A UK group called More Than a Score that appears to campaign against formal testing of primary school children has released a video featuring Zoe Lyons, a comedian, that mocks the phonics screening check used in England (see the Tweet above).
The reaction on Twitter has been interesting. Perhaps due to the kind of people I follow, I have not seen a positive response, with this defence of the value of the check from an Australian Teacher being typical:
The members of the More Than a Score campaign are an interesting coalition. They include the British Educational Research Association (BERA). BERA’s flagship journal has just published a questionable paper that takes issue with the phonics screening check and with synthetic phonics more broadly. Is BERA an academic body in pursuit of truth, wherever it takes them, prepared to publish any argument that meets its epistemological standards, or is it a campaigning body that coordinates publications to align with the targets of its campaigns? It’s a question.
Other members include an array of the usual suspects such as the anti-phonics UK Literacy Association and the National Education Union which was last seen involving itself with a campaign to ban all school exclusions, even in the case of sexual assault.
However, the main reason to be dismissive of this new video is that it is utter rubbish. Campaigners against the check have latched onto the idea that ‘nonsense words’ used in the check are their best line of attack. The video sets up a false choice between children reading stories and children answering the questions in the check, as if it is impossible for them to do both.
In reality, the pseudowords in the check are presented as the names of alien creatures - exactly the sort of situation a child may experience in a storybook:
The purpose is to check if children can sound out words they do not know using their phonics knowledge. We cannot be sure exactly which real words children may have been exposed to and so, by using pseudowords, we can ensure these are new to the children involved in the screening check.
We all frequently encounter new words, whether they are new to us - ‘coronavirus’ perhaps - or invented words such as ‘Hagrid’ and ‘Dumbledore’ in Harry Potter. There is nothing weird or artificial about them.
And I am sure the check could be made to feel scary and pressured, but kids tend to take their cue from the adults around them and I am convinced they could also find the check, with its multi-coloured monsters, fun and enjoy the one-to-one time with their teacher.
It is a real giveaway that the More Than a Score video starts with the words, “Watching a child learn to read is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences a person can have” [my emphasis].
Watching? Watching? Do More Than a Score imagine that children just teach themselves to read and that teachers and parents are mere spectators?
I think, perhaps, they do. There are some children who can apparently infer letter-sound relationships for themselves - it is hard to know the true proportion because some who present this way at school may have been taught a form of phonics by their parents. Objectors to the screening check often draw on these most advanced readers when making their case. For example, the video suggests advanced readers may read ‘proom’ as ‘broom’ because they know that ‘broom’ is a real word and ‘proom’ is not.
This is a weird argument. Why would an alien creature be named after a mundane piece of household hardware? You worry how these children will ever cope with Harry Potter.
Nevertheless, if children are making these distinctions then they are not the ones the check is aimed at. Even if they make a couple of mistakes of this kind, they are still likely to score well over the screening cut-off of 32/40 and move on. We are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Instead of worrying about the most advanced readers, why don’t we spare some attention for those who cannot sound out ‘yad’? These are the children that need support and intervention.
I had intended to post a subscriber-only piece today on politics and phonics, but journalists, comedians and entrepreneurs keep saying silly things about education that convince me of the existence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and that I feel I need to rebut more widely.
Hopefully, normal service will shortly resume and we can look forward to education academics once again taking the lead in making bizarre claims.