Northern Ireland 10 year-olds beat English ones in reading. Does NI fervently focus on synthetic phonics?
10 year-olds in Northern Ireland ‘significantly outperformed 41 of the 49 other participating countries in reading’, says NFER analysis of the 2016 global reading test, PIRLS.
Northern Ireland was ranked 6th in the world. England was joint eighth.
As reported yesterday, schools minister Nick Gibb said the results for England vindicated his support for systematic synthetic phonics. But this was misleading.
The higher performance of Northern Irish 10 year-olds raises the question of whether systematic synthetic phonics is zealously promoted in the Province. Reading Guidance for Key Stage 1 published by Northern Ireland Education and Library Boards* suggests not.
The words ‘synthetic’ does not appear. The document recommends a range of teaching approaches used appropriately when required. These are:
- Modelled reading
- Shared reading
- Guided reading.
There is a strong emphasis on comprehension including making connections, prediction, visualising, questioning and inferring.
When pupils meet unfamiliar words they are encouraged to use a ‘range of strategies to decode them’. Children should first use their ‘current knowledge of the phonetic code while cross checking with meaning’. Note the emphasis on meaning – decoding alone is not enough.
The guidance says pupils will:
- ‘Try a pronunciation’
- ‘Use context to sift through possibilities in their oral vocabulary bank’
- ‘Choose the most likely pronunciation’ by using context to determine meaning.
In technical language, this means pupils will use ‘grapho-phonic, semantic and syntactic, cueing systems’.
The phonetic code plays an important part in teaching Northern Irish pupils to read but its use is supported by other strategies. The guidance does not fanatically promote just one phonics method. This appears to be left to the professionalism of teachers to choose the appropriate method at any given time.
Nick Gibb, who was described in David Laws’ Coalition Diaries 2012-2015 as being ‘obsessive about phonics’ (p20), should take note.
UPDATE 8 December 2017 08.40. Our reader 'agov' has reminds me (see comment below) that Nick Gibb's obsession with systematic synthetic phonics varies 'on any given day' between systematic synthetic phonics, or systematic phonics, or just plain phonics 'depending on which bit he remembers'. Gibb uses these terms as if they mean the same the thing. They don't. And using the terms has if they do mean the same thing suggests Gibb doesn't really understand the difference.
*I found this document by an internet source. It is undated. I couldn’t find evidence that it had been superseded. It may well be that reading strategies in Northern Ireland have changed. If so, I would be grateful if someone could let me know.