Reading test for six-year-olds to include non-words

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Image caption,
Children who easily learn to read have often been read to from an early age

A number of made-up words such as "koob" or "zort" are to be included in the government's planned new reading test for six-year-olds in England.

The idea has drawn criticism from literary experts who say the approach will confuse those beginning to read.

The UK Literacy Association said the plan was "bonkers" as the purpose of reading was to understand meaning.

The government said non-words were being included to check pupils' ability to decode words using phonics.

This is the reading system by which children sound out words using letter sounds.

Non-words were being included to check that children were not just regurgitating memorised words, a spokesman for the Department for Education said.

The proposed new test will take about 10 minutes to complete and would include about 40 items - words and non-words.

President of the UK Literacy Association David Reedy said the inclusion of non-words would be counter productive since most six-year-olds expect to make sense of what they read.

"The test is trying to control all the different variables so that things like meaning don't get in the way.

"We think that seems a bit bonkers when the whole purpose of reading is to understand words," he said.

He added that the test itself was sending out the message that all words are decodable using phonics when they are not.

"There are many words with which you have to use a 'look and say' approach. This is the case with many common words such as 'the' and 'once'," he said.

This was because the English language is not phonically regular like German or Finnish, he said.

"Children should be using a number of sources of information to be able to work out what a word is. There is the context, the sentence itself and whether they have that word in their spoken lexicon," Mr Reedy said.

'Love of reading'

Although phonics was an important part of teaching reading, it should not be conflated with the teaching of reading itself, he said.

He added that it might be useful for the Department for Education to explain why the Secretary of State's surname, 'Gove', did not rhyme with 'love'.

The plans also drew criticism from family literacy expert Professor Greg Brooks - UK member of EU high-level expert group on literacy.

He wrote: "The proposed test commits what has been appropriately called 'the fallacy of the unique methodological solution', that is, succumbing to the belief that 'if only we can fix this aspect and make all teachers do this particular thing, all (educational, literacy, …) problems will be solved.'"

Schools minister Nick Gibb said: "We are clear that synthetic phonics will not be compulsory in schools but we do believe more schools should teach synthetic phonics because it is shown to have a major and long-lasting effect on children's reading and spelling.

"We are supported in that view by high-quality academic evidence from across the world - from Scotland and Australia to the National Reading Panel in the US - which points to synthetic phonics being the most effective method for teaching literacy for all children, especially those aged five to seven.

"Too many children leave primary school unable to read and write properly - we are determined to raise standards and the new phonics-based reading check for six-year-olds will ensure that children who need extra help are given it before it is too late, and then can enjoy a lifetime's love of reading."

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