In April 2017 the government published a document which included ‘Content of the phonics screening check’ – see below. This is useful and helpful as it could inform teachers about what might be coming up in the check for 5 and 6 year olds, in June. It is right and fitting that teachers know what the children they teach will be tested on. I wonder how many teachers saw this information before the check, and tried to use it?
Children are expected to be accurate in their decoding of the words and non-words when they do the check. There is no possibility for their teacher to assume they know what a child meant or that they really do know something that they made a mistake with, and give them the point. I read the government information with this in mind, because they do make mistakes and expect us to give them benefits of doubts that are denied to 5 and 6 year olds. I have nit-picked most of the errors in the information (I left out a few dodgy commas and spaces that should have been picked up by a proof-reader), because 5 and 6 year olds are in no position to do this for themselves. If they were, there might be loud shouts of, “Hang on a minute! That’s not what you said. It’s not fair that you’re allowed to make mistakes. You get paid for this. You could walk away and get another job where you might make less mistakes, but we have no choice. We have to put up with it.”
I also keep in mind that the phonics screening check and its ever-widening hinterland of commercially produced resources, training and practices have been sold to successive governments for more than a decade and foisted on our youngest school children as necessary simplifications because learning to read and write English is so complicated and difficult. But the practices and the check itself, as demonstrated in the information and word list below, have become so complicated in themselves, we might as well return to teaching children to read books. They have to start reading books at some point. I am not sure the PSC rigmarole does anything to support them in their endeavours.
I have highlighted in pink, the items that appear in section 1; those from section 2 in green. The check is meant to be cumulatively more difficult, page by page and so it makes sense for the section 1 items to be less complex than the section 2 items, perhaps.
I’m not sure why the section 2 item /ur/ is used in section 1? I’m not sure why some items are used several times and some not at all? An early directive to writers of the check listed all the different sorts of combinations of letters that were allowed and ones that were not (legal and illegal) so that words such as tzar will never appear. There is only enough room for a small fraction of the combinations, so the initiators expected them all to be covered gradually, over a course of years. I’m not sure how this is meant to be fair to 5 and 6 year olds who only do the check once, or twice if they fail the first time, nor their teachers.
The information about which combinations of vowels and consonants, CVC, VCC etc, is also useful. As a teacher who has taught many children who had struggled to learn to read I know there are many phonics-taught children who have not learned to blend 3 consonants at the starts of words like sprout or scribble, or 2 consonants at the starts of words like brick or tree. Consonant blends at starts of words are hard to say for little children – there are not so many, have a look next time you read, but those there are are used a lot, children need them. They are anathema to commercial phonics scheme writers, so it is helpful, in my opinion and experience, to flag up various types in this information. I find it odd that teachers are warned against teaching consonant blends, but they are flagged up in this information about the check. Not all C and V combinations in the check are in the information, but it’s helpful to have some.
Some questions. See information and check wordlist below:
i Why is /i/ listed in upper case when all the other letters are lower case?
shape is one of the check words Which of the word structures is this? Should it be ccv-vC where cc is a consonant digraph and v-v is a split vowel digraph?
straw is one of the check words Which of the word structures is this? CCCvv where vv is a vowel digraph, but not split?
scribe is one of the check words Which of the word structures is this? CCCv-vC?
q(u) A new departure? Is someone wanting to sell their scheme in Qatar? There is a recently released video from SoundsWrite in which /q/ and /u/ are pronounced /k/ and /oo/ as the first sounds, called simple code?, to learn for those letters. It makes me wonder?
ur Listed as a possibility in section 2 but used in section 1 of the check. Why?
2 syllable words Are these not worthy of their structure being announced? Should we be informed of the structures that might come up in each syllable? For example ‘chapter’, one of the check words, could be given as ccVCCvc where /er/ is rendered as a vowel digraph made of one letter which is usually a vowel and one letter which is usually a consonant.
ph and wh Why are these flagged with their own bullet point as ‘additional consonant digraphs’ and then neither is used in the check? Why not give a list which includes them and some others which are used as is the case for the other flagged up lists of options? Some Government recommended phonics schemes list nk as a consonant digraph, for example. The fascinating ReadWriteInc ditty for nk is ‘I think I stink.’ nk appears in the check in the word ‘trunk’. The list below has /ng/ (thing on a string). Why not /nk/?
oo and or Listed as frequent and consistent? Is this true? oo is usually different in soon and took; or is different in more and porridge.
th Why does /th/ not appear in the check? It didn’t appear last year either. /th/ is one of the very first consonant digraphs children will need when they read a real book i.e. one that has not been contrived to use only the phonics that have been taught. /wh/ is similarly common and necessary, and hasn’t appeared this year or last.
Content of the phonics screening check
The words in section 1 will have a variety of simple word structures (for example CVC, VCC, CCVC and CVCC) using:
• single letters (a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, I, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q(u), r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z)
• some consonant digraphs (ch, ck, ff, ll, ng, sh, ss, th, zz)
• frequent and consistent vowel digraphs (ar, ee, oi, oo,or)
The words in section 2 will have a variety of more complex word structures (for example CCVCC, CCCVC, CCCVCC and two syllable words) with some:
• additional consonant digraphs (ph, wh)
• less frequent and consistent vowel digraphs, including split digraphs (a-e, ai, au, aw, ay, ea, e-e, er, ew, i-e, ie, ir, oa, o-e, ou, ow, oy, ue, u-e, ur)
• trigraphs (air, igh).