The Truth About the Phonics Screening Check

By Matt Walker

Monday 6 July 2015

Last week the Department for Education (DfE) published the final report from NFER’s three-year evaluation into the impact of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC). The evaluation explored schools’ phonics teaching practices and sought to establish whether there is any evidence that the introduction of the check has had an impact on the standard of reading and writing.

The findings from the evaluation should be of interest to schools, teachers and policymakers and raise further questions about the best approaches to raising standards in primary settings. Selected findings from the evaluation are discussed below.

What has been the impact of the PSC on the teaching of phonics in primary schools during Reception and Years 1 and 2?

There is evidence that the introduction of the PSC has had some effect on phonics teaching and classroom practice. The evidence suggests that a majority of schools made some changes to ‘sharpen up’ their phonics teaching. These changes include improvements to the teaching of phonics, such as faster pace, longer time, and more frequent, more systematic, and better ongoing assessment. Schools also ensured that pupils were familiar with the kinds of pseudo-words (made up words that test pupils’ skills in decoding unfamiliar words) they would encounter in the PSC.

There is also evidence to suggest that, since the PSC was introduced, teachers are making more use of the results to decide whether to review or revise phonics teaching plans or to help inform decisions about the support offered to individual pupils.

Yet, despite these self-reported changes to schools’ teaching practices, there is little evidence to suggest that many schools are teaching, or have moved towards a position whereby they are teaching systematic synthetic phonics ‘first and fast’ to the exclusion of other word reading strategies. The impacts on pupil outcomes resulting from a systematic synthetic phonics approach to reading instruction as opposed to a ‘mixed methods’ approach are not discussed here. However, for better or worse, it is clear that many schools believe that a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods.

Has the introduction of the PSC had an impact on the standard of reading and writing?

Over the past three years, phonics attainment, as measured by scores on the check, has improved. Specifically, 74 per cent of Year 1 pupils met the expected standard of phonic decoding in 2014, compared with 58 per cent in 2012. When those pupils who retook or took the test for the first time in Year 2 are included, the proportion of pupils meeting the expected standard of phonic decoding by the end of Year 2 was 88 per cent in 2014, an increase of three percentage points from 2013.

The evaluation also sought to explore whether the improvement in the proportion of children meeting the expected standard of phonic decoding has resulted in better subsequent attainment or improvements in literacy overall, as distinct from just in phonics. As the check was introduced as part of a policy to strengthen phonics teaching in primary schools, it might be hypothesised that phonics teaching in general would improve as a result; or, more specifically, that the learning needs of individual children might be more effectively met. Either of these developments could be expected to lead to an improvement in attainment, in phonics specifically and/or in literacy more broadly.

Overall, however, analyses of pupils’ literacy (reading and writing) scores in the national datasets over four years were inconclusive. There were neither improvements in attainment or in progress that could be clearly attributed to the introduction of the check, nor any identifiable impact on pupil progress in literacy for learners with different levels of prior attainment. These findings should be viewed within the context of the methodological limitations of this study; namely, the absence of a control group and the context of a number of existing phonics initiatives in national policy.

What are the implications for policy and practice?

Our findings suggest that the introduction of the PSC has catalysed schools to ‘sharpen up’ their phonics teaching and/or to improve their phonics assessment. Yet the ‘truth’, alluded to in the title, is there is no conclusive evidence (at least at present) of improvements in pupil attainment or in progress that could be clearly attributed to the introduction of the PSC. This is despite improvements in phonics attainment, as measured by scores on the check. More research is required to understand better the longer term impacts associated with the introduction of the PSC, and of different schools’ approaches to reading instruction.

View the final report of the Phonics Screen Check evaluation on the NFER website here.