"Worth it for the 120,000 more 6-year-olds on track to become confident readers as a result of our focus on phonics".
Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, 3 November 2015
The proportion of six year olds in England reaching the expected level in the phonics screening check (PSC) has increased by 19 percentage points from 2012 to 2015—the equivalent of 120,000 more children meeting the standard in 2015. The proportion increased from 58% in 2012, to 77% in 2015.
The focus on phonics
Phonics involves teaching children how to recognise the sounds that individual letters make and the sounds that combinations of letters make (such as 'sh' and 'oo') and to then combine these sounds to make a word.
The Coalition government introduced the PSC for teachers to identify children who have not yet fully grasped this style of reading and who are in need of extra support. Alongside a matched funding scheme, the check was part of a drive to promote a greater use of phonics teaching.
The introduction of the check, and the focus on phonics, has not been without controversy: for example, the NUT teachers union has described it as "testing nonsense".
In the check pupils are asked to read 40 words designed to test their phonics skills. To meet the expected standard, pupils need at least 32 out of 40 marks.
Teachers report teaching phonics at a greater pace
While teachers' views on the check itself were mixed in a recent evaluation by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) for the Department for Education (DfE) (although they were also found to be positive about phonics generally), there was evidence that they've changed the way they teach phonics since the test was introduced. For example, many teachers reported that they're now teaching phonics at a greater pace.
The report said that this suggested there was a link between the change in teaching in phonics and the improved performance of pupils in the check.
As NFER cautions though, it's difficult to single out the introduction of the check as a cause for anything as it was introduced to all schools at the same time, meaning that there aren't any schools without the check to compare them to. Similarly it's hard to single out the effect of the government's "focus on phonics" as there's been a gradual increase in teaching in phonics.
Unclear if the focus is improving pupils' reading and writing skills
As for whether there's any evidence that pupils' reading and writing skills are improving as a result of this focus on phonics, that's less clear.
Pupils were found to be unlikely to achieve the expected standard in reading and writing at key stage one (7-11) if they hadn't passed the phonics check. But NFER's research was inconclusive on whether the introduction of the check had been the cause of improved literacy performance in kids at key stage one—their performance was improving both before and after the check was introduced (and so before and after more kids were passing the expected standard in phonics).
Ofsted has commented that the emphasis on phonics is having a big effect—Head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw recently said that phonics is one of the most significant factors in the improvement of primary schools.