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Phonics Screening Check

X links for student teachers.

England's year 1 Phonics Screening Check (PSC) examines children's ability to accurately decode single words using phonics only, not their language comprehension, visual memory for high-frequency words or 'reading'.

It consists of twenty low-frequency real words with common spellings and twenty pseudo-words, also with common spellings. The words are changed each year to avoid any possibility of children being taught to memorise them solely by sight.

By the time of the check in mid-June, most year 1 children should have received five terms of almost daily synthetic phonics teaching and their average age will be 6 years 4 months. 

The PSC is a quick (it takes about 5 minutes for a child to complete), easy and **valid way to identify, at an essential early stage, those children who are in need of extra help with their phonics code knowledge and blending skills. Children who do not meet the expected standard in year 1 are required to retake the check in year 2.

''The actual PSC takes less than five minutes. A fluent reader can complete it in under two minutes with zero errors'' (Y1 teacher &SENCo)

Note that children's English language comprehension (vocabulary and background knowledge) is assessed in the KS1 Reading SAT (teacher assessed) at the end of year 2 and in the KS2 Reading SAT taken in the final year of primary school.

The PSC is, in the opinion of many teachers and academics, ''valid but unnecessary''. They assert that regular teacher assessment is the best way to discover if a child is struggling with any aspect of reading. However, the check quickly proved its necessity when the 2011 pilot study (298 schools) revealed that only 32% of the children were able to decode simple words accurately using phonics alone. The following year, the 1st actual check flagged up that nearly half (42%) of year 1 children were in need of extra help with elementary phonics decoding. Clearly, the check had uncovered major malpractice; the essential phonics decoding component of teaching children to read had been missing or was being very badly taught in the majority of primary schools and teacher assessment had been  ineffective.

The phonics check ''is quick, objective, and based on a model of reading (the Simple View) which stands up to scientific scrutiny, unlike the widely-used but slow and subjective Running Record, which is based on a model of reading so far from reality that nobody has ever come forward to admit they made it up'' (Alison Clarke.Speech pathologist)

After the first check some teachers complained that children whom they judged as 'good readers', including a few they had registered as gifted and talented for reading, did badly. A year 1 teacher grumbled, "I had over 50% 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" (London Evening Standard 03/09/2012)  

The phonics screening check 2012 technical report data provided evidence that there was little basis for the argument  that good readers (fluent and accurate decoders) did fine on the real words but fell down on the non-words because they are so used to reading for meaning. If children were competent decoders they did well on both non-words and real words, and if they were poor decoders they did badly on both types (see link below p12)

The NFER's third independent report on the PSC confirmed the technical report's findings above: ''Over the course of the study, a small number of respondents have expressed concerns that the check disadvantages higher achieving readers. However, as reported in Chapter 2, the analysis of the NPD data found no identifiable pattern of poorer performance on the check than expected in those children who are already fluent readers''(NFER PSC report 2015 p10)

Some teachers also complain that the ''PSC is high stakes for year 1 teachers as the percentage of children that pass is included in data that schools are judged by''. Perhaps they should consider the stakes from the children's point of view? Australian Prof. Pamela Snow had written extensively on 'Language, literacy and the school to prison pipeline'. She comments ''(W)hen I hear and read protests to the introduction of a Phonics Screening Check because it might somehow be "high-stakes" for teacher / school / sector accountability, I reflect on a different meaning of "high-stakes" and wonder how the trajectories of some of these young people might have been altered through early reading instruction approaches that are more faithful to the evidence about what works. Early failure for them continues to be high-stakes into adulthood''

The phonics screening check ''assesses phonics difficulties that can be masked by good sight-word reading. Unless children can be helped to ‘crack the code’ of letters and sounds, learning will progress very slowly and unreliably'' (Dr.John Rack. Dyslexia Action)

The check is not strictly diagnostic and its main purpose is to quickly identify children at risk of decoding difficulties. Teachers will need to thoroughly assess the phonics code knowledge and blending skills of each child who doesn't reach the expected level. Once assessed, a tailored synthetic phonics intervention (not ''something different'') needs to be put into place rapidly.


Interpreting and responding to the results of the phonics check.

If a significant percentage of Y1 children in your school fail to reach the expected standard in the phonics screening check, don't kill the messenger. Instead, look closely at your synthetic phonics provision. Importantly, ensure that you provide programme-linked decodable books for independent reading practice and that all decoding, throughout the day, is done using phonics alone and not through 'a range of decoding strategies'.

Prof. Snow responds to common arguments made by those who oppose the introduction of a phonics check in Australia.

Experienced teachers who use synthetic phonics say that it's unnecessary to use nonsense/pseudo words for homework to practise for the check. Elizabeth Nonweiler points out that there are plenty of real words even able six year olds are unlikely to have come across before. She recommends that they read one of these a day that fits in with what is being taught that day. Then they will get plenty of the practice they need to read the non-words in the phonics check and increase their language comprehension.

Here are some low-frequency real word examples for practising reading the graphemes that children are expected to know (the common pronunciations) for the phonics check:
newt     scribe    farthing    sphinx    paw    ploy  tar   ail    glide    joist    prime    glade   void  adorn   croak     gloat    shoal    shorn    theme   thorax    bait    twine    plight    mope    probe   hark    yarn    larva    moat    curd    lurch spurn    bane    dale    stoat    hake    abode

In May 2013 the government published NFER's first independent evaluation of the PSC: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/evaluation-of-the-phonics-screening-check-first-interim-report
The following is on p.23: ''A high proportion of schools are clearly teaching phonics, but not necessarily in the way a systematic synthetic approach would prescribe'' [bold in original] The report also noted that ‘The most frequently used ‘core’ phonics programme was Letters and Sounds’. In the L&S 'Notes of Guidance' booklet it states that children should not be taught to use other strategies for decoding (p.12).

The second (2014) NFER report http://goo.gl/MpNsl1 flagged up yet again that most teaching was still not consistent with a genuine ‘systematic synthetic phonics approach’- on p28: ''However, 90 per cent also ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed somewhat’ with the statement that a variety of different methods should be used to teach children to decode words. These percentages mirror almost exactly last year’s findings, and indicate that most teachers do not see a commitment to systematic synthetic phonics as incompatible with the teaching of other decoding strategies''

Despite most KS1 teachers continuing to used a mixture of decoding methods outside the daily, discrete synthetic phonics lesson, KS2 SATs results for reading (comprehension) have slowly risen since the introduction of synthetic phonics into the national curriculum and the launch of the PSC. Figures published in 2018 showed that 75% of pupils met the expected standard in reading, compared to 71% in 2017 and 66% in 2016 and, in the latest PIRLS results – an international study of reading at primary school – England achieved its highest ever score. (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/primary-school-standards-continue-to-rise)

The phonics sceptics should note that, ''Some 99% of pupils who had passed the phonics check in year one went on to meet or exceed the government’s benchmark levels for reading [comprehension] in year two, compared with only a third of pupils who had failed the check – suggesting a possible association between successful phonics teaching and later levels of literacy'' (Richard Adams.Guardian Education 25/9/14)

Gordon Askew points out that ''(S)uccess in the Y1 PSC, whilst indubitably a vitally important indicator, does not in itself guarantee application of SSP as the route to decoding all unknown words. Here in UK at least, we have some schools that teach discrete phonics well enough to give children success the the check, but still encourage the use of multi-cueing when the same children are practising reading''
X http://ssphonix.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/why-does-phonics-teaching-appear-not-to.html  

''Children hot-housed for a few months in a desperate attempt to get them through the Screening Check never to do any phonics again are going to fall back on whole word memorisation and guessing to the detriment of their education and the chronic, long tail of underachievement will go on''
X http://www.thereadingcentre.com/2016/07/20/phonics-across-the-curriculum/

That poverty is not a bar to achieving excellent results in the PSC is exemplified by St George's Primary School, which is in one of the most deprived areas in London. Half of its pupils have EAL & over half are eligible for free schools meals. In 2018, for the 6th year in a row, 100% of St George's children achieved the expected standard  in the phonics check.

In 2018, 1,268 schools had 95%+ of their pupils achieving the expected phonics standard in year 1.

A final important point: Though some advanced code is included, most of the words in the check use common spellings found at the initial / simple alphabetic code stage of phonics teaching. Debbie Hepplewhite worries that, ''(T)eachers will be overly confident that children are 'OK' if they have reached the benchmark at the end of Y1 without being sufficiently aware that this does not mean that such children know the alphabetic code letter/s-sound correspondences comprehensively enough''. As Jim Curran says, ''There is presently a danger that many stop teaching synthetic phonics once the PSC is done and over with in Y1 and the advanced code never gets thoroughly taught – fine for the ‘boot-strapper kids’, but many children need direct and systematic teaching of all the advanced code''.

Why we should be using but not teaching nonsense words

The arguments against the PSC have been discredited.

Facts about the phonics screening check

Comprehensive report: Why Australia should adopt the PSC

X What is the Phonics Screening Check for?

What people need to know about the use of pseudo, or 'nonsense' words in reading instruction
''(T)he prolific production and use of nonsense words based on illegal/inappropriate spelling patterns lays bare the lack of professional knowledge and understanding of phonics teaching and practice''

X Year 1 Phonics screening check
X 2. Phonics screening -why read nonsense?
X 3. Phonics screening -what next?

Free downloads of the DfE's past phonics screening check materials.
DfE: Scoring the check: ''For real words, inappropriate grapheme-phoneme correspondences must be marked as incorrect (for example, reading ‘blow’ to rhyme with ‘cow’ would be incorrect). However, alternative pronunciations of graphemes will be allowed in pseudo-words''

Prof. Maggie Snowling et al's independent study focused on the reliability and validity of the year one phonics screening check.
''We have shown that the new phonics screening check is a **valid measure of phonic skills and is sensitive to identifying children at risk of reading difficulties. Its slight tendency to overestimate the prevalence of at-risk readers (as compared with standardised tests of reading accuracy and fluency) is arguably a favourable property for a screening instrument. We agree that early rigorous assessment of phonic skills is important for the timely identification of word reading difficulties''

John Walker comments on the Journal of Research in Reading report on the phonics screening check:

Authors Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll were keen users of nonsense words: http://www.listsofnote.com/2012/02/gobblefunk.html

The phonics check, nonsense words and the Jabberwocky