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UKLA Comments on PIRLS

The publishing of the PIRLS 2016 results (See link below) has resulted in the usual political flurry, with politicians seizing the opportunity to emphasise that the raised focus on securing children’s decoding skills through systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) has been responsible for the UK’s positive shift in ranking.

Fifty countries from around the world participated in the PIRLS 2016 international assessment of reading comprehension at the fourth grade, and in every country there was a wide range of reading achievement from basic skills to advanced comprehension

England’s nine and ten-year olds did quite well in 2016, with a mean score of 559, bringing it to a position of 8th equal in the 50 strong international league table, up from its score of 552 and 10th equal in 2011.

Nick Gibb is claiming that this ‘best in a generation’ score is thanks to his unremitting emphasis on phonics in general and his imposition of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) in particular (to which the government is so committed that no-one was allowed to question it in the recent literacy assessment consultation).

But is he right? Is it the ability to decode nonsense words that has led to improved comprehension scores four years later? UKLA rejects this simplistic view for the following reasons.

Firstly, as an analysis carried out at Oxford department of Education shows, many children who failed to reach the PSC pass mark in 2012, went on to score at the High, or even the Advanced levels on PIRLS. At the same time, many who scored high on the PSC scored at the Intermediate or Low levels on PIRLS. This is consistent with existing research showing very little connection between scores on phonics tests and later scores on comprehension tests.

Secondly, as well as the strong emphasis on phonics, the last few years have happily seen the expansion of the government’s Reading for Pleasure initiative, which is now mandatory. As has been frequently demonstrated, children who like reading do get better at it: the will influences the skill. We still have a long way to go in this area, as England’s schools and libraries are inadequately funded and England’s children like reading less than children in any other Anglophone country investigated in PIRLS.

Thirdly Ireland shows a different pattern at work. Five years ago Ireland shared our position of 10th equal in the PIRLS ranking. It has now moved up rather more than England and stands at 4th position, with a mean score of 567, against England’s 559. In the Irish Independent (6.12.17), Ireland’s Chief Inspector of Education, Harold Hislop, takes a broad view of the causes of this marked improvement. He suggests that a number of factors have made important contributions, citing assiduous work by school leaders and teachers, commitment by parents, the introduction of Ireland’s National Literacy Strategy from 2011 (setting out clear targets and a range of linked actions, and extending the time dedicated to literacy learning in the school day) a very successful initiative for schools with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the introduction of school self-evaluation in 2012. Last, but perhaps not least, he points to the revision and extension of both initial teacher education and also continuing professional development courses, to enhance the teaching of literacy. He makes no mention of phonics.

Our children’s reading certainly has improved in the last five years. But we might do even better. If England’s decision-makers took a similarly broad approach to this complex matter, perhaps we could be up there with the Irish.

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