Teaching children to read and write successfully is undoubtedly the most important part of their education. Failure to do so brings appalling problems for these children and society.

Over the years educationalists tended to ignore the evidence presented by research scientists. They promoted ideas that have succeeded with many children but have also failed the bottom 20-40%.

In England, during this last decade, the DfE has endeavoured to follow the science and has encouraged teachers to use Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), which research has shown to be the most effective way of teaching reading and writing.

In reality, most reading problems are decoding problems, especially in the first few years. These children struggle to read the words on the page. The Phonics Screening Check (PSC) was designed to identify these children by measuring how well they could decode/read 20 words and 20 pseudo words. Every child in England was, and still is, assessed on this test. In the beginning the signs were good. The children improved their SSP results year on year. This led to higher standards being achieved. Unfortunately the results have now stalled, with about 19% of children failing the first test.

This leaves the problem of why the results have plateaued. I think it is for the following reasons:

  1. The PSC, administered after nearly two years of reading and writing instruction in school, successfully identified the problems but did not clearly provide the solutions.

  2. In my experience, one of the main problems is a lack of awareness, by educationalists and teachers, that poor decoding skills are the main cause of reading problems. These children tend to look for other routes for reading, such as looking at the picture and guessing what the word might be from the context.

    Stanislas Dehaene makes the importance of decoding abundantly clear in his lecture ‘How the Brain Learns to Read’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25GI3-kiLdo

  3. Problems with decoding can and should be identified in the first few weeks of teaching SSP. The slow-to-start children usually do not remember enough of the letter sounds that have been taught or are struggling to blend words that use them or both. These children just need extra practice in small groups.

    Strong evidence for this can be seen in the longitudinal studies by researcher Dr Marlynne Grant. http://tcrw.co.uk/help-with-reading-and-writing-problems/preventing-reading-and-writing-problems/part-6-evidence-of-effectiveness/

Preventing children’s decoding/reading problems, early on, can be achieved by ensuring that the main letter-sound correspondences have been mastered and that each child has had enough blending practice, with regular words that use those letter sounds, to ensure fluent and automatic blending of new words.

All schools should be able to achieve 100% PSC pass rate, on this relatively easy test.  

Sue Lloyd MBE

Co-author Jolly Phonics

Retired Infant Teacher


Has the Phonics Screening Check fulfilled its promise?