Success in phonics test doesn’t equal success in reading, DfE data shows

Janet Downs's picture

‘Thousands more children on track to become fluent readers’, says schools minister Nick Gibb in a Department for Education press release published yesterday.  

Official data shows 81% of six year olds reached the expected standard in the Year One phonics test this year.  That’s the same percentage as last year. 

Pupils who didn’t meet the expected standard last year retook the test this year.  This increased the proportion attaining the expected standard to 92%.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb claims the Year 1 figures show pupils are ‘on track to becoming fluent readers’.  And with the proportion rising to 92% in Year 2, the test results seem to support his claim.

But decoding 40 ‘simple words’ singly and out of context isn’t reading fluently You’d expect the proportion of Y2 pupils passing the end of Key Stage 1 reading assessment to be the same if reading fluently relied solely on breaking down words.

The proportion passing the phonics test and the proportion meeting the expected standard in the reading assessment did not match.  92%, remember, met the expected standard in the phonics test by the end of KS1.  But that proportion dropped to 76% reaching the expected standard in reading.

More than nine-out-of-ten reached the expected standard in phonics.

Nearly one-in-four did not reach the expected standard in reading.

Comparing phonics test results with the reading assessment isn’t comparing like with like, of course.  The former, as noted above, is decoding only.  The latter includes comprehension and vocabulary knowledge.  It uses continuous text not isolated words.

That is, of course, what reading fluency is about: reading accurately, with speed and understanding.   Phonics, being able to break down words into their component parts, is a necessary skill especially when faced with an unfamiliar word.  But this alone is not enough.  Systematic phonics tuition is just one of eight strategies for improving literacy recommended by the Education Endowment Foundation.

This isn’t obvious from Gibb’s statements; it’s phonics, phonics, phonics.  Sometimes systematic, sometimes synthetic, sometimes both systematic and synthetic and sometimes just plain phonics.

DfE figures do not show a correlation between phonic test success and reading assessment success.  Perhaps Gibb should ponder that rather than sticking doggedly to the claim that decoding equals reading.

CORRECTION 30 Sept 09.25  I originally wrote  ' You’d expect the proportion of Y2 pupils passing the end of Key Stage 2 reading assessment to be the same if reading fluently relied solely on breaking down words'.  That should have been 'passing the end of Key Stage 1 reading assessment'.    Apologies.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 29/09/2017 - 13:30

Very important post - not only is reading fluently not the same as decoding using the rules of phonics, there is the issue of, 'the high stakes test distortion'. Presumably, given Gibb's pleasure at 92% meeting 'the expected standard' at the end of KS1, he is claiming success for the now long standing policy of pressuring/threatening heads to maximise the 'expected standard' percentage. Heads have no choice but to pass the pressure on to their teachers, who then pressurise their pupils accordingly. However this is not 'deep learning', let alone exploiting the innate 'Learning Instinct' of children that I discuss here.

We see here that KS1 'meeting the expected standard' does not translate into 'meeting the expected standard' at KS2, despite even more of the high stakes medicine. Then, large numbers of secondary schools still fail to meet the target percentage of pupils 'meeting the expected standard' at KS4. Clearly 'not enough pressure' must be to blame and hence the trend towards even more unpleasant learning experiences in 'zero tolerance' secondaries like the Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. The entirely predicable consequence then emerges at A Level, where the take up of courses requiring deep understanding and curious, resilient students is in decline.

What is missing at every stage is the recognition, stimulation, support and development of curiosity and the social interaction and metacognition (that EEF recommends), that leads to the development of deep understanding that can be characterised as 'getting it' rather than just 'knowing it'. See also

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 30/09/2017 - 09:35

Roger - I made an error in the original article.   I said the KS1 phonics results didn't lead to passing the reading assessment at the end of KS2.  That should have been KS1.  We have a situation where pupils are measured for decoding in either Year 1 or, if they don't reach the expected standard, in Year 2.  They also take a reading assessment at the end of Key Stage 1 (ie end of Year 2).  If Gibb is correct, and meeting the expected standard in phonics screening by the end of KS1 is 'reading' then you'd expect the proportion passing the reading assessment at the end of KS1 to be the same.  But the proportion passing phonics and the reading test don't match.  Fewer pupils pass reading than phonics.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 30/09/2017 - 09:43

My other argument still applies. High stakes testing at one Key Stage that does not result in deep learning  just makes the job harder, not easier, for the teachers suffering the pressure of more high stakes testing at the next key stage.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 01/10/2017 - 09:59

My corrected error actually makes your article more powerful because these pupils were the same age.   At age 7, end of KS1, the proportion reaching the expected standard in phonics was 92%.  At the same age, 7, the proportion reaching the expected standard in reading assessment was lower, 76%.

Nick Gibb says 92% of 7 year-olds are on track to become fluent readers because they reached the expected standard in the phonics screening test by age 7.  But testing them for reading at age 7 shows that nearly a quarter aren't reaching the expected standard in reading.  This is because decoding is not reading.  

That's not to say phonics teaching isn't important especially when done systematically.  But it's not reading.  It's quite possible for fluent readers to flunk the phonics test because they are looking for meaning (surely the whole point of reading).


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 01/10/2017 - 11:02

Absolutely right Janet, and very important. I never cease to wonder why OfSTED takes no interest in these things. Surely HMI have a direct interest in promoting effective approaches to the development of a high level of functional literacy throughout the national education system. Of course the answer to my question is that OfSTED, unlike its HMI predecessor, has never been independent of the government. Its true function has been as the state enforcer of the government's ideologically motivated free market reforms.

The political role of OfSTED was at its height during the period of the Blair government when it was a vital agent of Academisation. During this period a special team of 'ideologically sound' OfSTED inspectors was created to inspect and monitor the new Academies. Section 3.2 of my book, 'Learning Matters' sets out in detail how during this period a different standard  appeared to be applied to inspections of the newly opened Academies compared to LA schools, expecially those 'fingered' for closure and replacement by an Academy scheme. Many of these early Academies were actually performing very badly, while the glowing OfSTED reports for those that were not, failed to take account of the contribution of 'Fair Banding' admission policies (not available to their competing LA schools) to their success. This too, is explained with detailed evidence in Part 4 of my book.

All this took place under under the regime of Ed Balls, who in my view ranks as one of the all time worst Education Secretaries; a status for which there is huge competition.

Nairb1's picture
Fri, 29/09/2017 - 19:38

Gibb can cope with the simplistic, no more. Unfortunately the pressure on schools to meet the Gibb standards, however fatuous or damaging, continues to undermine any attempts to secure deeper learning. And while Ofsted remains Gibb's attack dog the situation isn't going to improve.

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