You say potato… a reflection on the Phonics Screening Check 2018

    Published: 03 July 2018


    As usual, the Phonics Check has had Kirsten Snook thinking, and chewing over: ‘what are these target words offering us the chance to home in on, and how?’

    Lots of the words this year had p’s and b’s! For a child with p/b confusion:

    Children need ample mileage of reading at own fluency pitch, and then eking this up through well-scaffolded adult-led group reading. Increasing the number of sessions of discrete phonics and grapheme flashcard use tends to not be as effective, and neither do mnemonics such as ‘bed’. Deal with the easily confusable separately. For a child who confuses these ‘ball and stick’ letters, get diagnostic: which one are they most familiar with? Is one in their name? Take the one they are most familiar with and know the best and get that one really firmed up (I think of it as taking it from ‘nearly there’ to ‘really there’). Help them use it in writing, locating it on a sound chart if necessary, and focusing on the journey the hand takes when forming the letter correctly too – this will help via motor memory. Help them develop their own associations or mnemonics, eg it’s in their pet’s/sibling’s/cartoon hero’s name, or its shape reminds them of something. Keeping the focus on it being in the context of a word works especially well, as the meaning-loadedness of that memory can be powerful.

    Once they have one ball-and-stick letter that is known, is ‘really there’ and is recognised fluently, you can begin to think about firming up the next one in the queue. Now though, they have something to help them rule out possibilities:

    teacher's modelling prompt


    Over time, firming up one confusable letter at a time, you will find they can see the woods for the trees, and develop their own strategies for differentiating. Much better than ‘bed’!

    Help them to be chunky monkeys! Words just itching to be chunked (e.g. onset and rime):

    s/ing, fl/at, sk/ill

    I love onset-rime: it’s the one time that vowels behave themselves and say the same sound as in other words in that onset-rime family (almost always…there is bound to be an exception to the rule somewhere, so I’ll get my caveat in early!). As such, this is not an anti-phonics approach…far from it. If it helps children to embed the sounds that our crazy vowels make, wrap that knowledge in contextualised memory-blankets and give them a leg up in terms of connecting up bits of knowledge, well I’m all for it. As a technique, it also has the added benefit of being less taxing on the working memory as the decoder works with fewer lumps than individual phonemes. This means that if I know the ‘or’ness of ‘blorn’ or the ‘ar’ness of ‘dart’, I can use and transfer this knowledge across when I encounter new words for the first time. That’s lovely phonics, that is. This even works for split digraphs, such as in tw/ice, m/ode and str/ike, and is another useful strategy for the struggling reader. And, as @MissPaalanen notes, there were indeed many words with adjacent consonants (clusters) this year. See her Chartered College of Teaching magazine article on clusters here.

    You say potarto, I say potayto…

    Oh what a wicked web we weaf! Yes the ‘weef / weff’ quandary! Actually, either pronunciation was acceptable. Aside from the usual list of acceptable pronunciations that is sent through each year in your test packs, it is well worth noting that this list is not finite:

    “The scoring guidance gives some alternative pronunciations but the list of acceptable pronunciations is not exhaustive.” (p21, bullet point 2, 2018 Check Administration Guidance)

    This means that for instance ‘zook’ was correct whether the digraph ‘oo’ was pronounced to rhyme with ‘book’ or ‘zoo’, ‘eps’ and ‘reb’ could have had a long or short ‘e’ in them and as for ‘wup’ and ‘jub’…? Well we know “a pupil’s accent should be taken into account” (CAG, p21, bullet point 3) but what about when a child says a word that doesn’t seem of their own accent…what then? Well, it could be that there is a parent/carer with a different accent, the child has heard this other accent on media, or had some other influence in their life (think of all the times you’ve ‘done the voices’ in your animated end-of-the-day-story…such an opportunity for expanding their vocabulary in context – cup and saucer anyone?!). The guidance is clear:

    “there must be no bias for or against pupils with a particular accent” (CAG, p21, bullet point 3).

    So, for the child in school in the south of England, if they pronounce ‘wup’ as ‘woop’ and ‘jub’ as ‘joob’, these too are allowable…and vice versa. ‘Blast’ can be pronounced ‘blast’ or ‘blarst’ and as for ‘delay’…if it ends up with the stress on the wrong syllable so it sounds like they’re off to visit the supermarket ‘deli’ counter then so be it. It’s an accent. [Incidentally, I have yet to find any guidance or rules around stress on syllables.]

    Know your goalposts:

    Bear in mind that the grapheme-phoneme choices that will be covered in the check, over time, are all laid out in the Assessment Framework, pages 9-15. Do have a look and maybe prioritise your teaching. Remember that this does not reflect full NC2014 age-relatedness in reading, decoding or even phonics (across any scheme), but it does represent the DfE’s minimum expected standard, and therefore gives you the goalposts for the Phonics Check. You will need to continue to consult NC2014 for full age-relatedness, and especially to ensure children are ready for the next stage of their journey.

    And finally…

    Keep poking into your modelled reading how you tussle with pronunciations for these Crazy Vowels and easily-confusable consonants. Model asking yourself:

    teahcer modelled script

    Over time, a sense of probability kicks in, a ‘best-betness’, which they will internalise the more they encounter these graphemes and choices. Again, ensure the children are taking home fluency-pitch (fully decodable) books. A simple way is to a) ensure they on the right pitch of books for adult-led group reading in school and then b) drop the pitch slightly for home reading. This should mean the home reader can be fluent, full of expression and that they scoop up grapheme-phoneme correspondences that were perhaps previously wobbly…like a slurpy vacuum cleaner! One of those perfect cases in point for prosody actively helping decoding along (see prosody newsletter article referenced below).

    These findings are reflected time and time again by our Phonics Projecteers; they even, heart-meltingly, report children telling them “I can read now!”. Since the pilot in spring 2016 89 schools have participated, and we have refined our approaches to maximise impact and value for money. We are now also welcoming applications from schools bordering Hertfordshire.

    For more details and to register your interest, visit the HfL English Research Projects page.

    Download the Phonics Check Analysis Tool

    Further reading:

    Do you sound good to listen to? (or ‘fluency: reading’s best-kept secret weapon’) blog item from September 2016.

    Swooping and scooping: Prosody and a fluency family tree’, newsletter item from p13 of spring 2017 edition.

    ‘The HfL Phonics Screening check Project’ on p92 of My Academy magazine, spring/summer 2017 edition.

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