Check because of school closures.


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26th September 2019

More Than A Score’s response to the phonics screening check results, September 2019

The DfE is choosing to ignore the fact that almost one in five 5- and 6-year-olds have been branded failures […]


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27th September 2018

Heads, teachers and parents agree: the phonics check is nonsense

As the Department for Education announces the results of this year’s phonics screening check, new research reveals that heads, teachers and parents overwhelmingly oppose the controversial reading test for six-year-olds.


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28th September 2018

How does the phonics check work?

You might have heard of the phonics check but do you know what the phonics check actually looks like?


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