How can we boost phonics test scores without causing any stress?
At a recent parents evening for my son, it was no surprise to learn that he will struggle to pass his phonics test.
Now, if this had been my daughter four years previously, I may have been concerned. In this post-pandemic world, the fact that he has missed a lot of school and he is a boy has led me not to panic. Having taught year one for ten years, I know that many children are not developmentally ready for this test at age five and six. They will fall short of the standard. However, many of these children have also gone on to have no academic concerns later on in primary school.
Scientifically, boys are more likely to be less developed in this area at this age; whether this is due to actual development differences or just that we are not as good as a profession at teaching boys! I could go off on a tangent here and discuss the flaws with this test in terms of the developmental readiness of six-year-olds; the brain’s ability to process ‘alien’ words also comes into question. I’ll save that argument for another day …
Despite recent difficulties, teachers are still under pressure to get the children through the test with at least a magic score of 32.
Phonics test scores will go up and children will become more motivated when teachers get them to that ‘Ah ha’ moment. Experienced infant teachers will tell you about that ‘sweet spot’ in early reading starts when it all begins falling into place. Suddenly, children become more fluent as their schema start to become established.
10 top tips
Here are my top tips for boosting phonics scores and a love of reading without the pain.
- The WIIFM effect: The key to motivating children is working out their WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). I first came across this term by reading Ian Gilbert’s, Essential Motivation In The Classroom. Once children have a purpose for reading, they are more motivated. For children who struggle, there is always a way to motivate them.
- Reading buddy: Following on from the last idea, pair reluctant or struggling readers up with older reading buddies to hear them read twice a day for ten minutes. Little and often is the key. Children love reading to older children and older children love teaching younger children the things they can do!
- Immersive reading: Write decodable sentences as a starter for every lesson throughout the day. Link these sentences to what you are learning about. Check that your ‘target children’ are engaging and read as a class and in small groups. Remember, reading individually in front of the class can be demotivating for some!
- Small group lessons: I’m all for phonics sets. There’s no point in pupils sitting through a phonics session where the pace is too quick for them. Having as many small groups as possible and set at the right pace for them.
- Application: A very important part of phonics and often neglected. In the first few weeks of June, you can neglect application a little and focus on word reading. Don’t forget to plan for extra application in July though!
- Fun: Make explicit phonics lessons as fun as possible, with activities such as interactive games, writing words on Lego, silly sentences cut up, playing games etc. No doubt you do this already!
- Check reading books: I’ve visited some schools to find that their struggling readers have lower-band reading books, but they are not phonetically decodable. Double-check!
- Magic E: Explicitly teach more of the split vowel digraph. This is the one that loses the most points in my experience from analysing test papers over a decade …
- Parents: Often they want to help but don’t know-how. Provide silly decodable sentences to stick around the house and other ideas from Reading Rockets.
- Life-long readers: Promote reading for pleasure and immerse children in reading. Read at least one story a day to your class. Some children may not even have books at home!
There are plenty of phonics blogs with obvious ideas such as, ‘assess where they are and then plug the gaps’ but thinking outside the box, will enhance both fun and make learning stick.
Reflect on whether your school is providing stress-free preparation.