Children can pass the phonics test with just a basic knowledge of the government’s preferred system for learning to read, research suggests.
Six-year-olds have to read aloud 20 real words and 20 made-up words in the check, testing their ability to sound out words using the phonics system.
It is meant to test knowledge of the system’s 85 letter combinations, but looks at only two-thirds of them.
Pupils also needed vocabulary knowledge to read the test words, the study said.
The research, presented at the British Educational Research Association conference by Dr Jonathan Solity and Dr Cat Darnell, is a detailed analysis of the words pupils have been asked to read in the check between 2012 and 2014.
The controversial test was introduced in 2012 to ensure all children at the end of Year 1 had what the government believed was sufficient phonics knowledge to develop their reading skills.
And so it was designed to check only how well children were deploying their knowledge of the letter combinations or “graphemes”, rather than using their knowledge of vocabulary to read.
Hence the inclusion of 20 so-called “pseudo words”.
But the researchers said, because of the complexity of the English language, children needed to use vocabulary knowledge to work out how to pronounce 40% of the words in the test.
For example, the word “brown” was included in the 2014 test.
But as the “ow” sound can be pronounced in two different ways – to rhyme with “cow” or “slow”, the researchers said it was only by knowing the meaning of the word “brown” that children would be able to pronounce it correctly.
They also said children could get high scores in the test even if they were able to read only words made up of simple sounds such as the sound “d” in “dog”.
Ministers strongly advocate the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics in schools.
This is where children use only their knowledge of graphemes in order to sound out simple words – before they go on to tackle more irregular words that they simply have to remember how to pronounce.
The researchers said schools may be wasting their time teaching more complex graphemes of little use to children in reading.
And the children, particularly those who are disadvantaged and from less “language rich” homes, would benefit more from efforts to build vocabulary.
This undue focus on the rarer language sounds could leave pupils struggling to read, the researchers said.
Dr Solity, an honorary research fellow at University College London, said: “This is not an anti-phonics argument. It is absolutely clear that children need to be taught phonics, and systematic synthetic phonics in particular.
“What we are questioning is whether it is worth teachers spending a great amount of time making sure pupils learn all 85 , rather than concentrating on the most frequent ones and then building pupils’ vocabulary.”
The government has insisted that its test works well to pick up the children struggling to read using phonics and enables interventions to be put in at an early stage.
A Department for Education spokesperson said the research was misleading.
“We test a wide range of phonics knowledge from a range of content, but it would be impossible to test every aspect that is taught in a single check.
“Over time, as more tests are carried out, they will cover the full breadth of knowledge required under the curriculum.”