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The controversy surrounding phonics testing

Over one million people in London cannot read and one in four children leave London’s primary schools unable to read properly.

Cailly Morris

In an effort to identify UK students who need reading support, as of this time next year students in England are likely to encounter a new national test that assesses their ability to read.

Students between the ages of five and six will be asked to sound out familiar and non familiar words — a test designed to asses their ability to follow pronunciation rules. The results will then be collected to produce statistics on national and local performance scales to inform Ofsted inspection judgments on schools.

However, the test is proving to be highly controversial with only 28 percent of respondents backing the new phonics system.

“This is a huge sledgehammer approach: what’s the point of testing 600,000 six-year-olds in order to identify the 100,000 pupils or fewer who need help, when these pupils should be obvious to their classroom teachers much earlier anyway,” said Gred Brooks, emeritus professor of education at the University of Sheffield.

The government estimates the cost of the pilot to be around £250,000, but it is likely to be even higher causing the United Kingdom Literacy Association to describe the program as “enormously costly [and] exceptionally hard to justify in a period of financial restrictions.”

The UKLA, backed by 13 other organizations, has written to Education Secretary Michael Gove urging him to abandon the test.

“Parents want to know how their children are reading and this will tell them,” said Gove.

According to Henrietta Dombey, a former president of the United Kingdom Reading Association, children learning to read English have to go much further than simply being able to sound out words phonetically — leading to a potentially incorrect identification of students as poor or good readers.

Dombey accuses the government of “extreme arrogance” and warns them that the test will become “high-stakes” for teachers; some of whom she says will narrow the curriculum towards test preparation.

However, not everyone is against the subject of phonics testing. In fact, Publisher Chris Jolly believes strongly in the ability for phonetics testing to help students.
“I think it’s a good thing, because it puts more emphasis on pupil’s ability to read early in their schooling,” said Jolly. “It is vital that we can gauge standards at as early an age as is appropriate and a light-touch screening check in year one will allow us to do this.”

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