The Phonics Check

a male pupil and a teacher talking outside on a bench

To check or not to check; that is the question. My answer is quite simple – we must!

The purpose of the phonics check is to assess the child’s phonological awareness along with phonics knowledge and ability. We, as teachers, need to know what level the child is functioning at. This allows us to plan and deliver an effective, explicit intervention programme, if necessary, as soon as possible.

Some of the language around the phonics check I think is very damaging. There is a lot of talk about “passing” and “failing” the phonics check, but it is not a case of children passing or failing. The check is for the teachers, not for the child. If we can pinpoint exactly what the child can and cannot do, we can plan appropriate intervention and stop them from falling behind before it becomes a problem.

There is a lot of misguided information about children reading nonsense words, that it is a waste of time and it confuses the able readers who sometimes underperform on the test. Is that really true? Do able readers 'fail' the check? Reading nonsense words is included in the assessment for a reason. The reason is to check the child’s decoding skill, not their sight vocabulary knowledge. There is a huge difference between the two. Some children in Year 1 and 2 appear to get off to a good start; their reading appears to be developing well but it may be due to their ability to remember words well, not their ability in phonics. Years ago, I remember my sister’s excitement that her pre-school child read the word Cadbury’s. She was so proud. I hated to tell her that he was recognising the word, not reading it. He was remembering the curly shape of the word from TV commercials advertising his favourite food i.e. chocolate! This method of remembering the shape of words may work well for some initially but as the number of words they are expected to read increases, along with the complexity of the words (KS2 and Secondary), they will begin to struggle.

Try putting yourself in the position of trying to decode an unfamiliar or unknown word. Here are two words for you to try – blimajot and – incipachronitation – Yes, they are nonsense words; you have never seen them before therefore they are not in your sight vocabulary lexicon but could you read them? I am guessing you did but in order for you to do so you applied your phonics knowledge.

A couple of pupils I taught some time ago spring to mind when I talk about sight recall. One was a little girl in Year 3. I was asked to assess her as her parents believed she was dyslexic. When I asked her to spell a particular word, she looked at me, shook her head and told me she wasn’t able to spell the word because she had never seen it before. That told me a lot! The other pupil was a Year 7 pupil. I was teaching him how to add the suffixes ‘ing’ and ‘ed’. We had covered the rule, well, I thought, and then I gave him the word running to spell. He spelt it correctly. Great, I thought, he is applying the rule. I then asked him to spell spinning; he wrote down spining. So, we discussed the two words and he said “I got running right because I can remember what it looks like.” We need to be sure we are assessing what we think we are assessing.

The phonics check is not assessing reading; it is assessing pupil knowledge of phonics which is crucial for reading and spelling development.

So, if an able reader does not perform as well as expected in the phonics check, I would urge the teacher of that child to ask themselves the question: are they as able at decoding as they appear to be or are they relying on and using sight recall to be able to read? If the latter is correct, those are the pupils who are at risk of falling behind later in their school careers.

If you feel like you want to learn more about our intervention programmes check them out here or if you’re looking for advice, get in touch.

Katy Parkinson
Lexonik • Founding Director