Phonics and the PIRLS test: time to end Government interference

Schools Minister Nick Gibb has hardly stopped crowing because England has risen from 10th to 8th place in the international PIRLS reading test. He claims personal credit, accrediting this result everything to the Phonics Check and his insistence on synthetic phonics.

The improved score is a great credit to England’s teachers, given what they have suffered at the hands of this government… but Nick Gibb is wrong to claim the credit.

The improvement is not as dramatic as he pretends, nor is it the result of Government policy. It was actually half as much as in the previous five years (2006-2011).

Ireland and Australia made twice that gain.This is doubly ironic.

i) Gibb has just returned from a trip to Australia in the attempt to convince politicians there to introduce the phonics check.

ii) Ireland, now the highest achieving country in Europe according to PIRLS, uses a very broad approach to teaching reading.

It is clear from Ireland’s Literacy and Numeracy Strategy and its National Curriculum that the aim is to empower teachers not control them. The Strategy document mentions phonics only four times, twice for English and twice for Irish. It says teacher education should enable teachers “to be familiar with the various strategies, approaches, methodologies and interventions that can be used to teach literacy and numeracy as discrete areas and across the curriculum.”

  • The approach to reading is child-friendly and developmental.
  • Phonics is embedded in real uses of literacy.
  • Teachers are encouraged to combine analytic and synthetic phonics, sight recognition, rhymes and initial letters (onset-rime), pictorial cues, and a growing sense of texts.

Year 1 teachers are advised to be:

“developmentally appropriate and avoid premature formalities… be child-centred, broadly-based, prioritise play and reinforce the concept of the child as an active learner.”

From Year 2, phonological awareness and phonics are treated as part of a bigger picture that includes word recognition, engagement, vocabulary building, a sense of genre, and skills of self-correction.

Children learn to read on the foundation of spoken language and ‘recognizing some personal and familiar words and letters’. Detailed letter-by-letter reading is preceded by activities such as identifying and generating rhyming words and distinguishing between two spoken sounds.

After that, there is a gradual progression, so that stage (c) of the Phonics and Word Recognition aspect is described as follows:

“recognises names and sounds some lower-case and upper-case letters and begins to blend phonemes, recognises a few high-frequency words in familiar contexts and uses one or two letters, often first and last, to identify other words. Uses pictorial cues to read some words.”

Benefit is also drawn from comparing letter-sound correspondence in English and Irish.

‘Linguistic phonics’

Northern Ireland is another PIRLS success story, and there too the approach has been much broader than England. The key term Linguistic Phonics involves both synthetic and analytic phonics, blended with other approaches. Linguistic Phonics:

  • starts with spoken language – awareness of syllables, rhyme and ‘eventually individual sounds within words’

All learning

  • takes place within a meaningful context. Children are given strategies to help them investigate and problem solve.

Year 1 mainly involves phonological awareness in spoken language but with letters gradually introduced in real contexts.

England’s primary school teachers are locked into a very narrow approach to reading, based on ‘synthetic phonics’. The data from the phonics check, SATs and now PIRLS, as well as major research reports, casts serious doubt on the ‘superiority’ of the Government’s preferred teaching method. It is time for the Schools Minister to show some modesty and stop trying to override professional expertise.

More soon…

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