The latest plan to boost children’s literacy levels involves a reading test for six-year-olds, which includes made-up words like ‘mip’, ‘fack’, ‘zort’, ‘koob’ and ‘glimp’.
The Government scheme is intended to provide a ‘light touch phonics-based check’, to either reassure parents of their child’s 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 – where words are deduced by recognising the sounds associated with letters or groups of letters – 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 ‘points to synthetic phonics being the most effective method for teaching literacy for all children, especially those aged five to seven.’
And one can hardly fault the Government on their stated goals. ‘Too many children leave primary school unable to read and write properly,’ says Gibb. ‘We 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.’
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. ‘The test is trying to control all the different variables so that things like meaning don’t get in the way,’ says president of the UK Literacy Association (UKLA), David Reedy. ‘We think this seems a bit bonkers when the whole purpose of reading is to understand words.’
And children cannot learn through phonics alone: ‘There is the context, the sentence itself, and whether they have that word in their spoken lexicon’, Reedy points out.
Professor Greg Brooks, from the University of Sheffield, has also questioned the term ‘light-touch’, saying the exam will ‘inevitably become high-stakes, with all the educational deformations that are known to attend high-stakes tests’, including ‘teaching to the test’ and ‘needless anxiety for children’. And, if the UKLA are to be believed, it would be needless. They assert that the results wouldn’t 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. ‘Most children at that age are not ready to learn phonics, never mind be tested on them,’ says Professor Janet Moyles, an early years and play consultant from Anglia Ruskin University. ‘Children 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.’