As the P1 testing debacle rumbles on, John Swinney is stumbling head-first into another education fiasco – although perhaps even he is unaware of the harmful scenario he is presiding over.
Last year, I observed a very able child complete the P1 reading test and I have to admit I was horrified; the test is clearly not fit for purpose. Not only is it too long, the navigation is not intuitive, but it is also entirely mismatched to the current (and I believe truly misguided) orthodoxy that ‘all P1 learning should be carried out through play’. And of course, given the fact that children across Scotland are taking these tests at different times, this means that the results cannot be used to provide valid and accurate national data – which was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise.
But just because *this particular test* is unsuitable, it doesn’t follow that all tests are bad. Play is crucial and natural in P1, but so is learning. Low stakes testing is an important part of learning, and assessment, too. (Cognitive load theory, anyone?)
I am in favour of testing. As teachers, we are paid with public money and are trusted by parents, and society as a whole, to educate children. As a minimum, this should include teaching every child to read. We need to be accountable for the successes and failures of our current system. And if something isn’t working, we need to find out why.
I’ve written before about how I believe that Scotland should adopt the phonics screening check from England1. It’s a short check, where a child works one-to-one with their teacher to read 20 real words and 20 nonsense words. The nonsense words are important because the check is testing for two things: a child’s knowledge of the alphabetic code (letters and sounds) and a child’s blending skill – their ability to blend sounds together to make words. Both are fundamental aspects for reading. Nonsense words are used because they are unknown and ensure that words have not been memorised by sight. Furthermore, the check is manageable (it takes around 5 minutes per child), doesn’t require computers, and is entirely free.
This simple check provides robust data which can be used to monitor improvements over time. In addition, if we all used the same test, at the same point in the year, we would have meaningful results – including an overall pass rate for the whole of Scotland. However, the biggest advantage to adopting a phonics check is that it will act as a screener and catch any child who may be at risk of reading failure or dyslexia. And this seems to have been missed in the debate and the emotive calls to ban ‘damaging testing’ in P1 completely.
Feeling unconvinced about the role of phonics? The research data behind systematic phonics is overwhelming2. But let’s do a simple experiment. Can you read the word below out loud?
Since you are reading this blog, I am assuming you were successful. Did you have a picture clue? Had you memorised it? Did you use the context? Did you guess? No. Congratulations: you used phonics. Phonics is not baby stuff. Phonics is life-long stuff for reading, writing and for spelling. Phonics is forever.
So, as we re-examine the concept and format of P1 testing, we have a golden opportunity to put something appropriate, useful and light-touch in place. A screening check that will identify struggling readers and provide the data that we need. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
But is this likely to happen? Sadly, no. It is the very last thing that will happen in Scotland. John Swinney publicly claims to accept the research base for phonics3 :
I would like to begin by acknowledging points of agreement with the petitioner. As mentioned in my submission of 14 December, there is research evidence to endorse the use of the Systematic Synthetic Phonics approach, when taught well. Teachers should access research-informed early reading instruction that will benefit all learners and should be knowledgeable enough to be able to match classroom approaches to the wide range of needs of the learners that they teach. The chosen approach should be set within a rich literacy environment in which children are taught reading comprehension and are supported to develop a love of independent reading. Further, Education Scotland does acknowledge that for some teachers, there are gaps in their knowledge and understanding of the latest and highest quality research in early reading instruction.
He also highlights the Education Endowment Foundation on the National Improvement Hub4, which states that:
Qualified teachers tend to get better results when delivering phonics interventions (up to twice the effectiveness of other staff), indicating that pedagogical expertise is a key component of successful teaching of early reading.
it is important that teachers have professional development in effective assessment as well as in the use of particular phonic techniques and materials
Here comes the ‘but’:
One of the recommendations of the Scottish Government’s 2017/18 Scottish National Standardised Assessment User Review report published in August 2018) was to set up a P1 Practitioner Forum5 to:
share experiences and offer advice to the Scottish government, independent bodies such as Education Scotland, local authorities, schools and teachers in:
• Early level curriculum planning and assessment
• The use of standardised assessments within the context of play-based learning
Debate in the Forum is informed by the experiences of P1 practitioners; by presentations from researchers and academic knowledge brokers and by the views of key stakeholder groups.
Academic knowledge brokers? Seriously?
You can read the Scottish National Standardised Assessments: recommendations from P1 Practitioner Forum report in full here6. The word ‘phonics’ doesn’t even appear once in this report. But given that the forum is ‘independently chaired’ by Professor Sue Ellis, this is not a surprise.
Prof Ellis is widely recognised as an SSP opponent and a critic of the internationally-renowned Clackmannanshire research7 (Ellis & Moss, 2013). Prof Ellis has published many papers, articles and comments throughout her career, which undermine and underplay the importance and significance of phonics in beginning reading instruction. Prof Ellis is a whole-language advocate and continues to train both student teachers, and currently serving teachers, in out-dated methodologies such as running records, miscue analysis and multi-cueing.
But perhaps the entirely separate and independent review of P1 assessments, ordered by John Swinney, will offer an impartial assessment, and therefore some hope of a research-informed solution to P1 testing?
Alas, no. This ‘independent’ review is to be led by David Reedy. The name will perhaps be unfamiliar to you, as he lives and works in England. The name for me however, set alarm bells ringing. Being involved in the fight for phonics and reading instruction based on scientific findings, means I know who the key players and influencers are. David Reedy, is General Secretary and Immediate Past President of the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) – an organisation that is known to be anti-phonics. Mr Reedy himself has written an article about why he believes that England should scrap the phonics screener, erroneously titled: Is it time to ditch the Y1 Phonics Screening Test?8
And despite this review sounding as if it might actually be ‘independent’ – David Reedy is also in attendance at the P1 Practitioner Forum Meetings9.
So, do we have impartial experts, who have a rigorous understanding of the science of reading and its application and assessment in primary 1, that can advise us on the best course of action and resolution to the ongoing P1 testing debacle?
No. We don’t. What we appear to have is a state of affairs that is becoming seriously sinister with certain individuals being appointed to carry out crucial work, when it is publicly known that they are not impartial and cannot provide advice that is truly independent, nor research-based.
How on earth has this been allowed to happen? Who is responsible for these choices? And how much of a grasp does John Swinney have on this concerning situation? Have two vocal anti-phonics ‘experts’ been knowingly selected to ensure tests do not include any mention of phonics? This highlights a grave lack of judgement, not to mention a poor grasp of the issues surrounding reading instruction.
And if Ellis and Reedy have been chosen or appointed deliberately – with full awareness of their views on reading? Then I’m afraid that this situation has graduated from being a national scandal into a full-blown conspiracy, where ideologies, protecting careers, and personal agendas take precedence over science, research, and ensuring that children receive the most effective reading instruction and the most appropriate assessment possible.
And if that were true, it would be a very dark day indeed for all involved in Scottish education.
1 Even Some states in Australia have adopted this check or are currently trialling it.
2 Three major international enquiries into the teaching of reading all concluded that systematic phonics is the most effective way to teach children to read. (See The National Reading Panel, 2000, USA; National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005, Australia; Independent review of the teaching of early reading: final report, Jim Rose, 2006, England.)
4 The Education Endowment Foundation https://education.gov.scot/improvement/pages/EEF-ToolkitResults.aspx?911459f09ef0012d8e7c32f03e32d003d881d45febd1eba332753 219e922d8f5
6 Scottish National Standardised Assessments: recommendations from P1 Practitioner Forum
7 Ethics, education policy and research: the phonics question reconsidered (Ellis & Moss, 2013)
9 Scottish National Standardised Assessment P1 Practitioner Forum Meeting Monday February 4th 2019 https://education.gov.scot/improvement/Documents/agenda-040219.pdf *In case it ever pops up at your local pub quiz, aterlerix albiventris is the Latin name for an African Py en1 \lsdun