Schools that are failing to hit reading standards need to further increase their focus on phonics, after international rankings “vindicated” the approach, according to schools standards minister Nick Gibb.
The rise in reading standards in England over the past five years, shown by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), were “a vindication of the government’s boldness in pursuing the evidence in the face of ideological criticism,” Mr Gibb told a conference in London today.
He added that they were also a "tribute to the hard work and dedication of primary teachers who have quietly revolutionised the way children are taught to read in this country".
The Pirls results show that 10-year-olds in England achieved a score of 559 on average, a significant rise from an average score of 552 in 2011.
The score puts England in 10th place out of the 50 countries that took part in the assessment but, as only seven countries have a score that is statistically significantly higher, England can also be described as joint eighth – along with Norway, Taiwan, Latvia, Sweden, Hungary and Bulgaria.
Pirls is run by International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) in Amsterdam, and Boston College, USA.
In 2011, England was in 11th place in Pirls with the same score as Ireland, which was in 10th place. There were five countries in 2011 which had statistically higher average achievement in Pirls than England.
The pupils in England taking the tests were also the first pupils to take the phonics check when it was introduced in 2012. The phonics check involves pupils at the end of Year 1 reading aloud a list of 40 words, including 20 non-word, to their teacher.
In the first year of the check, 58 per cent of pupils reached the expected standard at the end of Year 1. This year, 81 per cent of pupils reached the expected standard at the end of Year 1.
'Focus on phonics'
Mr Gibb said: “The details of these findings are particularly interesting. I hope they ring in the ears of opponents of phonics whose alternative proposals would do so much to damage reading instruction in this country and around the world.”
Speaking to Tes after the event, he added that he believed more could still be done.
“We need to continue the focus on phonics because we have reached the point where 81 per cent are reaching expected standard [at Year 1] but the number reaching expected standard at Year 2 is 92 per cent. I would like to see that 92 per cent achieving it by the end of Year 1 and a further rise beyond that in both Year 1 and Year 2.
“The system as a whole should continue the focus on phonics. There are many schools which are achieving very high standards in phonics, so they don’t need more emphasis, they need to continue what they’re doing.
"But for those schools which are not meeting these standards, we want those schools to continue to improve teaching of phonics in Reception and Year 1, so they are reaching the same standards as the best schools around the country.”
The increased emphasis on phonics began under the Labour government, which ordered a review of the teaching of reading in 2006 that recommended that phonics should be taught “systematically and discretely as the prime approach”.
The Letters and Sounds phonics guidance was published in the following year, which a 2015 DfE research report found is still used by around three-quarters of schools.
In 2010, when the coalition government came into power, the focus on phonics was ramped up again. It announced that a phonics check would be introduced in 2012. It also introduced matched funding for phonics resources and training and the teaching of phonics was made explicit in the new national curriculum.