Sunday, 16 August 2020

GUEST BLOG: But what if there was a screening test for COVID-19?

This Guest Blog was written by Associate Professor Tanya Serry*, Co-Director of the newly-established Science of Language and Reading (SOLAR) Lab in the School of Education at La Trobe University, Australia.


While COVID-19 plays havoc with our minds, our health care workers and our economy, let’s just imagine that a COVID-19 Screening Check was available from tomorrow. We’ll call it CSC for short. In the spirit of any screening check (think breast screening, hearing screening, antenatal ultrasound screening), the CSC acts as a population-based preventative measure for early detection of the virus. While your imagination is running wild about the CSC, let’s also assume that those identified as positive on the CSC, will be eligible for early, evidence-based medical care. Let’s also assume that for most people, (say about 80%), the treatment is short, sharp and effective; well before the virus causes fever, fatigue and fear. What a huge relief and wonderful safety net that would be. What a cause for celebration.

But what if we substituted CSC for PSC: the Phonics Screening Check? Would there be as much fanfare? Unfortunately, the answer is no, even though the PSC performs a similar function as our imagined CSC, but in relation to identifying students who are not tracking as expected in learning how to decode. It’s just that reading difficulties are a slow-burn virus that can take a lot longer to declare themselves, unlike COVID-19, which has a short incubation period. More about that later.

Background to the Phonics Screening Check

The Phonics Screening Check commenced in the UK in 2012. According to the South Australian Department for Education, which had the foresight in 2018 to trial the check statewide across publicly funded schools, the check is ‘… a short, simple assessment that helps teachers to measure how well students are learning to decode and blend letters into sounds - one of the building blocks for reading.

The Check (note the word check and not test) is conducted towards the latter half of Year 1 to monitor students’ progress in learning to decode words and in particular, to achieve the early identification of children struggling with decoding. The PSC takes between four and seven minutes to administer and consists of 40 items: 20 real words and 20 pseudowords. Herein lies the rub: pseudowords; loved by some, despised by others, misunderstood by many.

Real words could be for example: ITS, SUM or THIRD while pseudowords could be OSK, PAB or DARP. You’ll see that the pseudowords are all phonologically legal and phonotactically identical (respectively). I can’t show you a picture of test items as they are not labeled for reuse. However, the reality is that every word that children encounter, real or pseudo, is new for a novice reader at least once. All the PSC is doing is determining whether Year 1 students can decode phonologically legal combinations. Perhaps in an ideal world, where there was overarching support for the concept of a PSC, the entire check could be pseudowords. That would really be the purest way of tracking students’ decoding abilities; but for now, a bridge too far. It would mean however that we would not see ill-informed comments reported in newspapers such as Apparently, puzzling over the sounds of "flisp" is going to help children learn to read and write.

So how does the Phonics Screening Check stack up against the CSC?

If we reflect on the likely support for the imagined CSC and the real-life PSC, it would go something like this:

Properties of the check

 (Imagined) CSC

(Real) PSC

Provides early detection of risk?

Yes: for COVID—19.

Yes: for ongoing difficulties learning how to decode words.

May identify some false positives?

Yes: but better safe than sorry.

Yes: but better safe than sorry.

May identify some false negatives?

Yes; it’s a possibility but managed by close progress monitoring of COVID-19 ‘symptoms’.

Yes; it’s a possibility, but managed by close progress monitoring of ‘signs’ of reading struggles.

Offers intervention options?

Yes: evidence-based treatment to significantly reduce the virus taking hold.

Yes: evidence-based treatment to boost the word decoding abilities of children .

Effective for everyone?

About 80% will benefit from the treatment. The remaining 20% are likely to need more intensive treatment.

About 90-95% will benefit from a brief but intensive Tier-2 reading intervention. The remaining 5-10% of students will need more intensive, more enduring Tier-3 treatment.

Reasons not to use it?

None identified.

None identified although there is much misinformation about its use.

 The good news

On August 2nd, a media release was circulated by the Hon Dan Tehan MP (Federal Minister for Education) headed 2020, Free phonics check for all Year 1 students. In this release, the Minister was quoted as saying “Importantly, Phonics Check results provide teachers with a useful picture of where individual students are at in their reading, so they can implement the right support for those who are struggling…”

How good is that?

Well yes, it’s good if you support the Phonics Check (like I do). And if you do support the Phonics Check, implicitly that means that you understand:

  • That the ultimate aim of reading is to gain meaning;
  • That Gough and Tunmer's (1986) Simple View of Reading (which states that reading is a product of being able to decode words and understand spoken language), is theoretically sound;
  • That novice readers (5-6 year old students) need to be taught how to “crack the code” of English.
  • That learning to decode accurately and efficiently is the first, crucial step to becoming a competent reader;
  • That not all children will learn to “crack the code” without explicit teaching, but these children do not necessarily have a learning difficulty;
  • That structured literacy using a synthetic phonics approach is the safest way to ensure that children learn to decode words;
  • That a systematic scope and sequence is superior (safer and more trustworthy) to a non-systematic approach (see here and here; and
  • That humans were not born “wired to read (and spell) and therefore need to be taught, ideally in a systematic and explicit way.

Why the backlash?

Those who challenge the value of the PSC use the straw-man argument that says “decoding alone does not a good reader make”. But that’s just not correct as shown by the evidence (see for example here and here). Take the Simple View of Reading which states, in the most elegant way, that being a competent reader comes about by being able to (i) decode well and (ii) have a solid grasp of oral language comprehension. Then there is the very important work of Professor David Kilpatrick who has demystified for us all, that critical step of moving from decoding in a rather mechanistic; sound-it-out way to developing orthographic mapping skills for fluent effortless word reading (the 70min investment in the hyperlinked YouTube video above is well worth it).   

The sound-it-out decoding part, which is all the PSC is used for, opens the door to becoming a competent reader. That’s all. In the same way that we would be fist-punching for that imagined CSC, universal acceptance of the PSC, which is at our fingertips and on our iPads, should elicit the same joy. The joy of reading, in fact


*Associate Professor Tanya Serry is an Advisory Panel Member for the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment in relation to the development of the 2020 online Phonics Screening Check. All views expressed in this blog are opinions of the author alone.


© Tanya Serry (2020)


  1. Excellent piece--my spouse is a physician who has long posited (and I concur) that treating reading issues should follow the tenets of treating medical illnesses (as well as commenting that pre-service teachers should be trained in the same way as fashion as medical students, interns, and residents.

  2. Thanks for your comments and support Lori. Reading difficulties has been linked to a public health concern by various pediatricians, who I daresay, would also support your premise (and that of your spouse). My background is in allied health and I concur that we would all be served well; including teachers themselves, if they were provided with more opportunity to use the scientific method to their problem-solving. Many wonderful teachers find their way there but not without a lot of self-directed learning.
    Regards Tanya

  3. AND - really sorry for the grammatical error in Line 1 ...

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. It is worth pointing out that there is little evidence that the PSC is better at assessing decoding that teachers. Check out:

    This undermines somewhat the analogy here.

    Proponents of PSC should note this and explain why the PSC is so important despite this. I don't think the PSC is such a big issue one way or the other, but it is frustrating that basic issues are ignored when researchers promote the PSC.

    Also note that there is no evidence that the PSC has improved reading outcomes in England:


  6. Dear Jeff,

    Thank you for your response to this blog about the PSC. I re-read the Duff et al. (2014) paper with interest after your comment.

    I would like to offer an alternate view about their (open access) paper. They found that the PSC was in fact a valid and sensitive measure of children's knowledge of phonics skills and noted that, as with any screening tool, there was a small chance of over-identification. I see this as a good-news story. Duff et al. also noted, as you rightly point out, that teachers in their study (drawn from eight schools in the UK) were similarly sensitive in their judgments of students’ phonics skills. I see that as another good-news story. Both seem to be measuring the same construct and doing so with seemingly high internal consistency. However, and this is a big ‘however’, the jury is still not out about teachers’ ability to accurately judge their students’ phonemic awareness and/or reading skills. These two studies here and here provide evidence that informal teacher judgments about students phonemic awareness and/or reading assessments are prone to low levels of reliability and validity compared to formal measures. So it seems wise, certainly for now, just to be remain cautious about informal teacher judgments being able to do what validated tools can do.

    Part 1 of 3...

  7. Part 2 of 3...

    If I interpret your query correctly, it seems to be ‘so why do both?’ which is certainly fair to ask. I see a number of reasons to persist with the PSC as many schools and educators around the world are at very different stages in their so-called ‘journey’ to learning about effective and evidence-based reading instruction. Apart from the ‘jury being out still’ about how informal teacher judgments match up to things like the PSC, here are my thoughts:
    • Students are likely to perform poorly on the PSC if their Tier-1 instruction does not align with a systematic approach to phonics instruction. These students will find the pseudowords especially difficult. Using the PSC is this context can be an important prompt for educators and school leaders to reflect on their current practices and look for alternatives that are evidence-informed. Therefore, the PSC has the capacity to prompt system-wide change (Click here to read about the Evaluation of the Trial of the UK Phonics Screening Check in South Australian schools).
    • Students are likely to perform well on the PSC if their classroom instruction is aligned with effective and evidence-based reading instruction. Further and importantly, those students who perform below expectation, can be immediately identified and offered Tier-2 intervention. This approach avoids the ‘wait-to-fail’ model that is all too often the case. The PSC, as a screening tool, and that is all it is, will be meeting its objective if it can be used to identify students with difficulties early. Of course, any valid screener is only as good as the support/intervention that is offered as needed.
    • The PSC is quick, easy and non-invasive. Given the strong internal consistency found between teacher judgments and PSC in Duff et al (2014), we could argue that the PSC is a great screener so that teachers can then more deeply assess those students whose results are not as good on the PSC. It’s predictive capacity has certainly been reported here and here.
    • I did note with interest that the PSC scores in Duff et al (2014) correlated more highly with a standardised pseudoword reading test (see p.119) than assessments performed by the teacher participants. Being (un)able to read pseudowords, is the most pure way we can determine a student’s decoding ability (as I say in the blog) and I would argue that their finding further identifies the benefit of the PSC.

  8. Part 3 of 3...

    As to your final comment that “no evidence that the PSC has improved reading outcomes in England…”, well, if classroom instruction and/or intervention does not align with the theoretical properties of the PSC, gains will definitely not be made in reading outcomes. A screening test itself cannot by definition, improve outcomes. It’s the collective paradigm shift and actioning that is the only way the PSC can possibly be associated with improved reading outcomes. By ‘collective paradigm shift’, I refer to things such as (i) adopting evidence-based Tier-1 reading instruction for all students and that support is adopted at the whole-school level, (ii) ensuring that all teachers are suitably equipped with the knowledge about the structure of English (click here and here for examples suggesting we cannot assume this), and (iii) adopting an early-intervention approach to all students who appear to be falling behind and providing them with immediate support; the antithesis of the Matthew Effect. Screening checks of any type cannot be in a cause-effect relationship with the desired outcome. It’s what follows the screening check that is critical. Women who are screened positive for breast cancer must then comply with the clinical guidelines for further investigation and / or treatment options. If the groundswell was that women did not do this, we would still have a significantly greater morbidity and mortality rate from the disease. Same goes for the PSC.

  9. And there is a part 4.. the hyperlinks did not work so here are some references:

    Carson, K., & Bayetto, A. (2018). Teachers' phonological awareness assessment practices, self-reported knowledge and actual knowledge: the challenge of assessing what you may know less about. Australian Journal of Teacher Education (Online), 43(6), 67.

    Hempenstall, K. (2013). What is the place for national assessment in the prevention and resolution of reading difficulties? Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 18(2), 105-121.

    Duff, F. J., Mengoni, S. E., Bailey, A. M., & Snowling, M. J. (2015). Validity and sensitivity of the phonics screening check: implications for practice. Journal of Research in Reading, 38(2), 109-123. [OPEN ACCESS] NOTE: Citation is 2015 but first published in 2014.

    Stark, H. L., Snow, P. C., Eadie, P. A., & Goldfeld, S. R. (2015). Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: the knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers. Annals of dyslexia, 1-27.

    Bos, C., Mather, N., Dickson, S., Podhajski, B., & Chard, D. (2001). Perceptions and knowledge of preservice
    and inservice educators about early reading instruction. Annals of Dyslexia, 51(1), 97–120.

    Joshi, R. M., Binks, E., Hougen, M., Dahlgren, M. E., Ocker-Dean, E., & Smith, D. L. (2009). Why elementary
    teachers might be inadequately prepared to teach reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(5), 392–402.

    Duff, F. J., Mengoni, S. E., Bailey, A. M., & Snowling, M. J. (2015). Validity and sensitivity of the phonics screening check: implications for practice. Journal of Research in Reading, 38(2), 109-123.

  10. Hordacre, A., Moretti, C., & Spoehr, J. (2017). Evaluation of the Trial of the UK Phonics Screening Check in South Australian schools