Tuesday 31 January 2017

The story of an ugly duckling. Aka Phonics Check Furphies.

[Updated November 6, 2017]

I have never met a teacher who is not sincere about trying to do the best they can for the students in their classrooms. Insincere teachers may exist, but I don’t see them. Fortunately, in the context of the ongoing community, academic, and political debate about phonics instruction and assessment of children's phonics skills, teachers’ sincerity is not at issue. However it is also not enough, regardless of its abundance.

A dip into the recent (last 3-4 decades) history of reading instruction reveals the strange and sad tale of phonics being turned into the unwelcome ugly duckling of early year’s classrooms. I have written about the contested place of phonics in the early years previously, so won’t re-hash that history here. We are now at an odd impasse, however, that sees most parties to the debate in broad agreement (at least overtly) about the importance of the so-called “five big ideas” surrounding early reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency), but the welcome mat that is rolled out in (a) teacher pre-service education and (b) early years classrooms for these elements is uneven. When was the last time you saw a heated Twitter debate about the importance of comprehension for early readers? Or vocabulary? Of course we don’t see such silly debates, because they do not occur – everyone agrees (OK, prove me wrong someone!) that these are critical ingredients in early years instruction.  Phonics, however (and perhaps to a lesser extent its close relative phonemic awareness) has to paddle very hard to justify its presence in early year’s instruction.

This ambivalence has been more than evident in Australia in the last week since the federal government’s announcement that a Year 1 Phonics Check will be rolled out across Australian states and territories in the next year. I’ve heard all kinds of opposition to this move and would like to collate the key arguments here, together with my responses.

My response
We’re already doing phonics
Phonics is in the mix
There is no doubt some truth to this statement. I think it’s fair to say that in most classrooms, some form of phonics instruction is used, but I will wager that in a large number of cases, this is a third-of-three option in the widely-used Multi-Cueing Strategy (also sometimes referred to in the UK as “Searchlights”). This is a Whole Language zombie that remains alive and well in teacher education and Australian classrooms, and encourages children first to guess, and as a last resort, to use analytic, not synthetic phonics, in order to work out the first sound in the word with which they are unfamiliar.

This leads me to the other problem with the “We’re already doing phonics” defence – the fact that where phonics is “in the mix”, it is more likely to be analytic than synthetic. All children need to learn to decode, and some do so more seamlessly than others. Those who enter school with smaller vocabularies, less phonemic awareness, and less pre-school text exposure will derive particular benefit from being explicitly taught the alphabetic principle via synthetic phonics instruction. These are the same children who teachers then identify as needing “extra resources” when they don’t easily make the transition to literacy. Maybe the “extra resource” they need is more rigorous initial instruction. 
Can you see a circular argument happening here?

My third issue with this response is that if this is the case, why are literacy levels in this country way below where they should be? If all is well with respect to early year’s instruction, how do we account for the fact that we are producing way too many secondary students with inadequate literacy skills and have a workforce with worrying low oral language and literacy skills?
Teachers already assess their students and know which ones are behind
Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t. This assertion is difficult to assess, because there is no universal tool and no central data collection on the decoding skills of Australian students. My bet is that many teachers are using “Running Records” for this purpose – another Whole Language throw-back, and not a substitute for a properly standardised Phonics Check.
Teachers are the experts and should be left alone
No professional group should put itself above scrutiny. Imagine if doctors, nurses, airline pilots, or engineers said “Stop looking over our shoulders. We know what we’re doing”. Have a look at what happened in recent times to babies born at a small regional hospital in Victoria, where doctors and nurses were assumed to know what they were doing, and were left alone accordingly. 
Testing doesn’t improve performance
This is like saying “Guns don’t kill, people do” – it’s a logical fallacy. If testing doesn’t have a place, why do Maternal and Child Health nurses weigh our babies? They weigh our babies to scientifically monitor progress, rather than seeing what they want or expect to see. In this way, some of the risks associated with cognitive bias are averted.

A further problem with this argument is that it is logically inconsistent with the protestation that a Phonics Screening Check is not needed because teachers already test the skills of children in their class. Presumably they do this as part of an overall strategy aimed at improving performance? 

Finally, as noted in the 2017 Report of the Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Panel, a large number of measures are used for early years assessments across education sectors and states/territories in Australia, and these have varying degrees of fitness-for-purpose when it comes to assessing early decoding skills. 

The introduction of a national measure would introduce some welcome uniformity into this important but contested space.
All we need is more money (a la “fund Gonski reforms”)
I have yet to see or hear any explanation as to how more money will improve teacher knowledge and skills with respect to early reading instruction. Perhaps we are to spend it on expensive teacher PD, rather than properly preparing pre-service teachers in the first place?

Fund schools fairly for sure, but don’t assume that more money is the answer. That is simplistic nonsense. Further, we could make significant savings right now by removing support for all kinds of neuroflapdoodle that are endorsed and invested in by schools.
We need more support for struggling students
Yes, we do need more support for struggling students. But if we work from a Response to Intervention framework, we want to ensure the highest quality instruction at Tier 1, so that those students in Tiers 2 and 3 are there because they have genuine needs that will respond to the expertise on offer by speech-language pathologists and educational and developmental psychologists. They should not be there because they are instructional casualties from Tier 1.  
It is too expensive
The cost of the Phonics Check in the UK has been estimated to be around 10-12 GBP per student per year. Compare this to the cost of providing the Arrowsmith Program, as recently promoted by a state branch of the Australian Education Union. Compare it too, to the cost of educational failure.
We shouldn’t subject six year olds to tests
We shouldn’t subject six year olds to academic failure and a lifetime of falling behind. 

Further, as noted above, teachers and some of their representative organisations tell us that one of the reasons a Phonics Screening Check is not needed is that teachers are already testing their children in Year 1 (some in fact claim that this is too late). So it's either OK to assess young children's progress, or it's not. 
A Phonics Check won’t improve children’s reading skills
The evidence from the UK suggests that at a system level, the introduction of a National Phonics Check has contributed to improved reading in the early years. If we have an efficient means of making at least some gains in this critical domain, why would we not take it? Why would we not provide data-driven feedback to the teaching profession about what beginning readers actually can, and actually cannot do

Phrased another way, how can we justify to children in the long tail of under-achievement, turning our backs on an option that is likely to offer them a brighter future? 

Reading is about extracting meaning, not sounding out words
The Simple View of Reading holds that successful reading requires both decoding skills and comprehension. Children should be equipped to read using skills of decoding and inferencing, not inferencing (aka guessing in some cases) alone, along with a long list of learned-by-sight words. 
We take a “Balanced Literacy” approach
This is akin to the “phonics is in the mix” argument. Balanced Literacy, however, simply lines up all the ducks and says “off you go – jump in the pond!” It does not position systematic synthetic phonics instruction as the starting point to get children off the blocks.

If you look at the literature on Balanced Literacy, a word you will encounter frequently is "eclectic". That does not inspire confidence that a systematic approach to instruction is being taken.

“Balanced Literacy” is the answer to good phonics instruction in the same way that “throw in some sultanas” is the answer to “How do you make a fruit cake”?

I have written a critique of Balanced Literacy, which you can access here. 
English is too inconsistent a language for phonics instruction to be useful (so a Phonics Check is a waste of time)
This is another urban myth regularly trotted out by Whole Language disciples, who themselves were probably never taught about the morpho-phonemic structure of English, or about how to trace the etymology of the various words English has appropriated from other languages.

About 50% of English words do have a transparent orthography, meaning that they can be read by someone who understands letter—sound correspondences. A further 36% have only one sound that deviates (typically a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are understood, and a mere 4% cannot be decoded from knowledge of these principles (see Snow, 2016). 

As I have said a number of times, there are no magic bullets in the important business of reading instruction. There is, however, a wealth of scientific evidence to draw on, and it is inexcusable for teacher educators to stand between this evidence and the next generation of classroom teachers.

No doubt there are other fallacious arguments in this space too. Feel free to tweet/email me if you would like me to add them to this list – it can be a living document.

Let’s hope in the meantime, however, that reading instruction’s ugly duckling can be transformed into a beautiful swan. There are children out there whose educational futures depend on it. 

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017



  1. Thanks for such a succinct and well though out series of responses!

  2. Amazingly helpful and in-depth explanation of what the /F/ is going on :-)

  3. I join Rural Psych and AndoDoug, but as George Lakoff explains in "Don't Think of an Elephant" rational argument doesn't win over the opposition, The anti's don't listen, and bystanders' eyes glaze over before finishing the fine print. It seems to me the reason the zap-a-zombie tactic doesn't work, is not only that teachers teach what they were taught, but they see with their own eyes that what they are teaching with some children, in fact in their eyes with most children. They attribute the "few" (in their eyes) failures to kids, not to the instructional products/ protocols they are using.

    The beauty of the BritCheck Yr 1 screening scenario is that it cuts through all the yadda-yadda. For kids who can read all 40 items on the Check, there is no problem or issue. For kids who can't, what they do on the Check tells you how big the problem is. For all kids, the problem isn't with the kid or the teacher; it's with the instruction--the products/protocols the teacher is using. That is what the BritCheck tests, and that's a really big professional and public advance.

    Although I'm a wholehearted enthusiast of the BritCheck and the new Aussie Yr 1 screening, I happen to be the "someone" to take issue with the "five big ideas" are the "critical ingredients" of reading instruction. These started in the US as the "five pillars" of "The New Science of Reading" and were the foundation of the No Child Left Behind initiative. Not only did the pillars crumble (with the conclusion that it was an unreasonable expectation to teach all kids to read by the end of grade 3), but the New Science was pseudo. [For elaboration, see the Teachers College Record article that can be accessed in the Social Sciences Research Network at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1367982 ]

    The good news re the "five bigs" is that they can be reduced to "one big"--the English Alphabetic Code-- as the foundation for reading instruction. It happens that the BritCheck in a quick and clean indicator, "good enough" for screening purposes, to determine if a child has been taught/learned how to handle the Alphabetic Code=can read. It's as simple as that, but as with any scientific simplicity, there is a lot of complexity behind the simplicity.

  4. This is "bullet proof" Pamela!!!!

  5. Excellent blog post, Pamela - as usual:) I totally agree with your suggestion to withdraw support for 'neuroflapdoodle' programs. To do so, however, assumes that the decision makers know the difference between rigorous neuroscience and opportunistic neuroflapdoodle.

  6. As a UK primary teacher with 40 years' experience, I initially thought the Phonics Check was unnecessary. However, having been trained (2010)in the teaching of SSP, I am totally in favour of phonics teaching for all. And the test, I believe is necessary to make sure teachers teach it properly. Look what happened to science when the Year 2 SATS test was dropped.

  7. Very well said. Hopefully people will listen.

  8. Excellent post. I read this with my first time school mum hat on. Do you have any suggestions for parents on raising these issues with classroom teachers. We are two weeks into prep, my son who completed a kinder literacy program (Little Learners Love literacy) developed very good basic skills on decoding. Now in prep he is given books to read with instruction that can only be described as guess/look at the picture/memorise/pattern recognition. Its really disappointing and feels like a step backwards. The disconnect between evidence based approaches and current practices is disappointing. Any suggestions on how to raise this with classroom teachers (or am I best not too!) or how parents can "push-up" for change would be appreciated.

  9. Hi there thanks for your comment, but it is disappointing to hear about these frustrating "disconnects" as you rightly call them. You are right too, that this is a delicate space in terms of raising concerns with teachers, but that's not a reason NOT to raise a concern. I don't know where you're located, but there have been three national inquiries into the teaching of literacy (US, Australia, and UK - all accessible via the web, but there are also links in previous blogposts of mine). You could start by sharing a copy and highlighting the key recommendations, including the absence of encouragement of guessing etc.

    This is also an issue (ie talking to teachers about practices that don't align with best evidence) that Dr. Caroline Bowen and I address in our forthcoming book for parents: http://www.jr-press.co.uk/making-sense-of-interventions-for-childrens-developmental-disorders.html

    In the meantime, at home, I would encourage you to continue the good work of LLL - helping your child to "sound out" unfamiliar words and focussing on sound-letter links, to help him learn these associations, to help him become a confident decoder so that reading is an enjoyable activity - as per LLL.

    Good luck!

  10. Nurses weighing babies is an important component of "scientifically monitoring growth progress". However, if it is unclear what support is in place to provide good infant care from birth (to ensure that as few babies as possible fail a weight check) or it is unclear what support will be provided if a baby fails a weight check, then the science may get lost and a "test" may just be seen as a "test". Knowing that a person has "failed a check" does in no way ensure that evidence-based practices will be used in providing intervention. Our teachers still need to feel supported (through both education and resources) in order to respond appropriately to students who need assistance with phonics. It is well-established that phonics skills are important for literacy and I do think a "phonics check" has potential as a useful tool to support phonics teaching, but a it needs to be placed in the context of curriculum-based intervention for this potential to be reached. It is true to say that a "phonics check" won't improve reading outcomes but high quality intervention informed by a good phonics assessment might do a lot to improve outcomes! Focus needs to be placed on effective evidence-based phonics teaching with specific explanations of how the phonics check will assist schools in the effective provision of this teaching. The "phonics check" is a once-off test used to identify yr 1 students, with some students possibly retaking the test in yr 2 (happy to be corrected if this is not the case). This means that the check needs to be given a clear purpose alongside other assessment procedures that are (or should) also be used for day-day literacy progress monitoring. Also, how are Prep/Kindy students being taught so that they have the phonics skills expected in year 1? As a next step, it would be great to now see a practical discussion about how schools and teachers may be supported to use data on phonics skills to improve every-day literacy teaching in classrooms.

    1. Agree with this. The more I read the more I see that a phonics test may be a good option as long as, as you've said "Focus needs to be placed on effective evidence-based phonics teaching with specific explanations of how the phonics check will assist schools in the effective provision of this teaching." I believe upskilling he teachers is where the focus/funding perhaps needs to be

  11. Great to read this necessary info, thank you. With 30 yrs experience as an educator i am reaasured that the sometimes repetitive and painful learning my generation went thru tells me the cucke needs to turn back to phonics and corrections!! I now teach adult men and would b interested to hear about suitable structured phonics programs which would have successful outcomes for motivated learners. Reta

  12. With the overwhelming evidence to support the Year 1 Phonics Check, it is difficult to understand such opposition to it!

  13. As a parent of a struggling reader, I fully support the use of the UK phonics check or something similar. From my experience, the tools currently being used in the early years in Victoria are not picking up on these issues. Throughout foundation and grade 1 we raised concerns about our daughter's progress and were consistently told she was at or above where she should be. Although it was counter intuitive to us, we implemented the advice of her teacher (also the reading recovery teacher and held up as the school's literacy expert) and did not sound out words while reading with our daughter, encouraged her to look at the pictures to work out words, and drilled her with 'sight words'. By the end of grade 1 we were very concerned as she was clearly guessing words from the picture as they didn't even correspond with the first letter of the written word. We did some research and booked her into a speech pathologist who specialised in literacy. Her school report placed her at above level. We did the UK phonics test at home - she scored 8/40. The speech pathologist used the CC2 - she scored 1. 6 months of a synthetic phonics program and she blitzed the UK phonics test (38/40), is in the top 30% on the CC2, and now enjoys reading.

    Her school insists that they teach phonics as part of a 'balanced literacy' program. They certainly don't teach phonics in any explicit and systematic way as part of that program.

    A phonics test in grade 1 would have identified our daughter as a struggling reader earlier, and will provide crucial feedback to teachers and schools about whether their teaching strategies are working. The evidence about the effectiveness of a synthetic phonics program is not new, but schools are still lagging behind in implementing these teaching strategies.

    The report by the London School of Economics into Letters and Sounds identifies that this is a cost effective program that has particular benefits for children from lower socioeconomic economic backgrounds, and has the potential to 'close the gap'. Shame on Labor and the AEU for not supporting it.

  14. I could just cry reading this ☹️ I can only echo the frustrations we are experiencing as a parents of a child who has not thrived in the L3 whole language model. We are in the Illawarra NSW where this program is still popular. Despite raising concerns at the end of Kindergarten and all of Year 1, our child was still encouraged to memorise sight words and “have a guess” at words in the story. Now in Year 2 and totally exhausting his memory capabilities it became obvious this was just not working. He had no system for decoding words. We are now starting again with a speech pathologist relearning vowel sounds and blends (at considerable cost) but I ask why? Why is this happening? Every time we’ve raised concerns and sat down with members staff all we’ve heard is praise for L3! All the while we watch our child struggle and fall further behind. I concede it works for some, but when it doesn’t there is no back up plan. Out of interest we took the UK phonics screening test with a score of 29. Sadly, our kindergarten child who is also in the same system scored 15. Perhaps it’s too early to screen him but given I think this would be rolled out beginning of Year 1 (?) we are only a few months off! I feel like we need to start again with our second child also as this whole year has been spent memorising sight words and guessing content in readers! And yet, having explicitly met with his teachers recently to ascertain how he is progressing I was told there is nothing to worry about!! But sadly, I’ve already seen what happens by year 2 so thank you very much but I may just allow myself to Be concerned! It’s so disappointing given the weight of information available for a “lay” person like myself find! But what would I know I’m just a parent......