This summer England's six year olds were required to take a Synthetic Phonics test. The test involved the child reading a list that consisted of actual words and made up, nonsense "words", such as koob, zorb, grint and, as the Times Educational Supplement
pointed out, pronk.
It seems the experts at the Department for Education are unaware that pronk is in fact an actual word. It means to jump, specifically the kind of jumping that antelope, springboks and gazelles perform when they leap straight-legged into the air with apparent joie de vivre
However, that joie de vivre
has not been universal. As the Telegraph
reported, the UK Literacy Association described the test as "bonkers", on the not unreasonable ground that the purpose of reading is to understand meaning.
The test is also open to criticism on the ground that it is based on the assumption that all English words are decodable by phonics, which is patently false, as the language is not phonically regular.
As BBC News
reports, nine out of ten teachers oppose the test, seeing it as damaging. One teacher said:
Some able readers failed and some non-fluent, less-able readers passed! What does that prove?
Another teacher explained the apparent paradox by pointing out that better readers assumed the nonsense words were misprints. She said:
Many children made mistakes trying to turn the pseudo words into real words - "strom" became "storm".
Nevertheless, the Department for Education (DfE) maintains that international evidence demonstrates that phonics is the most effective way of teaching early reading. The DfE specifically justifies the use of non-words in the test by asserting
Non-words are an established assessment method in many schools, and are included in many phonics programmes. They are included because they will be new to all pupils, so there won’t be a bias to those with a good vocabulary knowledge or visual memory of words. Pupils who can read non-words should have the skills to decode almost any unfamiliar word.
As Local Schools Network
points out, whilst government ministers may be able to decode, their capacity to read for meaning may be less well developed, as the evidence the government says proves Synthetic Phonics is the best method to teach early learning does not support the claim.
As Michael Rosen, the famous children's author, pointed out in an open letter to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, published in the Guardian
, the money the government is spending on this test would be better used to provide children with books that would encourage the development of a love of reading, which, as the DfE is well aware
, produces genuine academic benefits.