Gove strikes again: The folly of phonics testing

Category: Bookbug

Phonics... Foniks... fawnicks... fonixs... phonix...

You get the idea? I'm trying to come up with different letter combinations that you could interpret to be the word 'phonics'. Oh phonics, how I love you and hate you all at the same time. I love that you allow me to be creative with the language, but I hate that random sounds strung together without context lose meaning.

Last week I stumbled upon an article about Michael Gove wanting to introduce phonics testing to 5 and 6 year olds. He’s also planning on giving schools a financial incentive to teach reading using the phonics approach – as long as they buy a certain resource pack.

Phonics are important. They are an important part of learning to read. However it’s a very small drop in a very large bucket. And it’s actually easier for readers to use phonics after they’ve built up some fluency with reading. Phonics are a great way of working out a word you don’t know. But if you can’t sight read many words then phonics makes it all a bit trickier.

See, this English language of ours is a tricky one. With an enormous vocabulary and rules that were made to be broken, you can't always take what you see at face value. How can ‘bow’ sound the same as ‘go’ sometimes, but other times it sounds like ‘cow’, or ‘bough’. Oh English Language, some days, you elude me. George Bernard Shaw had it right when he spelled ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’. It’s a perfectly legitimate English spelling. 

Gove plans on testing children not only with recognised and common words, but with made up words. Yes, fictional words he is putting together to see if a child can apply the rules of the English language. English makes its own rules and then breaks them so often that only 50% of our words can be sounded out phonetically. The other half, you just have to recognise. Heck, you can’t even read the word ‘phonic’ phonetically. 

Phonics is an isolated approach. It extracts words from context and focuses purely on sounds and sound blending. And when children are working hard to read sounds and not the whole word, they end up barking at print. There is no context. There is no story. There is no fun.

Earlier this year, Gove told us that children should be reading 50 books a year. An idea that again was controversial and aimed to take all the fun out of reading. But I’d hate to end this blog on a negative note, so I’ve taken Gove’s ideas and come up with a proposal.

Older children should read 50 books a year – 50 picture books to younger children in a form of paired/shared reading.

I propose that 5-7 year olds have at least one picture book a day read to them at school. At least one, but preferably three. I propose that teachers have targets of the number of FUN stories they read to the children. Stories which inspire children, excite them and get them interested in the words on the page. Good rhyme and repetition books and books with a repetitive chorus will help children naturally pick out sounds and patterns and recognise words. We also need to get the parents involved. Reading at home, but parents also actively joining in at school.

And finally, the financial incentive: don’t waste money on resources that write out ‘The cat sat on the mat’. Match funding for new books for classrooms. Books that the children love. Books that stretch them and show them the fun in reading. Schools don’t have the money for high quality picture books. Come on Gove, help them out. I’m appalled at some of the books in classrooms (I don’t blame schools, it’s not their fault, they’re making do with what they have). I hate to say it, but if I was 5, the books in an average classroom wouldn’t tempt me to read. And I can certainly say that testing me on my ability to sound out made up words and even real words will do nothing for me as a learner, except maybe convince me that learning is irrelevant.