Synthetic phonics in English Primary Schools: screaming checks, nonsense words and (how do you) say ‘ho ho ho’?

The politics underpinning the statutory arrival of synthetic phonics in English primaries has enervated many an eminent literacy expert of late. Prof Wray, referring to the Rose Review that led to the 2012 requirement that all primary schools in England must teach it ‘first and fast’, said, ‘Government ministers, and Rose himself, try to dress the report’s recommendations as based on a consensus derived from research. This is actually nonsense… What has actually happened is that pressure groups with axes to grind (and, usually, teaching programmes to sell) have caught the ear of politicians and the Rose Review was never going to be a balanced interpretation of the evidence’ (Wray, 2006; see Hynds, 2007). Prof Clark has reasoned that ‘there is no evidence to support phonics in isolation as the one best method, nor for synthetic phonics as the required approach’ (Clark, 2013). Prof Dombey has argued that the government needs ‘to think about much more than phonics if we are to help our children become effective and committed readers and writers’ (Dombey, 2013). The politics of teaching reading has never been dull.

This paper looks not so much at the broader politico-educational debate, nor the veracity of the numerous claims for a more balanced approach to teaching reading, but at problems associated with the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check (2012) in which pupils are required to sound-out ‘pseudo words’. Leaving aside issues of stress, cost and reporting ‘failure’ to parents, there is evidence to suggest it fails fluent readers who look for meaning in nonsense words by offering ‘storm’ for ‘strom’ or ‘groom’ for ‘proom’ (see Walker et al. 2013; NAHT, 2012). Although a child’s accent is to be accepted (DFE, 2012), it is also problematic in that it still fails to deal with Frank Smith’s ‘ho ho ho’ conundrum (think ‘hot’ ‘hour’ ‘honest’ ‘hoist’) or the pronunciation of a nonsense word like ‘sheb’ (think ‘shed’ ‘sheep’ ‘sheik’ ‘sherbet’), for grapho-phonic complexities still haunt English orthography. There is also emerging evidence to suggest that such a screening test may also have adverse and enduring consequences for the development of pupils’ skills and attitudes to reading that last into adulthood (e.g. Thompson et al., 2009).