Today, boys and girls, we will start with a brief reading test. Please read the following, as quickly as you can:images-2

oy
ai
ng
eer
ure
dooph
speaner
whough

Did you enjoy it? Are you now filled with the joys and pleasures of reading? Inspired to proceed immediately towards your local library (should you be lucky enough still to have one) and delve into a wealth of literature, knowledge and discovery?

No, I thought not. Because the test you have just been subjected to has very little to do with real reading. Similarly, had I read these ‘words’ out to you and asked you to write them down, that would have had very little to do with real writing. Instead, this test is merely a test of your acquaintance with synthetic phonics, the breaking down of words into their constituent parts. I won’t even bother mentioning that ‘dooph’ has two possibilities, and don’t get me started on ‘whough’ (five – see below for what they are).

Perhaps you might prefer this one?

One knight, the blue or red fingderley ran nobody away for a third off.

Confused? But you could read it, couldn’t you? Surely that is what matters above all else, not the fact that it doesn’t make any sense!

Actually, the chances are that the more confident readers amongst you may have found one or both of these tests somewhat tricky. This is evidence that your ability to read is only partially down to your ability to break up words. Fluent readers use a whole host of cues to help them in their reading, including grammatical, semantic and contextual information, alongside phonetic knowledge and sight reading of high frequency words.

If this is the case, then, why is it that our primary schools are being increasingly forced to focus only on one method of teaching reading, that being synthetic phonics (with a handful of ‘tricky’ words for sight reading)? For those five-year olds whose parents have had the skills and inclination to teach them basic reading prior to their starting school, this is not usually the method that has been used; they have been instilled with a love of books from an early age, and their parents have used a variety of methods to help the child learn to read their favourites by themselves.

But for the many five-year olds that rely entirely on school to teach them to read, classroom time to develop a love of books is becoming less and less, whereas time to learn by rote a set of graphemes, digraphs and trigraphs and their corresponding phonemes is becoming more and more (note: if you’re not sure what these words mean, please ask the nearest state educated six-year old).

Yet the government is not only requiring that synthetic phonics be at the forefront of early years and early primary teaching, it is also now requiring that we test six-year olds (at the end of year one of primary school) on their ability to read and write digraphs, along with real and nonsense words that are made up from these digraphs.

The problem isn’t so much having a reading test at the end of year one. The problem is not having a reading test, but having a synthetic phonics test, at the end of year one.

If you are going to test reading, test reading.

With a synthetic phonics test, first, you can easily end up in a situation where confident readers with good comprehension skills become perplexed as to why they are being asked to read nonsensical words and sentences, and they can therefore underachieve. Perversely, less able readers may overachieve because they are able to read nonsensical sentences, yet if you read a normal book with them then ask them afterwards what it was about, they would not be able to tell you. The same children might read a sentence that doesn’t make any sense and not even notice.

Second, although the new National Curriculum emphasises the need to use a variety of methods in the teaching of reading, whenever only one aspect is tested then this will inevitably be what is focussed upon in teaching. Teaching to the test is already a sad phenomenon across much of our education system, but please, let’s do our best to keep it out of the fundamentals of how we very first learn to read.

Third, by introducing a test, you are introducing the ability to fail at a test. This causes anxiety in teachers and parents, potentially creating a hindrance to effective teaching. And once failed, a pupil knows it, however much you try to hide it. At age six, you have set them up to believe that they are not good enough, and so begins their downward spiral through the education system. Even more depressingly, many of these ‘failures’ may have been children who would have learned to read perfectly well had the emphasis not been on only one area of learning to read, which was perhaps not their strongest area nor an area in which they were interested.

There is some argument that an emphasis on synthetic phonics, even if not the be all and end all for reading, is the best way to improve pupils’ spelling. The reasoning here is that, armed with phonic knowledge, pupils will be keener to attempt the writing of more difficult and unusual words, thereby improving their writing overall. However, I would argue it is also the case that pupils will not actually have such a varied vocabulary if they are not being given enough exposure to the wealth of children’s literature that will provide them with such vocabulary.

So let us be clear. Synthetic phonics is a useful – maybe very useful – tool in the teaching of reading. But it is not the only method, nor is it the most important method. We should not be emphasising it above other equally useful tools, some of which will work for some teachers and children to a much greater extent.

Oh and back to ‘whough’. You could have read it to rhyme with ‘dough’, ‘through’, ‘plough’, ‘rough’ or ‘cough’. But actually, why bother reading that non-word at all?

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