The Department of Education revealed today that thousands of primary schools have already signed up to spend more than £7.7 million on new phonics products and training. But questions still remain about the usefulness of this test for bilingual pupils. The research paper on the process of the pilot phonics checks published in September 2011 found that less than half of respondents agreed that the Check accurately assessed the decoding ability of pupils with EAL (46%).
According to the case studies, pseudowords had caused problems for some higher ability pupils (when trying to make sense of the word) and with less able pupils (using the alien pictures as a clue) - both of which relate to reading ability more widely, rather than phonic decoding ability. EAL pupils were felt to be dealing better with pseudowords by their teachers. Teachers involved in the pilots commented
EAL children did better with the non-words than the real words and I think that was because it took away the need to worry about the context or looking at pictures. They just used their phonics. I got a lot more out of that [check] than reading a book with them (CS19, Lead teacher)
EAL children seemed to do better with the made-up words. Sometimes if a child is very good at speaking English, they were sometimes trying to make the made-up words into real words. If they were reading ''***b' they might say '***'t because they want it to be a real word, but EAL children, whose vocabulary is not so big would use phonics purely and simply, rather than trying to think 'what word is this? (CS13, Lead teacher)
We have done a couple of [pirate] games off the internet introducing the children to pseudowords. We did some preparations beforehand, made up some nonsense words. It was definitely more of a problem for EAL children because they weren’t quite sure if it was a real word they hadn’t quite heard and I had to remember to tell them all the time [whether it was real or not] (CS19, Lead teacher)
This confirms the view of many professionals that, by and large, bilingual children do not experience significant problems with decoding but do require much more support than is currently available to read for meaning.
NALDIC is concerned that as schools get ready for the phonic checks in June, reading for meaning and talk around text will be sacrificed in favour of a diet of phonics practice.