Phonics… something doesn’t sound quite right…

Today’s Guardian lauds the success of synthetic phonics in primary schools:


Which surely appears like good news to the Government and bad news to doubting academics who seem in abundant supply (Marshall, 2012).  However not content with such success, the DfE has even taken a broadside at teachers, implying they previously tried to manipulate results in earlier years.

The 2014 phonics check was the first in which the DfE refused to publish the pass mark before the test was administered. Interestingly, the data analysis shows that the clear spike in marks at precisely the pass mark in 2012 and 2013 has disappeared in 2014 – suggesting that some teachers had been tempted to rig the check in a pupil’s favour.

I do wonder how teachers, apart from teaching to the test could be so influential?

There is another explanation to cheating. Chris Berdik (2012) highlights the very many ways people influence outcomes unintentionally. Take police line ups – officers with prior knowledge of the suspect give unconscious prompts to eye-witnesses. Wine tasters also fall foul – easily influenced by environmental cues such as labels. Even medical tests need to be double blind to avoid biasing the results. The KS1 phonics test was far from double blind.

phonics test results

Looking at this graph (click here for clearer picture),  something is going on. Could it be children picking up on teacher expectations? Could it be the motivational effect of teacher approval, even subconsciously?  Such effects have been shown to lift IQ scores by 12 points (Tough, 2012). This does not constitute cheating, even though high stakes environments can promote this.

Of course, should the DfE alter the pass mark … well, might that not simply serve a political purpose? The accusation of manipulation can go both ways; a little more transparency would go a long way to growing the trust and dialogue required for real improvements.

There is no doubt that more ought to be done to aid, motivate and improve children’s love of reading. However, as Bethan Marshall (2012) rightly accounts, the jury is still out on synthetic phonics. Perhaps the best sounding advice comes from 1905 when Katherine Bathurst, an inspector for the Board of Education said “I must own an indifference to the point (of phonics) myself, and sympathise with teachers not allowed to settle it for themselves” (Bathurst 1905 in Marshall, 2012: 123).


Adams, R. (2014).  Rise in children passing literacy benchmarks as phonics method pays off. The Guardian. Online:  accessed, 26/09/2014.

Berdik, C. (2012). Mind over Mind: The surprising power of expectations. New York: Penguin.

Marshall, B. (2012). Synthetic Phonics: the route to reading?  in Bad Education: debunking myths in education. Adey, P. and Dillon, J. (eds). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Tough, P. (2012). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s