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Non-words in reading tests. Non-sense?

February 19, 2011
Gulliver's Travels Cover

I’ve just read a story about reading tests on the BBC News website.  Apparently non-words like ‘koob’ and ‘zort’ are to be included in reading tests to test children’s ability to apply phonics.  Now phonics are all very useful in their place but they aren’t all there is to reading, certainly reading English.  I’m no expert, but how are you supposed to apply phonics to ‘where’ and ‘wear’ and end up with the same sounds?  Or ‘pair’, ‘pare’ and ‘pear’?  Or ‘pear’, ‘bear’ and ‘tear’?

Maybe we could extend this policy a little bit.  Perhaps kids can study the farming practices in Liliput for Geography.  Biology tests could include the anatomy of unicorns.  While we’re at it let’s have 2 + 2 = 5. Why not, if we’re making stuff up to teach and test spurious and unnecessary skills?

Surely the point of reading tests is to find out if children can read because reading is the key to further learning.  Who cares whether a child sees ‘car’ and uses phonics to sound it out or just knows what the word looks like?  The point is that they can see the word and relate it to the world.  That’s what reading is.  ‘Koob’ and ‘zort’ do not relate to the real world and neither does the Department for Education apparently.  In fact, they can koob right off.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ruth Hill permalink
    February 19, 2011 20:24

    If you are of an age with me, (which from what I know, I think you are…) you will have been taught using either no phonics, or analytic phonics. The current style of phonics teaching is synthetic phonics.

    Synthetic phonics uses approximately 44 sounds (not just the letter sounds). Children are also taught that these phonemes can be represented by a number of graphemes (for example phoneme /ear/ is represented by the grapheme ear, ere and eer). This mode of teaching is much more successful than an analytic approach and equips children with the sound knowledge they need to be able to decode most words in the English language and then also to have the skills to spell them.

    There are exceptions, but these are actually few and far between if you have been taught the 44 sounds and their relevant graphemes correctly.

    I agree that there is more to reading than simply decoding. Phonics does not teach comprehension. However, although those children of higher ability (as I assume you were) will learn to read quite well without phonics, they will learn to read more quickly with synthetic phonics and for those of lower ability synthetic phonics allows access to an otherwise academically elite world…

    Until fairly recently, even as an English Graduate and Secondary English teacher, I might have been inclined to agree with you, however having watched good synthetic phonics teaching raise the reading levels of students who had fallen through the net and having now done much more research into it, I’m afraid I disagree with you. Phonics is an excellent way to enable students and as for assessing the reading of non-words, this allows us to test whether or not a child understands phonics. If you used real words, you would not be able to tell what was sight-recognition and what was phonic understanding…

    Thanks for the enjoyable read and space to have a rant!


    • February 19, 2011 20:33

      Thanks Ruth. I have to bow to your knowledge on this one, although my gut still says it’s nonsense. I think my real issue here is with government tinkering with stuff in the domain of qualified professionals because of a particular special interest or whatever. If people like yourself and your colleagues feel it’s necessary to test for phonic understanding because it’s the best thing to do, that’s dandy-o. If it’s being imposed by someone on high with an agenda then it’s quite the opposite.

      There: we’ve both had a good rant now. I know I feel better 🙂

      • Ruth Hill permalink
        February 19, 2011 20:42

        Don’t even get me started on the government meddling in things that should be left to the professionals. You’ll find non opposition from me there!

        That said… education professionals need to be given the time to (and in some cases be made to) keep up to date with current research. Too many teachers rely on received wisdom an continue to use ‘what worked when I was taught’. If fields like science held with that way of thinking we’d all still die of small pox and be burning candles…

      • February 19, 2011 20:46

        And you’ll get no argument from me on the need to have an evidence base for everything we do. I think I might have mentioned it in other posts 🙂

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