Minister’s evidence doesn’t support his claim that phonics emphasis caused rise in test results

Janet Downs's picture

Too hasty to say higher results in global reading test are due to policy changes

Good phonics teaching, as highlighted by England’s highest ever results in the 2016 PIRLS study, provides an excellent foundation for reading,’ said schools minister Nick Gibb in a Written Answer.  

England’s success in the international PIRLS study was indeed the country’s ‘highest ever’.  But the link given in Gibb’s answer ( doesn’t support his claim that the high performance of English 10-year-olds in the 2016 global PIRLS reading test was solely down to ‘good phonics teaching’.  Neither was it because of the phonic screening check set for the first time in 2012. 

The link supplied by Gibb revealed the unsurprising fact that pupils who scored highest in the screening check also scored the highest in PIRLS.  The check was predictive.  Nowhere in the report does it say the screening check contributed to the high PIRLS score.  It says:

 ‘While the average PIRLS scores of the lowest performing pupils in England have increased since 2011, it appears too hasty to claim that these improvements are attributable to policy changes.’


‘…the current results [for England] should be somewhat cautiously interpreted given that other countries have also adopted phonics approaches over varying lengths of time and the results have been mixed in terms of average PIRLS performance.’

That’s not to say phonics isn’t a valuable part of teaching reading

Gibb is right that good phonics teaching is an excellent foundation for reading.   In his Written Answer, Gibb rightly stresses this must be systematic.  But this doesn’t have to be his favoured system of ‘synthetic’ so long as whichever system is chosen is delivered methodically and accompanied by reading books, exploring language through various activities, encouraging comprehension and being read to.

PIRLS leader Northern Ireland not so fixated on phonics

The report says Northern Ireland, which performed better than England in PIRLS 2016, uses phonics ‘to at least some extent in their pedagogical approaches.’  This confirms findings on this site that Northern Ireland accepts phonics is important but is best integrated into a whole package of teaching reading incorporating other methods and recognising teacher professionalism

Northern Ireland does not, as Nick Gibb does, heavily endorse one sole method of teaching reading.  And the country values teacher professionalism in deciding the most appropriate approach.

In England, however, we have a schools minister who has never taught believing his views trump the professionalism of those who do

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G's picture
Mon, 23/07/2018 - 12:13

Nick Gibb misusing statistics, selectively quoting from reports and misquoting if necessary. Goodness me, whatever next? Swans swimming on water, cats meowing, me unable to resist just one more chocolate from the box?

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