Phonics test - what's it all about?

Phonics test - what's it all about?

Parents have heard that Education Minister Simon Birmingham wants to introduce mandatory, standardised phonics tests for kids in year one. What does it all mean, I hear you ask!

Here’s the eight questions you need answered to pass the parent test!

1.    What on Earth is phonics?

Phonics is a way of teaching kids how to read by teaching them the sounds that letters make (like ‘c’ makes a ‘k’ sound) and blending them together to make words.

There are a couple of different phonics methods, synthetic (like used in Reading Eggs) and analytic (seeing patterns in words like ‘bread, tread, head’). Your child is learning to read with the help of phonics, but may be using different types. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to learning, so a combination is often used.

2.    What do you mean by ‘standardised test’?

If you’re like me, you heard ‘standardised test’ and shuddered. But these tests are intended to be a one-on-one with the teacher for each child. They are not proposing a sit-down, desks facing front, NAPLAN- or ASAT-style test. Phew! 

3.    Do we need a standard test? Aren’t teachers already checking kids’ reading at this age?

Yep. Children’s progress is constantly being monitored and assessed by their teachers. Teachers are often the first ones to identify a problem with a child’s hearing or sight or speech. It’s not the identification of a problem that we seem to be struggling with, it’s the support staff (teacher aides and learning support) and professional help (speech pathologists, optometrists, audiologists, occupational therapists) that we seem to be challenged by.

4.    We’ve had NAPLAN for a while now, isn’t that enough?

Our ‘scores’ in literacy and numeracy are not as high as we’d like them to be. We’re ranked below New Zealand in the PISA rankings (Programme for International Student Assessment that tests 15-year-olds across the world) and well, that’s kind of embarrassing. So, we’re going to test 6-year-olds!

Umm…that doesn’t make sense, you say. Yep, we thought that too. Standardised testing of the kind that the Minister is proposing has been implemented in Britain. The test is made up of ‘nonsense’ words that determine if children can decode sounds, rather than simply remember them by sight. Proponents say the test demonstrates a student’s ability to decipher the words, to see if they really understand the sounds and how they are put together. Opponents say testing children on made-up words without context is completely at odds with the Australian Curriculum’s focus on ‘meaningful’ literacy. It’s a minefield.

We all want the best possible education for our kids, and just as we have to ‘trust’ when we take our car to the mechanic, when it comes to our kids’ education, we want to leave it up to the experts. But we’re really receiving mixed messages!  When teachers and principals are saying these tests are not the answer, it’s hard to be convinced that we’re heading down the right path.

5.    What about Finland? I hear they have the best education system in the world!

They’re certainly not issuing a standardised test for 6-year-olds in Finland. In fact, the Finns don’t start school until they’re seven. It’s funny that we laud the educational results achieved by Finland, yet we make no effort to emulate the Finn’s educational model, nor demonstrate a willingness to make the wholesale societal change that would be required to have a school system that begins at seven years of age.

According to Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, their philosophy is different. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.”[1] In fact, not until the children are in sixth grade will they have the option to sit a district-wide exam, the results of which are not published.

6.    What happens to kids who need extra help?

According to teachers, they wait (while falling further behind). There is difficulty accessing the specialists who can help (particularly speech pathologists) and there aren’t the teacher aide or learning support ‘hours’ built into most school budgets to give the children the intensive help they need.

7.    But Gonski! Aren’t schools getting more money?

Parents know that ‘Gonski 2.0’ is (contrary to understood tech convention) NOT an improvement on Gonski 1.0. There is less money than the original plan. Teachers are saying that the money that would have have helped the kids whose test shows they’re not doing so well, (additional support for teachers in the classroom, funding for students with disabilities and funding for speech pathologists) will be missing from the system.

8.    Well, what’s the point of finding out my child needs help if there’s not enough help available?

Hmm…good question. Perhaps instead of a mandatory nation-wide test, we should trust our teachers and give them the additional support for the children who they discover (through their regular assessment and monitoring) need that little bit more help.