The latest plan to boost childrenâs literacy levels involves a reading test for six-year-olds, which includes made-up words like âmipâ, âfackâ, âzortâ, âkoobâ and âglimpâ.
The Government scheme is intended to provide a âlight touch phonics-based checkâ, to either reassure parents of their childâs ability, or to identify the pupils falling behind. It would entail reading back a list of both real and made-up words, to ensure that none was just recited by rote.
Some of the words may be nonsensical, but the idea may not be quite as crazy as it sounds. Teaching with phonics â where words are deduced by recognising the sounds associated with letters or groups of letters â has been shown to help with individual word identification and spelling.
Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools, quotes academic research from Australia and the US that âpoints to synthetic phonics being the most effective method for teaching literacy for all children, especially those aged five to seven.â
And one can hardly fault the Government on their stated goals. âToo many children leave primary school unable to read and write properly,â says Gibb. âWe are determined to raise standards and the new phonics-based reading check for six-year-olds will ensure that children who need extra help are given it before it is too late.â
But it is the prospect of a test based solely on phonics that is causing consternation among education and literacy experts in the UK. Many think it is more likely to actually put kids off reading, by isolating the act from its own rewards: understanding and enjoyment. âThe test is trying to control all the different variables so that things like meaning donât get in the way,â says president of the UK Literacy Association (UKLA), David Reedy. âWe think this seems a bit bonkers when the whole purpose of reading is to understand words.â
And children cannot learn through phonics alone: âThere is the context, the sentence itself, and whether they have that word in their spoken lexiconâ, Reedy points out.
Professor Greg Brooks, from the University of Sheffield, has also questioned the term âlight-touchâ, saying the exam will âinevitably become high-stakes, with all the educational deformations that are known to attend high-stakes testsâ, including âteaching to the testâ and âneedless anxiety for childrenâ. And, if the UKLA are to be believed, it would be needless.Â They assert that the results wouldnât be a good indicator of how well pupils would read connected text, or pick up meaning.
Perhaps the theory is sound enough, but the test itself is just a case of too much, too early. âMost children at that age are not ready to learn phonics, never mind be tested on them,â says Professor Janet Moyles, an early years and play consultant from Anglia Ruskin University. âChildren do not have formal teaching of reading in Scandinavian countries, for example, until they are six to seven years of age and do much better than our children in formal testing later.’