National phonics test:

The English experience

Indeed the check has been found to be no more accurate than a teacher’s judgement in identifying struggling readers.

A salutary lesson has been provided in advance for Australian educators. The English phonics test (in place since 2011) is described by University of Canberra Associate Professor, Language and Literacy, Misty Adoniou as being “ill conceived and poorly structured”. Yet it is the likely model coming to Australia.

Adoniou goes on to explain that the test for six year olds which involves 40 decodable words (20 are pseudo words and 20 ‘real’ words) has disturbing outcomes. Essentially it is not a ‘light touch’ assessment because of the impact of standardised testing. Teachers will change their practice and class time allocation to a ‘test’ phenomenon.

Interestingly, in 2016 91% of Year 1 students in England passed the phonics screening check. This was perceived as evidence of its success because it forced teachers to focus on phonics.

Sadly, the same students sat a Year 2 key Stage 1 reading comprehension test. The pass rate was 76% but for low SES students it was 61%. The notion that a focus on phonics was a magic bullet was clearly flawed.

“Indeed the check has been found to be no more accurate than a teacher’s judgement in identifying struggling readers,” Adoniou said.

Hargreaves and Fullan in Professional Capital provide a cautionary note: “In the face of solutions that haven’t worked, some people’s answer is simply to push these solutions harder”.

Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies chaired the panel charged with conducting an independent review of the need (in Australia) for a Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.

The English experience captures what Australian educators know. There are multiple approaches to the teaching of reading. To impose is not to recognise the plethora of strategies ultilised by teachers. Imposition is a rejection of teacher judgement.

Additional testing (of a standardised form) will not lead to improvements. Supporting teachers will.

The Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Panel recommendations should be deemed unnecessary. The December 2017 Education Council meeting will consider the matter further. Hopefully, the English experience will inform the minister’s judgement.

Mark Northam
Assistant Secretary