It’s not me, it’s you – the problem with the phonics screening check (Part 1)

What is the purpose of the phonics screening check?

The purpose of the check is, ‘to confirm that all children have learned phonic decoding to an age-appropriate standard’ (Standards and Testing Agency, 2017). There’s a particular phrase that stands out to me: ‘to an age-appropriate standard’.

What is that ‘age-appropriate standard’?

Passing the phonics screening check is indicative of a child working at the minimum expected standard for the end of Year 1 (STA, 2017), and they should be able to decode:

  • all items with simple structures containing single letters and consonant digraphs
    ( s a t, k i d, m i ss, sh i p )
  • most items containing frequent and consistent vowel digraphs
    ( p l ay, m ee t, d ar t )
  • all items containing a single 2-consonant string with other single letters (CCVC/CVCC)
    ( f l a t, g i f t, c oi n s )
  • most items containing two 2-consonant strings and a vowel (CCVCC)
    ( b l a s t, g r oa n s )
  • some items containing less frequent and less consistent vowel digraphs, including split digraphs
    ( z o n e, m ou l d, l i n e )
  • some items containing a single 3-consonant string
    ( s p r ay, s t r i k e )
  • some items containing 2 syllables
    ( d e | l ay,  ch ar | m i ng )

So, what does the phonics screening check assess?

The phonics screening check assesses whether a child has learned phonic decoding to the minimum expected standard for a 6-year-old.  This includes CVC words and words with up to 3 adjacent consonants (CCCVCC) that may contain single letters, consonant digraphs (2 letter spellings), frequent and consistent vowel digraphs, and some less frequent and less consistent vowel digraphs.  Oh, and a handful of 2-syllable words.

What does the phonics screening check not assess?

The phonics screening check does not assess whether a child has mastered phonic decoding. Before I discuss what it means to master decoding, let’s start with a bit of history. 

Humans’ ability to communicate through spoken language has developed throughout an evolutionary period of hundreds of thousands of years, whereas it was not until approximately 5,000 years ago that our writing system was invented; consequently, our brains have not evolved to read (Geary, 2007; McGuinness, 2004).  In other words, learning to read and write is not natural.  Learning to read and write is hard.

What makes it harder? 

Some languages, and their alphabetic writing systems, are considered to be transparent because it is obvious how they work: they’re easy to teach and easy to learn (McGuinness, 2004).  Transparent writing systems have largely 1:1 correspondence between sounds and their spellings – in other words, there is mainly one way to spell each sound.  However, there isn’t a single sound in the English language that is represented by only one spelling.  The English language is highly opaque

Why is English an opaque language? (McGuinness, 2004)

The English language is made up of 44 sounds (phonemes) that are represented by 175 spellings (graphemes).  Every sound has more than one representation (e.g. pie, sky, high, child, time), and many spellings represent more than one sound (e.g. dream, break, head).  A spelling may be made up of 1, 2, 3 or 4 letters (e.g. sat, ship, care, through). That’s tough enough at the monosyllabic level… but 80% of the English language is polysyllabic.

To demonstrate that you’d mastered decoding, you’d need to be able to effortlessly retrieve the correct sound-spelling correspondences when reading and writing (ie. read and spell with automaticity). The phonics screening check doesn’t assess this. It isn’t supposed to.

So, what’s the problem with the phonics screening check?

The purpose of the phonics screening check is to assess whether a child has learned phonic decoding to the minimum expected standard for a 6-year-old, and the content domain is therefore appropriately limited.  Only ‘frequent’ and ‘consistent’ spellings are included – that is, only the spellings that appear in the higher frequency words that children are likely to encounter in Year 1.  For example, only 3 spellings of the sound ‘ae’ can be included in the phonics screening check:

‘ae’
c a m eb ai ts ay

…but Sounds-Write (2007) found that there are far more common spellings:

‘ae’
c a m eb ai ts aya | c or n
b r ea kth eyeigh t 

…and, just for fun, here are all the spellings of ‘ae’ that Sounds-Write (2007) identified:

‘ae’
c a m eb ai ts aya | c or n
b r ea kth eyeigh tv ei n
b a | ll ets t r aigh tg au ge 

The phonics screening check does not assess whether a child has mastered phonic decoding.  It does not assess whether a child has been taught to deal with the alternative pronunciations of the 175 spellings of the 44 sounds in the English language. It isn’t supposed to.

The problem is not the phonics screening check itself.  The problem is that its purpose is often misunderstood.

Glossary

  • phoneme – smallest unit of speech sound
  • grapheme – spelling that represents a sound
  • digraph – 2 letter spelling
  • split digraph – 2 letter spelling that is split by a consonant
  • C – consonant sound
  • V – vowel sound
  • CVC – a word that is structured consonant, vowel, consonant
  • CCVC – a word that is structured consonant, consonant, vowel, consonant
  • adjacent consonant – when a word has two of more consonant sounds beside each other, within a syllable, without a vowel separating the consonant sounds
  • decoding – identifying the sound-spelling correspondences to read a word
  • monosyllabic – a word with one syllable
  • polysyllabic – a word with more than one syllable

References

Spelling – Year 5 and 6 National Curriculum word list

Phonic knowledge should continue to underpin spelling after key stage 1; teachers should still draw pupils’ attention to GPCs that do and do not fit in with what has been taught so far. Increasingly, however, pupils also need to understand the role of morphology and etymology.

Read More »

Spelling – work for Year 1

“By the end of year 1, pupils should be able to read a large number of different words containing the GPCs that they have learnt, whether or not they have seen these words before. Spelling, however, is a very different matter. Once pupils have learnt more than one way of spelling particular sounds, choosing the right letter or letters depends on their either having made a conscious effort to learn the words or having absorbed them less consciously through their reading. Younger pupils have not had enough time to learn or absorb the accurate spelling of all the words that they may want to write.”

Read More »

Subject knowledge – derivational and inflectional affixes

Phonic knowledge should continue to underpin spelling after key stage 1; teachers should still draw pupils’ attention to GPCs that do and do not fit in with what has been taught so far. Increasingly, however, pupils also need to understand the role of morphology and etymology.

Department for Education (2014) The National Curriculum. English Appendix 1: Spelling. [Online].

A ‘morpheme’ is a short segment of language that is either a word, or a part of a word, that has meaning; it cannot be divided into smaller meaningful segments without changing its meaning.  Morphemes can be ‘free’ or ‘bound’, and in primary school many of the words in the National Curriculum appendix for spelling contain derivational or inflectional affixes.  

Download here: derivational and inflectional affixes (subject knowledge)

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