Alice Bradbury and Dominic Wyse, Helen Hamlyn Centre For Pedagogy (0–11years) (HHCP), UCL Institute of Education, UK
In this paper we report some key findings from a new research study exploring the impact of the use of the phonics screening check (PSC) in Year 2. As part of the government’s arrangements for examinations and testing under COVID in 2020, England’s PSC was implemented with all Year 2 children (aged six to seven) for the first time.
In June 2020, the UK government announced that the PSC would be moved to the autumn term, and made the reporting of results to the The ministerial department responsible for children’s serv... More a statutory requirement (STA, 2020). A Department for Education spokesperson explained that (Gibbons, 2020):
‘Pupils who may need support should not be overlooked as a result of missing their phonics check.’
The PSC had, since its introduction, been used with Year 1 children in the summer term and in the summer term of Year 2 for children who did not reach the threshold mark in Year 1.
The PSC is a statutory assessment of decoding, consisting of 40 words and pseudowords that children have to decode using their phonetic knowledge. It is conducted one-to-one by a teacher and ‘passed’ if children reach a threshold mark, usually a total of 32 words/pseudowords read using ‘acceptable pronunciations’ (STA, 2019). The test has been controversial since its introduction in 2012, because it focuses on one aspect of teaching reading only and one particular skill of decoding (Darnell et al., 2017), within contested views about the most appropriate ways to teach phonics and reading (Clarke, 2018; Wyse and Goswami, 2008).
The debates about phonics teaching, over many decades, have at times been fierce. This is because learning to read is one of the most fundamental aspects of teaching and learning in Early Years and primary education. The sharp disagreements have included political and ideological dimensions. As part of this history of debates, England’s National Curriculum of 2014 further intensified the use of synthetic phonics as part of the curricula for reading and writing (Wyse et al., 2018). An important contribution to the debates about phonics and the teaching of reading has come from research about the statutory assessment of reading, including the use of the PSC. Past research has suggested that the PSC has had an impact on pedagogy and practice in Year 1 and in earlier year groups, and that phonics is now a separate area of the curriculum to reading (Bradbury, 2018; Carter, 2020).
In this paper, we focus on: the use of the PSC to identify struggling readers; the impact of disruptions to learning; and the potential for reading progress to be slowed down to satisfy the demands of a test.
The research study
The research reported in this paper is part of a wider project in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy looking at the teaching of reading. Initial findings about the PSC were published in November 2020, reporting on the first tranche of data (Bradbury, 2020), but here we use data collected up to December 2020.
The research aimed to explore two key questions relating to the use of the PSC in Year 2:
- What has been the impact of the PSC on teaching in Year 2, according to Year 2 teachers and headteachers?
- What are Year 2 teachers’ and primary headteachers’ views on the use of the PSC in Year 2?
The use of the PSC for all children in a different year group, Year 2 rather than Year 1, provides a unique case that can help understanding about the relationship between assessment and pedagogy. While we cannot know what teachers would have done this term without the test, given the unique circumstances of the academic year 2019 to 2020, the impact of the PSC on practices does offer us some insights into the pedagogical implications of a ‘high-stakes’ statutory test.
Research data was collected using a survey that was distributed to a range of educational organisations and networks, and via a general call for respondents on social media. There were 1,271 responses from Year 2 teachers, but response numbers per question varied as not all respondents answered every question. Some questions asked respondents to say whether they ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘neither agree nor disagree’, ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ with a statement; other questions allowed for written responses. A focus group interview was held with four headteachers recruited through the ‘More than a Score’ group, a coalition of educational and parent groups who campaign for reform of primary assessment (see www.morethanascore.org.uk). Five individual interviews were held with headteachers recruited through the HHCP’s networks. The sample of headteachers is therefore potentially biased towards those with a particular interest in and view on the PSC and statutory testing. Data was analysed and interpreted with this in mind.
Teachers’ views of the use of the PSC
Seventy-two per cent (765 out of 1,006 responses) of Year 2 teachers answered ‘No’ to the question ‘Do you think Year 2 children should be doing the phonics screening check this term?’ A further 12 per cent (126) answered ‘Not sure’. The remaining respondents who answered ‘Yes’ (16 per cent, 175) commented that the benefits lay in establishing pupils’ current phonics knowledge; for example, ‘It’s good to know where the children are [in their learning]’. This contrasts with the views of the majority, who often identified the lack of useful information provided as a problem with the test. In answer to the question, ‘Has doing the phonics screening check this term helped you to identify those children struggling with phonics?’, 57 per cent answered ‘No’, compared to 43 per cent who answered ‘Yes’ (428 compared to 578 out of 1,006 responses). For the majority, the test does not fulfil its main function as a tool of identification, perhaps due to the existing informal phonics assessments carried out by teachers: as one teacher commented, ‘Our own methods of teaching and regular assessment of phonics are rigorous and are enough to be able to know where our children are up to.’ The test was also described by respondents as ‘pointless’, ‘unnecessary’ and ‘irrelevant’ in survey comments, because it failed to provide the teachers with useful information. It was felt that the narrow focus of the PSC means that it does not provide a detailed picture of a child’s reading. As one teacher explained:
‘It’s not comprehensive enough to give you a detailed picture. Plus, they are reading words in isolation, which is absolutely not the main event in terms of learning to read.’
Twenty-five per cent of respondents agreed that the test has given them helpful information on how well children can read (246 out of 983 responses); however, this raises questions about which elements of reading are most important to assess and how this might be done.
The impact on children and the significance of learning disruption
Concerns were expressed about the PSC disrupting the period of recovery and reconnection for pupils returning in the autumn term. For example, one commented:
‘Depressing that I’ve been forced to put Year 2 through the wringer, when they’ve had such a terrible year and we’re so pleased to be back.’
When asked whether the PSC caused additional stress for children, 43 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that it did (413 of 983 responses), while 33 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed (321 responses). The interview data indicated that schools engaged in various approaches to minimise the impact on children, including doing practice tests, which may account for this range of views. Some comments related to the pressure of the PSC for children, such as ‘Year 2 should be a fun year filled with learning and laughter. It should not be a year filled with first phonics tests and then SATs.’ For some headteachers, the potential emotional impact of a test for children who were struggling with phonics was a major concern – one headteacher commented:
‘The thing is for children who sit there and really can’t read and to do that to them is just not a beneficial, productive experience. It’s a really negative experience actually. It just cements their low self-esteem.’ (HT2)
Teachers and headteachers commented that some children had suffered greatly during the pandemic, and as such time was more appropriately spent on activities other than testing. A teacher summed their views up: ‘It’s getting in the way of what the children need right now.’ One headteacher explained, ‘The families have been through trauma and we’ve also got a huge safeguarding and CP [child protection] list.’ (HT2) For this head teacher, social and emotional support was a priority, so as a result he decided to mark all the children in his Year 2 as ‘not yet ready to take the test’, and return to the issue in June the following year when he felt it would be more appropriate (this iteration has since been cancelled).
The impact on pedagogy
For the majority of Year 2 teacher respondents, the test had not had a positive impact on their teaching (58 per cent: 568 out of 983 responses). A majority of respondents also agreed that doing the PSC ‘has reduced the time spent on other literacy activities’ (68 per cent: 671 out of 983 responses). One headteacher agreed that the test had reduced time, ‘because we’ve got to make them jump through hoops’ (HT6). Many respondents were positive about teaching phonics and enthusiastic about its role in helping children learn to read. However, there were concerns that having the PSC in the autumn term of Year 2 meant that there was too much focus on phonics at the expense of other elements of reading:
‘Testing a list of 40 words, half of which are nonsense words, has never been a good indicator of reading ability.’
‘Too much time spent on learning phonics and phonemes in a way that has little relevance to context. Time is taken away from real learning in order to develop technical skills which have little practical use.’
Effects on the breadth and balance of the curriculum caused by the PSC have been previously noted in relation to Year 1 and earlier year groups (Bradbury, 2018), but they are perhaps more apparent in our data because the test was moved to Year 2. The use of the test in Year 2 also meant that children were tested when they were six months older and a higher proportion of children had progressed to being fluent readers. This group of children who were reading fluently were seen as being more affected by the PSC:
‘A lot of the fluent readers don’t want to read rubbish, which is what they have to do with the alien words [pseudowords]. Normally we have plenty of time to get ready for that and say, “I know it’s a load of rubbish, I just need you to read this load of rubbish.”’ (HT6)
‘[We] would not be reading nonsense words in Year 2 normally. Nonsensical to be helping seven-year-olds to read made-up words.’
This reflects concerns raised when the test was introduced that it would produce ‘false negatives’, when children who could read well self-corrected the pseudowords and thus were marked as saying the word incorrectly (UKLA, 2012). In the survey we asked about Year 2 teachers’ approaches with fluent readers, and many responded that they were approaching the test with them in the same way as less fluent readers. However, some suggested that there was a focus on children relearning to segment words and use phonics. This focus – described by one respondent as ‘delaying the children’s learning’ – was seen as problematic.
The data reported in this paper, and previously published research by a range of researchers, strongly suggests the need for further changes to the statutory assessment system in England, particularly as we enter the post-COVID era, and greater reflection on the extent to which the reading and writing content in England’s National Curriculum and assessment system reflects international research evidence.
The use of the PSC in Year 2 exemplified some of the pedagogical implications of high-stakes statutory tests. Our results show that teachers adapted the ways in which they usually taught because of the test. The majority of respondents did not think that this was a positive change, and there were particular concerns about the impact on children who had suffered during the pandemic and on children who were fluent readers. Our data raises the possibility that doing the PSC in Year 2 may have delayed some children’s reading development, as they spent time relearning how to identify pseudowords. Doubts were also expressed about the usefulness of the PSC in identifying children who were struggling. This research suggests that the PSC in the autumn term of Year 2 did not provide sufficient nor valid assessments of pupils or schools. We would suggest that as teachers engage with this and other assessments, they continue to use their professional judgement, taking account of the impact of conducting assessments on children’s learning. The main priority as schools welcome children back from prolonged absences due to lockdowns should be helping children to readjust to purposeful learning in a broad and balanced range of curriculum areas, and so avoid an unduly narrow and demotivating focus for primary education.
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