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The fallacy of the phonics screening check for Australia

By Paul Gardner - posted Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The argument that phonics is the best way to teach early reading and that Australia must follow the path of England by implementing a Phonics Screening Check (PSC) for 6 year olds, is both powerful and fallacious.

It is powerful because the Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, supported by The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) strongly advocates its implementation. The determination of this advocacy is signified by the fact that the UK Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, visited Australia in April of this year to speak on the subject. He was introduced by Jennifer Buckingham of the CIS. The triumvirate of the two Ministers and the researcher from the think-tank make an impressive alliance.

Unfortunately, the argument offered by this triumvirate in support of a Phonics Screening Check for Australian school children obfuscates rather than informs debate. Jennifer Buckingham's recent polemic in the West Australian (Opinion 8th August 2017), is indicative of the alt-truth behind the rhetoric of the triumvirate.


Although the type of phonics being advocated is not mentioned, we can deduce that as England is the aspiring model, synthetic phonics is being recommended. In England schools are legally bound to teach reading exclusively through synthetic phonics. This is in spite of decades of research that overwhelmingly supports the finding that a balanced approach to reading, with the inclusion of phonics, is required if students are to both decode fluently and comprehend effectively. The English Government has ignored this research and we might ask why would anyone want Australia to follow that mistake?

This is like telling children and their teachers they will be going on a voyage across the Ocean on a raft when they could go on an ocean liner. Why would anyone want to make the teaching of reading that difficult?

Buckingham repeats Gibbs' message that, '..there is strong evidence that the Phonics Screening Check had a positive impact on reading in England.' However, the ability to decode individual words, using synthetic phonics is not synonymous with reading, and the claim for a causal relationship between improved decoding and raised standards of reading is not born out by the evidence.

It is true that in the first year (2012) of the PSC only 58% of students achieved the required 32 out of 40 correct answers. The second year it was 69% and last year the success rate had risen to 81%. At first glance, this seems impressive, but reality can be obscured by statistics. For example, students that 'failed' the test in 2012 had to re-take it in 2013 and would have been included in the figures for the higher pass rate.

We need to further explore the reality by knowing something about the Check itself. It consists of 40 individual words, half of which are nonsense words. Students have to identify the individual letter sound correspondences in each word and then blend the sounds to read the word. We might ask, what value is there in testing the reading of nonsense words? Research suggests the children themselves asked this question too because a significant number of them would not read the pseudo words and as the first 12 words were nonsense words, many teachers would have halted the test for these children.

Following the 2012 Phonics Screening Check, the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) surveyed almost 500 schools. Teachers reported a tendency for better readers to 'fail' the Check. These readers were able to make the letter - sounds connections, but read a word that was meaningful to them. For example, 'strom' might be read by the child as, 'storm.'


Between 2012 and 2015, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), commissioned by Nick Gibbs' own department, investigated the efficacy of the Phonics Screening Check. The findings of its report, published in 2015, have been conveniently brushed under the carpet. So, it is worth revisiting them here.

Of 573 literacy coordinators interviewed more than 70% said the Check failed to provide them with valuable information about students' reading ability, beyond what they already knew. This finding was corroborated in separate research directed by Maggie Snowling of Oxford University.

They also reported the check was not suitable for students with learning difficulties. Some teachers made the same comment in relation to students for whom English is and additional language or dialect and 62% said the PSC is not applicable for students who are already fluent readers, presumably for the reason stated above. In addition, younger children were found to be disadvantaged. Amongst those students not achieving the required score, approximately two thirds were the youngest children in the class. So, what real purpose does the PSC serve?

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About the Author

Paul Gardner is the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) Ambassador for Australia and is an academic in the School of Education at Curtin University. He is also a member of the Western Australian Council of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA).

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