If you have a child in their first year at school or working at KS1, you’ll know that last month children took the Phonics Screening Check. So I ask, What can we learn from the Phonics Screening Check?

As you’ll probably know, the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) tests for Year 1 students in England took place between the 10-14th June.   The test will confirm whether or not pupils have met the expected standard in phonic decoding and can reveal which pupils may need additional support.

Phonics screening check facts

Of course, if you’re involved in KS1 teaching you’ll know the intricacies but for those who aren’t involved in year 1 education, the test contains 40 words divided into two sections of 20 words which have a mix of real words and nonsense words. The test is then taken individually with each child.

Nonsense words are included to check children can apply phonics knowledge. A child is alerted to a nonsense words, as it has a picture of a creature next to it. The intention is that a child will then not try to allocate a ‘real’ word within their vocabulary, to the nonsense word.

The pass score in 2023 was 32/40 and remains the same for 2024.  If a child does not pass, this suggests they need further support. The child can then retake the test again in year 2.

In 2022, 75% of children passed the test and this increased to 79% last year. Parents can expect to learn the results of their child’s test by the end of summer term.

Many systematic synthetic phonic programmes (SSP) used to work towards the PSC will require fidelity, maintaining one programme and its sequence. I certainly agree that a child will respond and retain information if a sequence is cumulative, meaning we only expose them to sounds they know or we have established are consolidated.  However, when it comes to delivery, I very much respect that those supporting a child will often know them well and their complexities. Staff supporting children have excellent skills and we shouldn’t be prescriptive with either the script or setting times for each session.  I don’t consider we should use a singular programme to teach reading and spelling, without looking outside for other resources to ‘top up’ learning opportunities, although equally we should not dilute and skip learning opportunities provided in a programme, especially when we are considering supporting learners who have literacy difficulties.

I know amongst some schools/staff there are concerns about programme fidelity, particularly when a child has learning differences or they are not making expected progress. The far-reaching complexities of neurodiversity means that it’s highly unlikely that one programme will ever offer a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It would require consultation with a number of specialists in every field, not simply a select few. Within each area of specialism, there will certainly be debate about which is best approach.  The differentiation needs to take place for the individual learner and delivered by staff who have knowledge, experience or training in supporting children who are neurodivergent. Likewise, it will be difficult for any member of staff to have such a wide knowledge of each specialism.  The danger is, where we suggest that a singular programme will support the needs of every child, we risk missing a diagnosis or we suggest that all their needs are being met, when it’s very difficult to do so without specialist support. Presenting symptoms may identify a specific learning difference but interventions may not support all aspects of their difficulties which later result in further diagnosis being made. If we miss a diagnosis, this may leave a child vulnerable, impact their mental health and see missed opportunities within education.

Phonics screening check- should we be using it to check development?

I constantly write about the debate which continues to rage about phonics versus the language approaches to reading. All the methods have their merits and it really does depend on the individual, their ability and any underlying un/diagnosed learning differences, as to which method and when it is used.  Using a variety of methods to develop reading (and spelling) are key to development.

I know most education professionals will be more than aware of the Scarborough model.

For me, I continually evaluate intervention and methods from the perspective of the struggling reader or speller, who most likely has complex learning differences. I totally agree that in order to learn to read, an individual must have exposure to all the aspects of language and comprehension (red thread) and that we should include all those aspects in that thread.

The struggling reader really needs to consolidate skills in the blue thread as a prerequisite and included in this is phonics. I know that many will be shouting “No, phonics doesn’t work for all!!”  Some may also consider that the nonsense words within the phonics check list have no place, as they have no meaning, no language and no enrichment for the learner.

It’s highly likely that struggling readers will be identified by the phonics checklist and who should have already been receiving additional support. Although, those children who have been quick to learn to read and have a whole word recognition approach to reading high frequency words, may also struggle to decode the ‘alien’ words.  This provides valuable information.

Nonsense words, what do they offer, why do we use them?

It’s important to remember that a vowel digraph for instance may make a variety of sounds and a child’s response to decoding a word should be accepted based on the range of sounds which can be made. A child’s knowledge of all the sounds will differ to that of an adult who has had more exposure to words.

Nonsense words, pseudo words, alien words are all ways to check if a learner can decode words.  We need to check decoding is taking place, to ensure learners aren’t just ‘guessing’ or reliant on whole word recognition and can’t ‘work out’ words which are unfamiliar. Some learners start to read at an early age, yet they can’t all decode words when they start to become unfamiliar or multi-syllabic. In which case, they may be able to guess in the context of the sentence, especially if they have good vocabulary and language skills.  However, there aren’t always clues available or they may not have comprehended sufficient words in the text, to have a good guess. Consequently, the learner may be reliant on asking an adult for help. Let’s not forget the children who aren’t ‘school ready’ when considering language skills or may have delayed language development, meaning using the context of the sentence to ‘guess’ a word, decreases the chances of success.  This brings me back to the ‘one size fits all programme’.  So often children have not developed language skills and its very often hidden or masked, overlooked or misdiagnosed. Speech and language skills are not only about speech sounds. We must consider the use of language in social communication alongside use in education. All of which is woven into literacy skills and would impact significantly on the red strand of the Scarborough model.

Which skills do children need to help develop reading?

I consider that language skills are key to children developing skills in all instruction in the classroom, including phonics interventions, alongside preceding phonemic and phonological awareness.

In addition to this, children will need to process information (once understood) and this requires a level of working memory and auditory memory.

We also need to identify if children can apply the information they are given in guided and then independent tasks, this information then has to be transferred into the long-term memory, and it can be helped by ‘bonding’ information together to help it to be stored in a logical and structured order, to be retrieved in an organised way and applied later. This is so important for our learners with dyslexia.

Why doesn’t phonics work?

Is it actually phonics that doesn’t work or is the pre-requisite skills of phonological and phonemic awareness that are lacking? So many times, I hear that phonics doesn’t work for all, however phonics is simply about the printed letter which matches the sound, a learner must have phonemic awareness, an ability to break words into individual sounds and phonological awareness, break words into syllables or chunks of sound. These 2 skills underpin phonics and the lesson may have moved too quickly for the child or been missed in early years work, for many reasons. There isn’t a simple answer or reason why ‘phonics’ hasn’t worked and it’s one I explore in my forthcoming book .  For our struggling learners, I consider we may need to revisit phonological and phonemic awareness as a prerequisite to an intervention programme, or at least the programme should include work on these skills. The icing on the cake is then the instructor’s empathy and understanding and their skills to deliver the programme, with knowledge of neurodivergence, this can also help our struggling learners.

There are many types of intervention programmes and CodeBreakers is a systematic synthetic phonics programme. It works for KS1 children and is effective for children beyond this level who may not have progressed at expected levels, working towards the phonics checklist. In fact, schools will consider CodeBreakers when a group of children haven’t progressed, even with other support. CodeBreakers is cumulative and structured, however when considering the delivery, it’s not prescriptive. It provides opportunities to return to basics and check the child’s understanding without being immature.  It offers specialist dyslexia intervention, written by a dyslexia specialist.

What can we do if a child doesn’t pass phonics check list?

For some children it will be a matter of repeating phonics intervention in a small group setting. Others may require a more 1:1 approach. However, there are children who will require intensive phonemic awareness intervention.

It certainly is worth revisiting phonological and phonemic awareness skills. I would also check hearing initially. This will often be satisfactory, although there may be difficulties with auditory processing skills. If a learner hasn’t heard/processed the correct sound, it won’t be mapped to the correct written text/letters.

Visual processing should also be considered. Again, a standard eye test is likely to be with ‘normal’ ranges but this does not evaluate the brain’s ability to process visual information.

Auditory memory may also impact the development of reading skills. Once the letters have been mapped to the sound, it requires a child to hold and blend the sounds, which is difficult for those, who for many reasons, may struggle to retain the information.

As highlighted earlier, developmental language delays can be hidden and where this is not identified, we may also be missing why a child is not ‘learning’ or processing information. In my experience, where a learner has such language difficulties, lots of adjustments need to be made to the delivery.

I would also suggest a systematic synthetic phonics programme, where struggling learners will have lots of opportunities for overlearning and application, this especially needs to take the form not only listening and repeating sounds but in workbooks, where one sound/pattern can be focused upon and provide a variety of opportunities to process the information, consolidate it, apply it and for the instructor to check learning has taken place.

Where little process is being made and a learner is struggling with phonemic and phonological processing, it might be worth investigating if there are other key clusters of difficulties which could indicate dyslexic traits.

If you’d like to learn more about dyslexia, what it is, myths, and other co-existing learning differences which can impact literacy development, why not register to learn more about our publication date of the forthcoming book

‘What if it’s not dyslexia…?’