Child reads own school report that says she cannot read

Poster with words "you cannot read this sentence"Last Friday I spoke with a parent from a local primary school about her 6-year-old daughter’s school report. The report stated that her daughter “has not met the expected standard for the Year 1 phonics screening check.” The parent told me how puzzled they both were by this, because her daughter could confidently read lots of written material by herself – including this very statement from her report.

As followers of my blog will know, my strongest interest is in children’s lives beyond the classroom. I claim no great expertise in teaching children how to read. However, this parent’s story echoes some of my wider concerns about the way we think about children and childhood.

I believe that we are losing sight of what makes for a rounded education. Our system has too many blind spots about the ways that children build their competences. It focuses too much on literacy and numeracy – important though these are – at the expense of other areas of learning. And it is preoccupied with testing and accountability.

The current emphasis on phonics for teaching reading skills is controversial, as shown by a look at the blog of former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. However, I am not making any party political points here. The focus on literacy and numeracy, and on measurement and accountability, go back decades.

Neither do I have any easy solutions to offer. My hope is that this story will add weight to the calls to rethink the ways we foster children’s learning. Because if a child comes home and reads in her own school report that in effect she cannot read, then something is badly wrong with our education system.

Note: the parent wishes to remain anonymous, which is why I have not used names and not named the school.

14 responses to “Child reads own school report that says she cannot read

  1. Hi Tim, Thank you for your feed. My first time receiving and very pleased to have it too. Lots of questions jump out of course – and my sympathies are with your overall direction – not the least, “Is that the best thing, to have your child read the report in the first place, regardless of the content?” Complexity of family relationships and all that, you know.

  2. In my children’s schools they wrote some elements of their own reports, to supplement the teachers’ comments!
    This also makes me think about environmental text, signage etc and how, as designers and practitioners, we can support the building of competencies including literacy and numeracy through play environments. (I am not advocating labelling! – there is too much of that in schools that ends up as “wallpaper” that children don’t “see” let alone read after a while ) …

  3. I have a 6 year old daughter who also did not reach her ‘expected’ levels of literacy or numeracy. As with any test (including the phonics screening) you are not ever going to get an excact or full picture of any child’s true capabilities. Although I do have a gut reaction of panic that our child is not ‘achieving’ you do have to step back & give yourself a reality check – they are only 6! I prefer to focus on the positive comments: she’s “an animated & interesting speaker” she has all ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’ for effort in all subjects. You’re always going to compare your kids from who walks / talks at what age – but in the end they all walk & talk & they all (hopefully) read & write – just at different paces.

  4. Craig, Felicity, CB – thanks for the comments. Craig – interesting question – my approach as a parent has always been to share and discuss school reports, in part for transparency, and also to encourage a critical stance. Felicity – I’m ‘less is more’ when it comes to text in play spaces, though I have seen it used well, for instance through humour or quirky questions. CB – one problem highlighted by your story is that this approach is one-size-fits-all: it does not cope well with the different ways that different children learn. This tends to go along with the focus on testing and measuring, of course.

  5. Great to hear this little person can read when not in the classroom setting, pity she had to read what the teacher wrote. I am studying to be a teacher and it terrifies me that my teaching can alter a child’s ability to learn for the rest of their life. I could destroy their desire to learn through one misunderstood moment or misguided judgment. As a parent I have these same concerns with parenting though at least that is my own child and not a possible 24 other children.

  6. It didn’t say she couldn’t read, it said she “has not met the expected standard for the Year 1 phonics screening check.” Why not bring politics into it, isn’t it a politician who came up with such an lunatic notion. Won’t good readers struggle with the phonics test, as they have acquired lots of different strategies for reading unfamiliar words?

  7. This year, my very bright and sparky (yes, that is a euphemism for “a right pain in the butt sometimes”!) 5year old son has been identified as possibly dyslexic (via the Dyslexia Early Screening Test). We are totally amazed by this. His teachers admit he is barely registering, but they are duty bound to consult with us. Junior PLL the Younger has been able to read from an early age and takes after his mama with his numeracy skills… unfortunately, he also takes after me in his “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” approach to learning. That phase was used more than once in my own school reports and he too wants to know WHY he is being asked to do something before he’ll do it. And if he then thinks it’s pointless, he may refuse to do it completely – and as he’s still quite emotionally immature, this can end in tears (mine and his!).

    It turns out that he didn’t think much of the DEST he undertook, which asked him to name what he saw in simple line drawings, stand on one leg, string beads together and repeat patterns he could see on a page. Now I appreciate that it’s important for everyone in society to understand that a degree of compliance is needed, otherwise we descend into anarchy (mornings with JPLLTY can often end up like that). But acutally… he’s only 5, and can pretty much count to infinity (and knows what infinity means), can read almost as well as his elder brother, has an incredible imagination and can design and build the most intricate and beautiful Lego structures.

    We spend (as you might imagine) far more time playing outside than sitting indoors doing homework so maybe he’s just not ready for that ‘sit still and listen’ approach to learning. He wants to find it out for himself…

    I hate this rush to label children; yes, we will keep an eye on things like his gross motor skills and co-ordination, but surely most parents (and teachers?) would rather have a child who questions everything than one who accepts everything at face value. For me, if that means JPPLLTY doesn’t fit the test or the profile, so be it.

  8. Even when a child can read proficiently using sight-word strategies, a solid understanding of phonics is needed. Eventually, the child’s memory will hit its capacity for sight words, usually around 4th grade when they start introducing lots of science vocabulary. Without good phonics, there will be difficulty in spelling and in understanding multi-syllable words. Both sets of skills (phonic and sight-word) are necessary for advanced learning. Statements like the one given on the report card may look silly at first glance, but there is a reason that phonics need to be learned.

  9. Jay, Rachel, Julie, Wendy – thanks for the comments. The title of the post was deliberately eye-catching – but presumably the reason we test children for phonics is because it contributes to reading. I don’t want to get bogged down in literacy strategies here, as it’s neither my expertise nor the focus of my blog. But it is worth noting that many countries do not even start focusing on reading until after children are 6 (and indeed many countries do not start a formal classroom-based education until 6) – hence my point about overemphasis. I also worry about the top-down, tick-box flavour of such initiatives. I may be wrong, but I get the feel the phonic screening check is seen by many teachers as yet another government-imposed hoop to jump through, rather than as something that might give meaningful and helpful data. It may be seen not as a source of information that teachers should take into account, but as an externally driven exercise that is more about measuring teacher and school performance than improving children’s learning. The bureaucratic tone used in the school report – indeed the fact that it is in a report at all, rather than something discussed with parents – certainly suggests this.

    • Hi again Tim, just lost a rather too long reply to you re my first and a little unfair question, considering the actual thrust of your post – which I have to say, I agree with very much. I have worked as a teacher for over 25 years, now as a consultant, and have concentrated all my professional life on teaching and now training others in what we might call a “rounded education.”

  10. I agree we need to sit up and take notice of the age most children in the rest of Europe are starting formal literacy learning. It’s not age 4. And the results are much better…..

  11. “And the results are much better…..”

    The fact that the results are so lousy may be the cause of the early learning. The worse the education systems results, the more it tries to look like it is doing something.

  12. My (probably gifted but painfully shy) brother used to get reports like this. I think his teacher in his first year of school told mum that she thought he was ‘retarded’. He just didn’t like this teacher as she would yell at him so made a decision he ‘wasn’t going to show her what I can do’. He now has three university degrees and is probably the Australian expert in a particular field of law.

  13. The point of the phonics screen is to check if a child can decode, a fundamental of learning to read, and using unusual letter strings is a good way to do this. Many 6 year olds learn to read by whole word memorising, which works up to a point. Capacity for whole word memorising is limited, whilst reading by applying the alphabet code is not. Whole word memorising also compromises spelling, whilst knowldge of the alphabetic code does not.
    So a child might well read her report, but still be unable to handle the alphabetic code.

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