More pass phonics check, but reading no better than last year at end of KS1

Janet Downs's picture

Schools minister Nick Gibb is triumphant – the increased proportion of pupils passing the phonics screening test vindicates Government reforms in the teaching of reading, he claims.

But reading results at the end of Key Stage 1 haven’t increased this year. If Gibb’s logic is correct – that improved phonics test results year on year mean improved reading results further down the line - then the 2015 KS1 results should have improved proportionately.

 But they didn’t.

That’s not to say a rise in the proportion reaching the expected level in reading at the end of Key Stage 1 from 85% in 2012 to 90% today isn’t positive. But it can’t be said it’s down to the phonics test or results would have risen again this year. It’s more likely teachers have improved reading instruction. Research commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) last year found teachers recognised the importance of phonics but the majority combined it with other methods.

Writing in the Telegraph, Gibb claims credit for the use of phonics in schools in England. But the Eurydice 2011 report on the Teaching of Reading in Europe found phonics was already embedded in English schools.

Gibb told the Telegraph that PISA showed 17% of UK 15 year-olds were low performers in reading. This, he said, was a national disgrace. But the 17% figure is slightly lower than the OECD average of 18%. That’s no reason to be complacent, of course, but Gibb implies the proportion of low-performers in reading is far worse in the UK than in other OECD countries. Not so.

The phonics check is supposed to be a diagnostic tool to help teachers identify struggling readers. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent the ‘light touch’ phonics check is less for the benefit of pupils and teachers than for ministers who use results to name-and-shame.

And Gibb has done just that. The DfE press release lists the ‘top ten’ (mainly LAs around London) and the ‘bottom ten’ (in the Midlands and North).

Peterborough is among those which will be ‘challenged’ to say how they plan to improve ‘swiftly’. Peterborough’s also in the firing line for being one of the worst performers in Key Stage 2 Sats. The city, then, can expect a double dose of Gibb’s challenge.

But Ofsted judged Peterborough’s school improvement support to be ‘effective’ in March 2014. Inspectors and the LA recognised there was still some way to go but the city was taking steps in the right direction.

Peterborough’s MP, Stewart Jackson, could explain why test results in Peterborough are low – the large number of immigrant children arriving at all times of the year with little or no English. He has requested extra funding for those areas of the country faced with this problem.

It’s unlikely this will have any impact on Gibb’s desire to challenge Peterborough. But it’s not an effective strategy to name-and-shame an authority which already has effective school improvement support working in challenging circumstances.

Gibb’s rhetoric, then, takes credit for something that had already happened, implies there are far more low-performing readers in England than in other countries and attempts to sound tough by challenging low-performing LAs irrespective of whether the school improvement support is effective or not. I expect there’ll be more of the same next year, and the next….

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Debbie Hepplewhite's picture
Sun, 27/09/2015 - 09:32

I would just like to reassure readers to this posting that reading is definitely improving - substantially - based on what real teachers in classrooms are telling me when I visit their schools.

Albeit this is anecdotal, teachers in school after school are very keen to describe personally how they cannot believe the improvement in children's reading, and they tell me about the sheer numbers of children who can read in infant classrooms that in previous times (non-systematic phonics times) would not have read, or read well by the end of Year One or Year Two.

This anecdotal evidence is supported by the year-on-year rise in decoding standards by the end of Year One in England.

And yet we still have a long way to go to achieve the highest possible quality of phonics teaching - that is, professional knowledge and understanding. Alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills for decoding and encoding is life-long adult stuff - not just 'infant stuff'. Arguably it should be part of teacher-training for all teachers across the sectors as it is that important. It is pleasing to see that critics of Nick Gibb at least say they are not 'against' phonics (though that is sometimes hard to believe considering the negativity towards a man who has done his utmost to promote phonics practice that, despite various claims, was not that evident in many schools).

There are over 700 schools this year achieving 95% reaching or exceeding the benchmark in the Year One Phonics Screening Check. We need to replicate this in all schools.

Why would anyone really want to argue against the promotion of phonics teaching that is resulting in more children - and in some schools all children - being able to readily lift the words off the page as a consequence of Government guidance and improved professional understanding and practice in reading instruction?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 27/09/2015 - 10:08

Debbie - you're right that much evidence comparing reading standards today with 'non-systematic phonics times' is anecdotal. That's not to say it isn't correct but we need reliable statistics not just anecdotes from teachers who aren't likely to be old enough to have taught other methods of teaching reading eg Whole Books, Look and Say, Initial Teaching Alphabet (aaaggh!).

It's likely many current teachers would have been taught reading by these methods. And they seem to have worked in their cases. It could be argued they learnt to read despite these methods not because of them, in which case there are millions of middle-aged people who did so. If this is true, then it would imply that children could pick up reading irrespective of what teachers do to them and I don't believe that to be true in the majority of cases.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 27/09/2015 - 09:51

Gibb jumped on the phonics bandwagon at a time the use of phonics was already well-used in schools in England (see Eurydice 2011 report into the Teaching of Reading in Europe linked above). This was nothing to do with guidance from either the Coalition or the present Government.

Debbie Hepplewhite's picture
Sun, 27/09/2015 - 10:16

Gibb did not 'jump on the phonics bandwagon'. He became aware of the reading debate in England, that is, aware of the critics of the National Literacy Strategy 'searchlights' multi-cueing guidance and investigated the situation. He was informed by members of the Reading Reform Foundation who were able to demonstrate great reading success using different SSP programmes and practices, and who could point to the international research showing the efficacy of systematic phonics and synthetic phonics. He addressed this as a 'cross-party' issue and there were other politicians from various parties supporting SSP as you so rightly point out. Phonics promotion has been a political continuum in England - and that is great.

I'm ordering the Eurydice 2011 report right now to read it fully - but I can describe first-hand that phonics certainly was not already well-used in schools in England - and continues to be weak practice in many schools even though a daily dose of 'phonics' is provided. Also, as you yourself note, we still appear to have prevailing multi-cueing reading strategies alongside phonics provision so this is not really 'Systematic Synthetic Phonics' which may well explain why not all schools are reaching the standards we would like to see universally.

Whilesoever 23% of a Year One class cannot decode the 32 out of 40 words provided in the Year One Phonics Screening Check, no-one could state that we have 'well-used' phonics in schools in England - and yet England is probably way ahead of many English-speaking countries with regard to its phonics teaching. That is why not only is it a great idea to have a national, objective check in England - it would be a very good idea indeed to use the same check in other English-speaking countries. That would open a few eyes and perhaps make people appreciate that 'thank goodness' we have had Nick Gibb championing the need for systematic synthetic phonics in our schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 27/09/2015 - 10:35

Digging for statistical evidence rather than hearsay. I've found NFER research looking at literacy levels from 1948-1996 (presumably spanning 'non-systematic phonics time'). The conclusion was:

'The British educational system has been generally successful in maintaining the standard of achievement in literacy' although researchers admitted there'd been some 'slippage' in international tests between the 1970s and 1990s.

But what of the evidence post 1996? PIRLS test in 2001 showed 10 year olds scoring 553 and were among the most able in the world. However, the 2006 results for England were disappointing - score fell to 539. In 2011, England did much better and scored 552.

The latest data DfE data compared reading levels at the end of Key Stage 1 over ten years. In 2005, 85% of pupils met the expected level. This stayed more-or-less the same until 2011 when it began to rise. In 2014 it reached 90%. This year's score is the same. However, if Gibb is correct that a rising proportion of pupils passing the decoding test will show a corresponding rise in reading competence in later years, the 2015 score should have risen.

What to make of this data? It appears from NFER research that literacy levels in the UK were constant from 1948 to 1996. This would be irrespective of which methods of teaching reading were used. PIRLS results are erratic and only span three rounds of tests - it would be unwise to come to any conclusion about teaching methods based on these.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 27/09/2015 - 11:50

'He was informed by members of the Reading Reform Foundation' speaks volumes. Did Gibb not think it right to talk to other people and assess a wide range of opinion?

It's particularly disturbing that Gibb uses terms as if they mean the same thing. 'Systematic' and 'synthetic' are not synonyms but Gibb uses them alternately as if they were.

Gibb's cited evidence (full discussion here) supported the systematic teaching of any method of phonics not just synthetic. For example, the National Reading Panel NRP recommended a four-pronged approach: explicit instruction about phonemic awareness (understanding that spoken words consist of smaller parts called phonemes), systematic phonics (any method), improving fluency and increasing comprehension.

There are those who argue analytic phonics is better. That's because a word is not 'identified with a sound' but as 'an element' of language whose meaning is already understood by the reader. (See Andrew Davis, 'To read or not to read: decoding synthetic phonics' - I can't provide a link but an internet search will find it).

Debbie Hepplewhite's picture
Sun, 27/09/2015 - 12:18

This will be my last comment on this thread at the moment because I must get on with other things.

I'm not going to go over old arguments and hair-splitting on an individual forum. You should give more credit to people who looked into the bigger picture. Sir Jim Rose, for example, is really really clear that when he and his team visited schools using different methods, systematic synthetic phonics schools were more effective by far. Sir Jim Rose, for example, has been involved in education, teaching, inspection, looking at international schools - and so on - for many decades. As have others.

There is an international and growing consensus about research findings around the specific approach of 'synthetic' which really refers to decoding mainly at the level of the phoneme at first. You can debate now and keep going over old ground, but it would arguably be far more productive if you met up with me, or someone like me, and got into some schools using different methods and also schools who are better at teaching systematic synthetic phonics than others. It would be good, too, if you looked wider afield at English-speaking countries such as Australia and New Zealand to understand the struggles they are having with a predominantly whole language approach and Reading Recovery intervention.

I am not a researcher, I am a practitioner. I have colleagues, however, who are steeped in research and academia who are persuaded because of the international research and their own findings of the importance of systematic synthetic phonics.

Only last week I was told by a teacher currently in Year Three who has taught in the school for 29 years that she has never seen such amazing reading standards. She said that in the past, perhaps half the children were capable readers per class and there were many who could not read well or at all. Now, she said, it is only one or two children who continue to struggle to read at most. Interestingly, I was in the school because the school wants to do much better still and know they can. They also want to look into a possible mis-match between reading levels and spelling/writing levels. Further, it was a dip in Year One Phonics Screening Check results, and disparity between results in two parallel Year One classes (really highlighted by the Year One screening check results) that alerted them to the need to investigate, train and re-train as required.

This is where many schools are now - open-minded about their teaching effectiveness, aware that they must not rest on their laurels because 'effectiveness' can increase or decrease, and they value phonics professional knowledge and understanding enormously. Nick Gibb's promotion of phonics (amongst others) and the introduction of the Year One Phonics Screening Check in England will be seen to be of great historic importance in education. It's a pity that detractors only view developments in England with a pot half-empty perspective instead of appreciating its amazing significance and celebrating the fact an increasing number of children by age six can lift most words off the page even when out of context.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/09/2015 - 10:16

Debbie - thanks for the link. It confirms the evidence I found - that 'systematic' teaching of phonics was beneficial to teaching children to read. You claim it showed 'the importance of systematic synthetic phonics' but the word 'synthetic' did not appear. Also there were some omissions from the summary of evidence:

Ehri et al 2001 Meta Analysis
Camilli et al 'Teaching children to read : the fragile link between science & federal education policy'
Torgerson et al 2006 'A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling'

The latter considered advice given by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) that synthetic phonics should be taught “first, fast and only”. As you've admitted, Gibb had been 'informed' by RRF. Perhaps he should also have read Torgerson et al who found no research evidence to support 'first', no experiments had taken place about 'fast' and there was not enough randomized controlled trial evidence to support or contradict 'only'. (pp 55-56)

The authors conceded RRF had practical examples but concluded these only show what “can be done, not whether it should.”

It's a bit of a stretch from this to saying the Year One Phonics Screening Check 'will be seen to be of great historic importance' of 'amazing' significance. Surely if Phonics Screening has any use at all then it should be administered when appropriate at the discretion of the teacher not at a set time involving all children? Neither does it follow that those who criticise the test (and I'm one of them) are viewing 'developments in England with a pot half-empty perspective' (whatever that means).

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