As 600,000 six-year-olds this week sit the Government’s controversial new phonics screening check for the first time, we want to hear members' views on the process and outcomes for the 120,000 bilingual learners who will be taking the test.
In May, a survey by the National Union of Teachers of members found that 63% of respondents felt that the screening 'was inappropriate for many children with special educational needs and for those with English as an additional language'. One teacher responded to the survey in these terms:
I do not understand why the phonics check is still going ahead despite the fact that the pass rate on the pilots was so extremely low. The strange "hell-bent" on phonics approach of the Government shows how little understanding they have of how children actually learn but this is also supported by teacher training courses. I completed my training 4 years ago and we were "indoctrinated" into believing that phonics is the only way. Now I am actually teaching children to read for the very first time I can see with my own eyes that phonics is only one useful tool in a whole array of strategies that children will use to decode words despite our approach! I have also seen EAL children who become adept at using sounds to decode words but have little or no comprehension and to them and to dyslexic children a non-word is the same as a word and the more non-words they see the less likely they are to see them as non-words. What on earth are we doing?!’
Synthetic phonics is being strongly promoted by the current government and some specialist teachers are observing that EAL support activities are being curtailed in favour of extensive or additional phonic teaching.
There is still limited research specifically on the effectiveness of synthetic phonics with bilingual children but broadly speaking the consensus is that whilst synthetic phonics teaching and the development of phonological awareness will contribute to bilingual learners’ English reading development, this should not supplant EAL language development work. The ability to decode, a skill which many EAL learners develop rapidly, is often not accompanied by the comprehension skills necessary for achievement within the educational system. Care must be taken to ensure that the teaching of phonics does not displace other activities which support the language and literacy development of bilingual children.
There are few research studies on the impact of synthetic phonics on the reading of bilingual pupils. A 2008 research review on synthetic phonics and EAL learners warned teachers to be alert to the comprehension needs of pupils who are learning to read in an additional language. In Synthetic Phonics and the Literacy Development of Second Language Learners: Ideologies, Policies,and Research Methodologies Sumanpreet Purewal noted that 'a sample of research studies relating to second language young learners indicated that although word recognition and word identification was enhanced in all of the included studies, the effects on comprehension were not statistically significant'.
As Michael Rosen recently wrote:
'We all know that real reading is "reading for meaning". No matter how brilliant at "decoding" we are, it doesn't guarantee we can read for meaning. So if all this is being spent on the "alphabetic principle", how much money is being spent on the "meaning principle"? That would be for books children would want to read in order to find out what they meant… like, for fun, pleasure, enjoyment. That sort of thing.'
We would similarly query whether, at a time when huge numbers of specialist EAL teachers and services are being cut, money is being made available to support the 'meaning principle' with bilingual learners for the five to seven years it may take for them to make meaning out of academic texts.