Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Something rotten in the state of England

Developments underway in the UK with regard to literacy teaching have,unfortunately, not exactly improved in recent months. The latest ‘wizard wheeze’ from our government, underway as I am writing this, is that all 6 year olds in the country are being tested on what is termed a “phonic skills check”. This test involves the children being asked to read aloud 40 different words, all phonically regular, to check whether they can apply the phonic “rules” they have been taught during their first year in school. There is a risk, of course, that children might actually know some of these words, and might, therefore, not actually need to use phonic skills to decode them. So, to check against this, the test includes 20 non-words, that is, combinations of letters which can be decoded using phonics but which do not actually mean anything (combinations such as ‘strom’ and ‘zog’). This superb piece of daftness is being heavily sold as useful to teachers in diagnosing children’s reading difficulties, and teachers are required to report children’s performance on the text to parents. The test has been given a fairly high pass mark, so, if the results of the pilot version carried out last year are repeated, about half the children taking it will ‘fail’, and their parents will be told that.

There are so many problems with the whole concept of what is being done here, that the issue has dominated teacher forums, Twitter, websites, and more recently, the print and TV media. Here are just a few of the problems:
  1. The test is being discussed quite openly by the government and its loony fringe supporters as a “reading” test, when it quite clearly is nothing of the sort. It is a test of decoding using phonic skills only. “Reading” always involves using more than just phonic skills and has the aim of getting meaning – hard to do from nonsense words.
  2. Teachers are supplying hundreds of examples of children taking the test who can already read. Children in the UK begin school when they are 4 usually, so all children taking this test will have been in school at least one whole year already. A fair proportion of these children can already read and, almost to a child, they will have been taught that the whole point of reading is to get meaning from print. Yet suddenly, they are asked to forget that notion and decode the symbols only. As one distressed teacher said, “My best reader responded to the word ‘strom’ by saying ‘storm’. Normally I would have praised her for this, but on this ridiculous test, I had to mark her response wrong.” It is an interesting irony that a government which puts so much store in children making progress in reading should be asking many of them to go backwards in their use of reading skills!
  3. The performance of each child on this test has, by law, to be reported to the child’s parents. In the pilot version of the test carried out last year, over half the children taking it were deemed to have failed. So, if this result is repeated, then our schools are going to be in the position of telling half of our 6 year old children, children at one of the most crucial periods of their journeys towards becoming readers, that they have failed, including many who already thought they were doing well in reading. Well, I am sure that this will help their self-images as readers! After all, nothing succeeds like failure!

There are some rather more sinister aspects to this situation. The principal adviser to the government on these matters, and the person whose brainchild, so we are told, this test was, has featured in a government sponsored promotional video clip about the test, claiming that teachers have nothing at all to fear from the test, as long as they have been teaching reading the right way (by which she means through systematic synthetic phonics – phonics first, fast and only, as the current mantra has it). The same person has recently been awarded an Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s birthday honours list and was a key (and vociferous) member of the Advisory Group set up to develop the new National Curriculum for schools in England. What you need to know also, though, is that this woman has produced a very successful reading (decoding) scheme to teach children to read ‘the right way’. Naturally the first thing that will happen after the current phonics test is over is that schools up and down the country will be spending their money buying materials to help them focus on things to prevent their young readers failing, i.e. phonics teaching materials. Guess whose materials they are going to buy? The government has even offered to split the cost of these materials with schools. There are many people who smell the whiff of corruption about this!

What is for sure is that this whole episode is doing no good at all to the reputation for educational excellence that the UK still enjoys or, more importantly, to the prospects of our schools creating generations of happy, successful readers.