Teachers overwhelmingly reject pointless phonics check – atl/naht/nut survey

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31 August 2012 – embargoed for 00.01 hours on 3 September 2012

Teachers overwhelmingly reject pointless phonics check – ATL/NAHT/NUT survey
Nine in ten (91%) year one teachers said the phonics checks for five and six year olds did not tell them anything new about the reading ability of their pupils, according to a survey carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and National Union of Teachers (NUT)*.
Teachers complained that the checks did not tell them anything new, did not test children’s reading ability - only how well they decode words - took up teaching time, took teachers out of the class and cost schools money to implement.
Some 86% of year one teachers said the phonics checks should not continue, and many of the teachers who had been open-minded about the test before administering it are now totally opposed to it.
Many teachers said that fluent readers were confused by made-up words such as “strom” as they are so close to real words (“storm”) the children assumed they were misprints and tried to make sense of them.
Teachers of all primary age children emphasised the importance of using a range of strategies to teach children to read, and not just synthetic phonics, because children learn in different ways. They also highlighted that children read for comprehension and so reading words without any context is problematic, with many children for whom English is a second language (EAL) struggling even though they do well in year two SATs which measure comprehension.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of year one teachers feared that pupils who failed would have their confidence dented if they had to re-take the phonics checks.

Nearly nine in ten (88%) year one teachers practised reading made-up words such as spron, geck, fape and thazz with their pupils. And 43% said they had felt under additional pressure to teach synthetic phonics in the week before the checks to the detriment of other literacy activity.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “Phonics tests waste time and money to tell teachers what they already know. We fear the harm they will do to fluent readers who fail the tests because they assume the nonsense words are misprints, and to children with special educational needs and English as an additional language who get confused by them. The government risks doing long-term damage to children’s reading if it persists with the checks and its mistaken determination to make synthetic phonics the only method used to teach children to read.”

"Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: “Synthetic phonics is an essential contribution to helping most children learn to read, which is why most schools already make heavy use of it. This test, however, is another matter. It is inaccurate and unnecessary. It distorts the teaching and measurement of reading. A lifelong love of reading, as well as fluency, is built on more than decoding. It is built on the pleasure of a great story, something that ideology is now crowding out of the early curriculum."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), said: “The phonics check must be scrapped. The results of this survey provide stark evidence that schools are being made to squander money on what they know to be an unreliable ‘progress report’. The strength of feeling against this unnecessary test is extremely high and the gains for children low. Five is too young to fail.”

*The unions surveyed 1,679 year one teachers working in state-funded schools in England between 26 June and 13 July 2012. This was part of a wider survey of 2,779 teachers and heads working in primary schools in England. Survey results are in tables at the end and quotes from teachers are below.
Media contacts:

ATL Press Office: 020 7782 1589; Switchboard: 020 7930 6441; Out-of-hours: 07918 617466; Email: media@atl.org.uk. Website: www.atl.org.uk.

NAHT Press Office: Heather Forse on 01444 472452, 07739 325133 or heather.forse@naht.org.uk. Website: www.naht.org.uk
NUT Press Office: Caroline Cowie on 0207 380 4706 / 07879480061 or at c.cowie@nut.org.uk Website: www.teachers.org.uk

Teacher quotes:

Year one teacher: “It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, meant that I wasn’t teaching my class and stressed the children out because they had to sit the test and also work with a cover teacher rather than me.”
Year one teacher: “The only thing I learnt was that for a lot of children making sense of the words was really important so they hated and did badly with the nonsense words.”
Year one teacher: “Some able readers failed and some non-fluent, less able readers passed! What does that prove? It proves synthetic phonics is only part of a variety of strategies used in learning to read. Teaching phonics alone will not make fluent readers who enjoy the experience.”
Year one teacher: “Initially I was not too concerned. However, I found them time consuming and frustrating. The process has not given us any useful additional information and has taken teachers away from the classroom for hours.”

Year one teacher: “I was willing to try it to see if it helped the children and if it helped inform my planning and assessment. It was a waste of time and money – (had to have a) supply teacher to cover me – and had a negative effect on several of the children in my class.”

Year one teacher: “I did not think the check was particularly negative until I carried it out. I had over 50 per cent of my class fail the check and, given some of the children are reading above the level they should be in year 2, to have to report to their parents that they have not met the standard in decoding seems ridiculous. Many children made mistakes trying to turn pseudo words into real words – ‘strom’ became ‘storm’. The lack of context meant many children made mistakes they would not have made if the word was in a sentence – read ‘shine’ as ‘shin’.”
Year one teacher: “I thought it may have some merit initially. I now believe it to be divisive and inherently flawed. It will not contribute any new information we do not already record. Our children are all EAL and have performed badly in this limited assessment tool. They always perform well in year two SATs where comprehension is also measured.”
Year one teacher: “Fluent readers did not pass. Most children struggled with the non-words.”
Year one teacher said the checks: “disrupted a whole week of teaching. We also implemented a practice week earlier in term to prepare children as you would with SATs.”
Year one teacher: “My more able students don’t rely on synthetic phonics anymore as they use a range of strategies to decode texts, but we had to ‘train’ them so they could do well on the test and it put them backwards, not helped them.”

Survey results:

Did the check tell you anything that you did not already know about the reading ability of the children in your school/class?

Overall (2,427responses)

year one teachers (1,541 responses)







Don’t know



Do you believe that the year one phonics screening check should continue?

Overall (2,433 responses)

year one teachers (1,539 responses)







Don’t know



Has your view of the check changed following its implementation in June?

Overall (2,460 responses)

year one teachers (1,550 responses)







Don’t know



What effect, if any, did implementation of the year one phonics screening check have on your teaching prior to the test week? (choose all relevant options)

Overall (2,448 responses)

year one teachers (1,551 responses)

Increased pressure to teach synthetic phonics to the detriment of other literacy activities



Decreased teaching of synthetic phonics



No effect at all






Did you practice reading ‘nonsense’ words?

Overall (2,426 responses)

year one teachers (1,553 responses)







What do you believe will be the effect on those pupils who failed their test of having to take it again?

Overall (2,446 responses)

year one teachers (1,542 responses)

Increase their confidence



Decrease confidence







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