Sunday, 15 June 2014

Blogsync: The Klingon Phonics Test

This is my response to this month’s blogsync:  

What is the best place for testing in schools?
Testing is a key aspect of formal education, but can this be taken too far? Are our current tests fit for purpose? Should progress testing alone be used to define school performance?

There are more responses to this topic here.

My daughters are in that lovely pre-test stage. They are awaiting to do their phonics test. The test that has fuelled several ASBOs on Twitter. Their school has sent home some flashcards of words to help them. So, most nights I come home and I work through the Klingon list of colours, I mean, these words that are absolute nonsense. My daughters are good, but I can’t see the point of it all. It is just a funny measuring stick to judge students.

In discussion with other primary teachers, they have told me that the testing and preparation for the phonics test doesn’t help able readers. In fact, according to them, it forces good readers to go backwards. My daughters generally sight read words, yet the phonics test is focused on blending sounds, which is something my daughters do if they don’t recognise a word. Whilst I have been reading most nights with my daughters and helping them increase their reading speed and word recognition, I find that now they are preparing for an assessment that is regressive. One teacher even said that the most able students do badly because of this sight reading and blended sound issue.

The problem I find with this testing is one that occurs across most schools. It is the form of testing that follows this mantra: We all know it’s silly, but we have to do as the government has told us to do it. I admit that I have said that to students, meetings and parents. The test process is not for the teacher’s benefit, but for a politician’s benefit to show improvement.

I love tests. I adore them. In fact, test me on tests – I’d love you to. I think testing is an important part of my life as a teacher. I test. I am tested. I comment on tests. I advise on tests. I predict tests. Everywhere I look, there are tests. Yet, what I don’t like is a test that has no value at all to the students or the process of learning.

Step forward the KS3 English test. Oh the joys of that test. There may be NQTs reading this thinking how lucky they are that they don’t even have to consider this assessment. But, it was a hilarious experience. Students were prepared for the test. They worked hard. They sweated within an inch of their life. They were told the assessment will really ‘help’ them in life. They then got the results in the next academic year, when they were using a new grading system and working on the GCSE. For them, the value of the SATs had disappeared overnight. It became meaningless. Why the KS3 SATs never started a riot I’ll never know. The realisation that the test was not for their benefit. They got nothing out of it.

It is only right that a maker of things should test the produce they make. A baker should taste or check his bread to see if it meets to a high standard. But, should a baker check the bounciness of his bread by throwing it on the floor? What value has this to the consumer? They never throw their bread around the room. It has no value to them at all. Yet, it is something that they must do, as their Head Office has instructed them to do it. But, at the same time, I baker will not take the bread out of the oven during the cooking stage. They might peak through the window, but they don’t cut a bit off and taste it. They wait for the bread to be ready.  

But, the testing that goes on in schools is dictated by a system outside of education: politics. I test students all the time. At the beginning. In the middle. At the end of learning. However, the testing structures we have are assessing at the end of the learning - KS2 and GCSE.  That timing warps learning and education. It is seen as a ‘do or die’ moment. Students, teachers and schools ramp up the pressure because everything rides on this. This one single measure. This one single test makes a school a good one or a bad one.

What if a school was allowed to enter a student when they wanted to for the KS2 test? What if our system for assessment and testing was based on the child? The child takes the test when they are ready. After all, when a child is ready they are ready. Politicians want to see progress, yet the systems hinder those making progress. What if a child is ready before Year 6? The same goes with GCSE. I am not talking about modular exams – yuk! I am talking about terminal examinations. If a student is ready, surely they should do the exam. Having students tread water is not a sign of an effective education system.

Visitor: So, what have you been doing in Year 11?

Student: Well, I have been doing stuff that I have been doing in Year 10 because some students didn’t get it, so we had to do it all again.

Visitor: Interesting, but you did get some revision out of it?

Student: Yes, I did, but it was pretty boring.

Because, we have years and years of data, using the current model of assessment, we are never going to change the exam structure. There will always be a KS2 test. But, what would be nice is if the child, rather than the government and the school, were factored into the process. A politician wants students to leave school with a certain level of proficiency. Let’s assess them when they are proficient and not when it convenient for a statistic. You take a driving test when your driving instructor thinks you are ready. Not, at the same day every year across the land.

Hopefully, a model like this would avoid the dreaded teaching to the exam that exists for several terms a year. Because, we all know it happens. Real teaching goes out the window and drilling the students for the exams take place.

Right, must dash, I have bread to test and some more Klingon words to go through. Splage. Crooge. Brack.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. This blog contains 40% fairy dust and it is purely a hypothetical exploration of something that will never happen.


  1. Baffling that you think that it is odd to test whether children understand the alphabet code of language. Odder still that you think that doing this, instead of guessing from something other than the letters in the word, is going backwards. Please read up on how children actually read.

  2. Old Andrew, I don't see anything wrong with testing that children understand the alphabet code of language. My issue really is with the timing. I don't profess to be an expert on Early Years reading; I am watching it as an observer, with my daughters. I am discovering it first hand. I feel that it might be better done at a stage that is appropriate to the reading process. Expert readers employ sight reading rather than applying the alphabet code. The alphabet code is used when faced with unfamiliar words. I feel that the test takes place at a set time where students might be far more proficient at reading than the assessment is.

    And, if I was really dead against it, would I really be practising the sounds each night.

    I am questioning the timing more than anything. Furthermore, it is a bit silly, in my opinion, that the words are made up rather than real functional words.


  3. Agree with oldandrew - this check is invaluable and prevents children from ingrained habits of guessing - particularly damaging for struggling readers who haven't been introduced to the alphabetic code with the consistency and structure it requires. What's sad is that schools which teach synthetic phonics well, don't need additional practice. A few minutes spent on alerting fluent readers to 'read through the word' accurately and not guess/reach for meaning when they see little figure alongside the word is all that is required.

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