Northern Ireland 10 year-olds beat English ones in reading. Does NI fervently focus on synthetic phonics?

Janet Downs's picture

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. 

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David Libbert's picture
Wed, 06/12/2017 - 20:48

I think this doc confirms your points:  "Count Read Succeed" NI dept of Ed 2011 literacy and numeracy strategy, which I think is still current. 

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 07/12/2017 - 10:00

Thank you David.  I was concerned that the document I found may have been superseded.  The document you found recognised  'a broad and balanced approach to promote literacy is key, it is still important that pupils who have not yet full developed their phonological awareness receive a systematic and time-bound programme of high-quality phonics work.'  The guidance went on to say:

'A range of other strategies for developing literacy should also be deployed as appropriate and pupils who have successfully developed their phonological awareness should not be required to undertake phonics work if the teacher does not think it necessary or beneficial.'

This confirms what I wrote above: phonetic knowledge is important but isn't the sole method of teaching pupils to read.   There was also an emphasis on teacher professionalism in deciding strategies for teaching reading.  Nick Gibb's obsession with systematic synthetic phonics downgrades teacher professionalism.  

UPDATE: 11.06  The link has now been corrected.  It orignally went to an old LSN article.  It now links to Northern Ireland's Department for Education's page where the document 'Count, read: succeed' can be downloaded.


agov's picture
Thu, 07/12/2017 - 15:31

"Nick Gibb's obsession with systematic synthetic phonics"

Shouldn't that be 'Nick Gibb's obsession with systematic synthetic phonics, or systematic phonics, or synthetic phonics, or phonics (depending on which bit he remembers on any given day)'?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/12/2017 - 08:35

agov - quite right.  I shall update the article immediately. 

I noticed that in his self-congratulatory article in the Mail (where else?), he just used the term 'phonics'.  Rather insulting to Mail readers - he appears to be assuming their eyes would glaze over if presented with words like 'systematic' or 'synthetic'.   

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