Stuff and Nonsense : Why The Phonics Test Should Worry All Teachers

I like phonics. I think it’s an important aspect of learning to read. Hopefully I’ve got that out of the way so that we can avoid another “phonics denialist” accusation. I was teaching phonics before we were told we had to because it worked. So let’s move on.

What I really, really object to, is spending time in the classroom teaching children nonsense words in preparation for the phonics screening test. I know the arguments in favour. They are very well rehearsed. The nonsense words test decoding over meaning so that children can’t be guessing words. They don’t harm children – they can be fun and lots of authors (Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare) made up words. Those arguments would be fine if the curriculum was empty of other content and we had all the time in the world. We don’t.

One of the biggest barriers to achievement in school is vocabulary. Reception class teachers report that some children are arriving at school with hardly any language at all – in one case, a child was reported as having the speech development of an 8 month old baby. That’s an extreme case, but it is well documented that children arriving at school can have differences in their vocabulary of several thousand words. David Didau recounts his frustration at his Year 11 pupils failing to answer a question on a GCSE paper that he knew they were well prepared for because the question contained the word ‘futile’ and they didn’t know what it meant. Many other teachers can recall similar situations.

Teaching children vocabulary is one of the most important elements of learning not only to read, but to be able to succeed in all areas of school life. So why on earth would we spend time with young children, deliberately teaching them to read nonsense?

Our language is incredibly rich. Look at the following list of words that really exist and think how much more enriched a child’s experience would be if they decoded these then learned what they meant. Children love new words – they love to test drive them, to sound them out, to share them, to write them into their stories. Why not give them the power of real words?

abask – in genial warmth

abear – to behave or to bear

adit – an opening into a mine

alfet – a boiling cauldron of water used at a trial by ordeal

armet – a rounded, iron helmet

I could go on, there are literally hundreds of these words on the web site The Phrontistery – an incredible source of vocabulary that I’ve dipped into for all kinds of reasons before. How much more exciting for children to learn real, new words that they can implement into their writing, than to encounter something that no-one will ever understand and which will have no use ever, except to help them to pass a test.

As for the richness of the made-up words in Jabberwocky and the like, what makes those poems and stories so exciting for children is the way they fire the imagination to fill the gaps. They use cues in the text and existing knowledge to create meaning. These texts are aimed at readers who can already decode, who are ready to play the game of meaning making. I have taught Jabberwocky more times that I can remember. We start by creating the meanings of those nonsense words “brillig”, “slithy”, “borogoves”, “vorpal”….and we discuss, at length, how the children are using their existing knowledge of spelling patterns to encode the words we just heard (I read it out first). How they use their grammatical knowledge to figure out whether the word is a noun, an adjective, an adverb or verb and how this existing knowledge allows them to create definitions that set the scene for our story.

We spend weeks on Jabberwocky, filling in the gaps in the poem with the reasons why the boy leaves his village in search of the monster. We map the environment, we write adventure stories about his encounters with Jub Jub birds and Bandersnatches. We explore Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey narrative. We create an epic. Then we welcome him home. We throw a party. We create a hero’s ritual. It all takes a while. Then in the middle of the party, they receive a visitor. A message from another tribe declaring war and demanding that our hero is handed over to face the death penalty. For in their society, the Jabberwock is a sacred creature and slaying it, a heinous crime. And the children have to decide what to do. We enter the worlds of war and diplomacy.

Yes, the children encounter nonsense words. But they encounter them in a meaningful way having already acquired the spelling and grammar skills to be able to make something of them. They don’t encounter the words in isolation – the poem is not read in isolation. It is steeped in the curriculum, from mapping to narrative structure, they learn other things along the way. This is how we can extend and expand curriculum to make it richer and deeper.

The nonsense words are not nonsense when meaning is made of them. When they fire the imagination and link to real words. When they enrich and enhance our lives. Those crafted contributions of poets cannot possibly be compared with the banality of sitting children on the carpet and asking them to decode nonsense words with no further purpose than to spit out the sounds. It doesn’t matter if you have a puppet on your knee to make it more fun.

Children will be every bit as well prepared for the phonics check if they are taught unusual words that they have never encountered before. They will be better writers afterwards too. And most importantly, they will be primed to build vocabulary for the rest of their lives – a skill that every teacher of every subject should welcome.


21 thoughts on “Stuff and Nonsense : Why The Phonics Test Should Worry All Teachers

  1. I like your suggestion of using obscure and interesting words rather than alien words for practice of decoding. As you say, they will be every bit as well prepared for the phonics check this way and you will be developing vocabulary at the same time.
    However, I’m not clear about why teachers should be worried?

    1. Perhaps worry is too strong a word. But one of the biggest barriers to learning is vocabulary and this affects all teachers, not just those who teach reading to young children. I was trying to say that this issue is everyone’s problem and that we should all question the practice of wasting time teaching children nonsense words when we could be building the skills that would help them in all subjects in the future. Does that make sense?

  2. I like and value phonics but strongly agree that our teaching time should not be spent reading nonsense words. We have too many language starved pupils in the UK so please spend our time teaching them real words. I see pupils leaving primary with insecure decoding skills and weak vocabulary knowledge, finding themselves unable to cope with the secondary curriculum. We need to have good phonics teaching and good vocabulary instruction, so please leave out the teaching of nonsense words; we haven’t the time!
    I do however see the value of having nonsense words in a phonics check, as this provides valuable diagnostic information.

  3. Hi Debra,

    The phonics check does not worry all teachers, nor should it – and some actually enjoy finding out how well their children are doing. Thanks to the check, they are also aware that the teaching effectiveness within the school is not necessarily a steady feature – results can go up and down with changes of staff or less commitment to teaching phonics, or wash-out (dilution) of a phonics programme and provision – and so on.

    So, a national objective assessment can inform us professionally and some teachers do actually want to know how they are in terms of effectiveness compared to others.

    As author of a phonics programme and phonics consultant of another, however, I would like to reassure you about the basis of those two programmes. They include no nonsense words to teach with or to practise with.

    They include a very comprehensive bank of cumulative, decodable words – many of which are unknown to the children so they give the children fantastic practice with blending – and they also provide plenty of scope for teachers to teach explicitly new vocabulary.

    The vocabulary generally may not be quite as obscure as the vocabulary you have listed in your piece, but nevertheless, the programmes are content-rich at word level and with their provision of cumulative, decodable sentences and texts.

    So, you see, I’m with you regarding the necessity and benefits of vocabulary development – and I’m with you that this can be done as part of the phonics provision – and I’m with you that it’s rather crazy to spend precious time on phonics activities which amount to blending lots of nonsense words.

    I’m perhaps not with you, however, regarding the Year One phonics screening check in that I think it is very important and everyone, including the Government, needs to know how we’re doing with regard to phonics teaching effectiveness. Teachers would not need to worry about the check in any way at all if they were well-informed and well-equipped with a ‘body of work’ and practices which are truly fit-for-purpose – which is often not the case.

    What is clearly needed is professional development and an understanding that content-rich phonics programmes include and promote vocabulary enrichment as part of the content and rationale – and that there is no need to spend precious time decoding nonsense words.

    At most, I suggest that Year One teacher perhaps introduce some activities involving decoding nonsense words one or two weeks prior to the phonics check.

    I hope you are a little reassured.

    1. Not really Debbie, though I do appreciate the attempts you make to reassure and I’m sure that your own product is credible and helpful. But the fact is that teachers do report that the main impact of the test has been to create time to teach nonsense words – it was reported in both the Times Ed and the Telegraph. Moreover, even the government’s own assessment of the impact of the test cannot find any link between the test and improvements in literacy. The only thing that could be said was that teachers were getting better at getting children to pass the test. That is a cause for worry in my opinion, especially if the test success is coming at the expense of vocabulary acquisition and reading enjoyment.

  4. Hi Debra,

    I’m actually very disappointed that as an educationalist you appear to consider children decoding so much better than many of them would have done pre the promotion of SSP is not supporting their ability to read books and to enjoy reading books. Children will be less likely to ‘enjoy reading’ if they cannot decode relatively well and it is right that the profession has been introduced to the Simple View of Reading to understand that the two main processes to be a reader in the full sense includes the technical knowledge and skills to decode new words (whether in their spoken language or not) and the language comprehension to understand the words that have been decoded.

    As I have described, I personally am not encouraging teachers to use nonsense words in their phonics provision and I suggest that this is a matter of professional development. It is clearly possible to view the Year One phonics screening check in a pot half full or pot half empty way – but I suggest the very best approach is to analyse the pros and cons of it and to make best use of it moving forwards by understanding its benefits, its importance and its consequent drawbacks – that is, too much practice of reading nonsense words which is professional misunderstanding and not necessary.

  5. I can’t actually understand your opening sentence. I think I made it clear that I supported the teaching of SSP didn’t I? Good quality SSP has nothing to do with the test. They are not related. One is good practice, the other is surveillance. If it were a diagnostic test it would not be reported in RaiseOnline or used to make judgements about a school. It is the skewing of high stakes testing that is leading to some questionable practices in class.

  6. Hi Debra, I agree with much of what you say (including the different concern that so many of those who are commenting on phonics are secondary teachers who have no experience of teaching or working with the children concerned). Mostly I agree with the last sentence in your comment directly above. I have no problem with diagnostic assessment this is a valuable form of assessment, in fact I have no problem with low stakes, high impact testing but the assessment agenda has been hijacked for a range of ideological reasons – often sticks with which to beat teachers, schools and local authorities and to give reasons for pushing cognitive or structural ideologies which have nothing to do with good learning.

  7. The advent of the phonics screening check has led to year on year improvements ranging from an average of 32% of the children reaching or exceeding the 32 out of 40 benchmark in the 300 pilot schools in 2011 to 77% in the 2015 national results.

    This suggests that more than double the children are enabled to decode real and new words since the launch of the check.

    Some schools have achieved between 95% and 100% of their children reaching of exceeding the benchmark.

    So, this ‘high stakes’ check has certainly sharpened teachers’ minds and presumably we can say has led to better application of alphabetic code knowledge and blending by far more children.

    I don’t dispute, as you will note, that the check has led to time being spent on games and activities involving blending nonsense word and that this is an opportunity lost to practise blending new real words which enables vocabulary enrichment.

    Our attitudes and solutions, however, are clearly very different:

    You suggest that teachers should be ‘worried’ by the check – and you present as someone, therefore, that is ‘anti’ the check because of its high-stakes and consequence of ‘questionable practices’.

    I suggest that teachers should appreciate that children don’t need to provide to practise blending nonsense words and instead the children would benefit from lots of opportunities to blend real words with teachers teaching their meaning alongside.

    So, I’m pot half full and consider we, nationally, should be looking to increase professional development regarding the advantages and disadvantages (or consequences) of the check.

    It will be interesting, wont’ it, to see how many people fall into the group pot half empty and how many fall into the pot half full regarding the advent of the phonics check – and how ‘the profession’ can address any negative consequences!!!

    1. But all that tells me is that teachers have got better at getting children through a test. It doesn’t tell me that children are getting any better at reading. And the report into the impact of the phonics check found that there was no evidence that the check was leading to improvements in reading. In fact since phonics was introduced in 2007, there has only been very small improvement in SATs results for reading – something you would have thought would have been greatly impacted by the introduction of the check (if it was to produce the results it was intended to). So my concerns rest not with the role of phonics in learning to read, but in the wasted time, energy and cost of the PSC.

  8. Without the check, perhaps 68% of the children would still be struggling to decode. We need to aim for 95% to !00% of the children being able to decode well. The check informs the profession whether you like the check or not – and could be viewed positively in that light. The check has led to more children decoding well – whether you accept that ‘consequence’ or not.

    Most of the children who reach or exceed the benchmark of the check go on to do well in Year Two national assessment. But, of course, the Year Two national assessments are teacher assessment and they are language comprehension assessments. Many teachers, the teaching unions, and various educationalists are against ‘snapshot’ testing and push for teacher assessment. This is not objective. We need to measure both technical knowledge and skills and language comprehension if we are to get a complete snapshot picture of children’s reading profiles.

    It is also very worrying that so many teachers, as shown by responses to the Year One phonics screening check, think it’s OK for their ‘better readers’ to read the nonsense words inaccurately. This reveals a lack of common professional understanding about the role of phonics and decoding.

    We have a long way to go regarding professional development in the teaching of reading and spelling – and the capacity of teachers to understand phonics in a generic way to be able to evaluate their provision.

    Teachers should value national snapshot testing and understand it AS a snapshot – and trainers, advisors and influential educationalists should lead them in that regard – but that is not always the case sadly.

    1. Hi Debbie, I am largely with you on the benefits of the check. As a lever to get schools to adopt an effective approach to phonics it has worked. However, it do believe it is limited. There will come a point where many of the lower pass rates are a result of natural variance rather than school practice. At this point, and it won’t be many years off, the only impact the high-stakes tests will have will be to fuel a market in increasingly distorted practices that schools will buy into as insurance.
      For this reason, I think national high-stake assessment will need to revert to a wider ‘reading’ (all aspects) assessment. With diagnostic phonics screening becoming an expected part of school’s internal assessments.

    2. “It is also very worrying that so many teachers, as shown by responses to the Year One phonics screening check, think it’s OK for their ‘better readers’ to read the nonsense words inaccurately. This reveals a lack of common professional understanding about the role of phonics and decoding.”

      How dare you insult teachers’ ‘common professional understanding’?! I might come back to that one.

      I take issue now with your insistence that the alien sections are ‘words’. They are not. They are contrived clumps of sounds that have no meaning to children other than that someone will be pleased if they can ‘decode’ them.
      Why should children, whose entire lives are spent making meaning, making sense of the world, be asked to switch off their proper learning-meaning brains in order to ‘decode’ nonsense? The screener has 40 words. 20 of them are nonsense. That’s 50% or half. Many of the nonsense words include sounds in combinations that do not occur naturally in English. If children are not taught the nonsense of ‘decoding’ nonsense, their natural instincts and their knowledge of English will tell them to make meaning out of the nonsense, and they, and their school, will fail. Our 6 year olds (and their teachers) are being forced into the realms of cognitive dissonance on a daily basis.
      For the purposes of the test, 6 year olds must pretend not to know what they do know for 50% of the time. If the test is absolutely fine, and it’s not ‘OK for their ‘better readers’ to read the nonsense words inaccurately’, why do the alien words need to have a picture of an alien alongside? They ought, surely, to be able to ‘decode’ without a picture? I don’t believe that 95%+ of the children in your SSP schools just blithely ‘decode’ any old clumps of phonemes whether they make any sense or not, without being coached into it. If they do, I feel desperately sorry for them.
      Back to the 40 words. 40? 40? 40 decontextualised words of which only 20 are real, to decide whether a child can read or not? This is sad. How many thousand words does an average 6 year old have in her vocabulary? ‘Real reading’ presumably involves real words? So the screener uses a pitiful 20 real words to sum up a 6 year old’s knowledge and understanding of the entire English language. Sad. An average 6 year old ought to be able to read at least 150 words continuous text in a real (not contrived to use phonics he was ‘taught’ yesterday) language in a real book in a real story, at 90%+ accuracy, and then tell you what it all means.
      Your phonic screener is a test of teachers.
      6 year olds don’t need it.
      UK 2015 doesn’t need it.

    3. Perhaps? Can’t we do better than wild guesses? The fact is that in spite of improvements in decoding skills, increasing numbers of children are reporting a reduction in the enjoyment of reading (Johnson and also the OECD). Yet we know from research by Sullivan et al that reading for pleasure between the ages of 11 and 16 lead to better GCSE outcomes for children in ALL subjects. I see all too often, children, usually boys, crying out that they hate reading and they hate literacy in school. They may be able to read, but unless the learn to love it, all our efforts will have been wasted.

  9. I agree with you Debra, wholeheartedly. I don’t need another national check to tell me what I already know about my children. I already know who is strong and who needs support in reading. I already know exactly who can and can’t decode or use phonics effectively and I already know exactly who needs to practice which phonemes. The phonics check does nothing to add to that whatsoever. It’s a complete waste of time in my opinion!

  10. We have a high percentage of weak literacy in English-speaking countries and a long-standing debate about reading instruction. The Government has promoted SSP and made it statutory, and the Government needs to be accountable for what it promotes. We all need to know. We should be collaborative and collective in our results and sharing our expertise.

    It’s about the teaching profession’s knowledge and understanding – and all of this will be to the benefit of the children themselves.

    Remaining isolated in our classes and schools is something we have hopefully moved beyond. How can the check be a waste of time if more than double the number of children are able to decode words newly presented to them?

  11. The phonics check is a standardised measure of success in decoding. Unfortunately teacher bias is a well documented phenomenon so this could be seen as a sensible solution to the issue. There is also body of evidence that shows a high level of phonemic awareness and skills are essential the foundations for children succeeding as confident and able readers and writers. If the KS2 literacy SATs don’t appear to indicate an increase in phonic skills as correlating with improving children’s reading and writing that is could be because for many children their phonics education effectively stops when they move up to KS2. There are still a large number of phonics deniers who espouse sight and Searchlights type methods, rather than explaining the opaque nature of the English language.

    The phonic test is also a valid indicator of potential literacy and visual perception difficulties and needs, that could be addressed in a more timely fashion (eg before they become special needs). If teachers wish to waste children’s time in practising for a test then that is a foolish situation. The fact that the results are used as a public measure could be the reason for this.

    Rigorous systematic synthetic phonics are not a barrier to a rich vocabulary; they open up a world of new words to explore, say, read and write.

    I believe the real concern should be that at primary school level, phonics is not abandoned, as the foundation method to learn and practise reading and spelling, when children join KS2. The Y3/4 and Y5/6 statutory spelling lists have the potential to focus too much attention on slavishly attempting to teach the words erratically and without explanation for spelling ‘patterns ‘ and analogy. The programmes of study do layout the progression in understanding and skills but also point out that children, if given portions of the lists on a weekly basis, do have ‘time’ to learn them!

    Robust diagnostic screening of children’s phonic skills should continue, for most children, throughout their time in primary school so that their learning needs are accurately met and they become fluent decoders and accurate spellers.

  12. I have an assessment that gives ‘reading age’ compared to national averages. It is not diagnostic. It can ‘measure a child’s reading age as anywhere between 4years 10 months, and 13 years. I use it to compare one aspect (word list reading) of a child’s attainment before and after a period of time’s teaching. It involves reading progressively more and more complex real words, in a list. It is not meant to be shared with anyone who might coach children to know the words.
    I remember doing a similar, if not exactly the same, ‘test’ in 1961, when I was 6.
    We might as well go back to using this test. It would be a lot less aggravating, a lot cheaper, and would tell us just as much, if not more, than the phonics screener.

  13. Pat – the advantage of a national check is gaining a snapshot of the national picture. There is nothing stopping individual teachers assessing their pupils’ phonics results in addition to the check – in fact, hopefully that is exactly what teachers are doing. The point of the emphasis on phonics teaching is so that children can learn to decode independently the thousands and thousands of words you mention! Familiarity with letter/s-sound correspondences and the ability to sound out and blend efficiently opens up the world of independent reading – even when words are not in the spoken language of the children. Decoding new words in context enables children to expand their spoken language independently. If children ‘skip’ new words in texts, however, and fail to come up with a pronunciation for new words, they are unable to absorb those new words into their spoken language – and yet they can still leave teachers and parents reassured about, but overestimating, children’s silent reading skill, because the ‘gist’ of the text may still be gained without adding the new word to spoken language.

    The point of using alien or pseudo-words is to assess the children’s capacity to decode ‘new’ words which is essential for decoding new words in real texts. Pseudo-words are excellent for assessment – and are more likely to put children on a level playing field regardless of levels of spoken language. Sadly, teachers are now using lots of pseudo-word games and activities in light of the check and in light of a game being promoted in ‘Letters and Sounds’ (Treasure Chest). I agree with Debra that this is not a great idea and that real, new words can be used for applying alphabetic code knowledge and the decoding skill. This IS a matter of professional knowledge and understanding.

    1. I will respond to a couple of points, Debbie:
      I have seen lots of children who can read but will skim over or miss out words here and there that they can’t be bothered with. In my experience this is because they have been abandoned too soon, usually at home, but at school as well, by adults who have decided, “Ah! He can read now, I’ll leave him to it.” I show them what to do. I ask them to read accurately and to notice their own mistakes and fix them (as we all do!) and I stop others from jumping on them if they do make an error, if we are in a group, reading together. They will stop skimming, approximating and omitting within one lesson. They never need extra phonics to sort this ‘problem’. Learning is an emotional business; we know this don’t we. Children need feedback and attention. Lots if children do most of what they do at school just to please us – there is very little else in it for them than our praise.
      I would also like to mention getting to the phonics of a word via its meaning or position in its sentence or phrase. I see learner readers do this all the time. Children do not only get to words with phonics. They often get to phonics from words. They get to texts with a mixture of the two. Anyone who thinks a child who can read has done that learning only using phonics needs their professional expertise and understanding challenged. It might look as if SP children are only doing SP – they know exactly what we expect of them, and give it to us. In reality, they are bringing much more to their reading which is internal. We insult them when we say they do not or that they cannot cope with complexity. I see children do it all day every day. They quickly get to a stage where I can say “Some words you know. Some you work out with your phonics. And some you know because if he story so far.” An SP fan might say the known words and the phonics are OK. What’s wrong with the story so far? Is it that it scare us because we can’t fully control a child’s understanding of the story so far, and we have to trust them a little? I will tell you one thing for sure – you will never find a way to make children switch off this understanding and just do controllable SP. You can get them pretending not to use it, but it’s always there.

  14. A couple of points, Debbie:
    Taking a snapshot of the country? With 20 real words and 20 pseudo clumps? Only a snapshot and yet we now have daily phonics lessons in nursery, reception, and year one… continued into year 2 and on until the end of time even for children who got 40/40 in the screener and can read and write very well. What’s all that about?
    I have seen lots of children who can read, but who will skim over or miss out some words. In my experience the reason for this is that they have been abandoned too soon, usually by people at home, but also at school, because, “He can read now! I’ll leave him to it.” It’s not because they don’t have enough phonics, it’s because there is no benefit for them in making an effort – little children at school do much of what they do to please adults, unfortunately, and if the adult is not looking / listening, they won’t try so hard. There is very little intrinsic satisfaction in the actual reading, for many of them. I could say a lot here about the sorts of reading materials suited to SP teaching, that help to cause this disaffection by the age of 5.
    I show them what to do, and their skimming problems are usually fixed within one session, no more than two. They don’t need extra phonics. They just need to be asked to read accurately, to work out longer words by syllable, to notice their own errors and fix them – just like we adults do.
    Children get to words via phonics. Agreed. They also get to phonics via words! I see them do this all day every day. If I think about it, I can very soon say to a child reading continuous (not word list) text, “Some words you know. Some words you work out with your phonics. And some you get to using the meaning of the story so far.” SP people would presumably be happy with the known words and the worked out words. What is so wrong with using the story so far? Is it a bit scary and uncontrollable for the adult? Do we have to trust children to be able to cope with complexity, like they do in the rest of their lives? The thing is, though, that we can’t make children switch off their use of ‘the story so far.’ They do their best to please us with their nice sounding out and blending, even of words they know already, but ‘the story so far’ is always bubbling away in the background.
    Anyone who thinks a child who can read has learned using solely phonics needs their ‘professional knowledge and understanding’ challenged.

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