Nick Gibb is wrong: PIRLS data does not support synthetic phonics

The schools minister is looking at the results of a major international reading test wrong, and his dogmatic insistence on teaching children to read with phonics is a sham, argues the NEU’s Kevin Courtney

Overwhelmed by problems of teacher supply and faced with rising evidence of the effects of funding cuts, it’s understandable that Nick Gibb makes much of the performance of English nine-year-olds in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

For him, it’s a good-news story. England’s mid-table rise in the PIRLS table is proof that the government’s relentless emphasis on one teaching method, synthetic phonics, has paid off. It gives the schools minister a platform from which to denounce “those who have stood in the way of evidence-based phonics” as “responsible for stifling human potential and negatively affecting the life chances of countless children”.

But before accepting such big claims, we should look at what the PIRLS scores are actually telling us. A different story soon emerges:

~ England’s improvement from 2011 to 2016 is only half as good as the improvement in the previous five years.

~ It is only half the improvement as the scores of Irish children. Without the benefit of Gibb’s phonics, Ireland has moved further ahead of England.

~ England’s score is lower than that of Northern Ireland, but if Gibb cares to look at Northern Ireland’s primary curriculum, he won’t find synthetic phonics mentioned at all.

When we examine the English data in detail, new problems appear. A helpful scatterplot on page 65 of the DfE’s report on PIRLS shows that there is only a moderate correlation between children’s PIRLS scores and their phonics check scores several years earlier.

Large numbers of children are declared failures in their year 1 phonics check but go on to become successful readers, and large numbers of pupils who pass the phonics check are graded poor readers in PIRLS at age 10.

A sober reading of these findings might have concluded that England may have something to learn from other countries with different approaches and better success. That isn’t where Gibb wishes to go; for him it’s synthetic phonics all the way.

A dogmatic attachment to one approach restricts teachers

It is a serious weakness of the English education system that a minister’s preferences work all the way down to classroom level, and down even to one-to-one teaching. It is particularly a problem when those preferences are, as in Gibbs’ case, not well informed.

The minister is fond of talking about “evidence”, but in fact the evidence around effectiveness in the teaching of reading points not towards a single focus on synthetic phonics, but towards a diversity of approaches. As the minister’s advisers must have told him, systematic reviews of research have concluded repeatedly that teachers should consider a range of methods. A dogmatic attachment to one approach restricts teachers, and will not be helpful for many groups of learners.

In the case of England, we have just one method, established in the teachers’ standards, policed by the phonics check, extolled by the minister. This is not a way to develop teachers’ skills, and a bad way to support children.

Gibb should step back, then, from discussing the teaching of reading. But in other ways, he needs to become very much more active.

The PIRLS report identifies a horrifying situation about which the minister has nothing to say: 25 per cent of the cohort tested by PIRLS reported arriving at school feeling hungry every day or almost every day. This had a considerable negative effect on their reading results: they had an average of 534 points, compared with 579 for those who said they were never hungry at school.

We know that under Gibb’s government this situation is going to get worse and child poverty levels are rising. It is staggering that the minister devotes his time to imposing teaching methods on schools rather than responding to a crisis which will a lasting, deep and damaging effect on children’s learning.

Kevin Courtney is joint general secretary of the National Education Union

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  1. Tom Burkard

    It has long been recognised that international tests are fraught with perils–you can’t ensure uniform standards when you are dealing with different languages and different ways of ‘gaming’ the system. Kevin is right in claiming that Nick Gibb is making to much of the results, but then what politician doesn’t do a bit of cherry-picking now and again? For that matter, what union official doesn’t do the same? At least Nick has the courage of his convictions: he has consistently risked his political career for his beliefs. He paid the price when David Cameron sacked him without explanation or word of thanks, but he was reinstated when Michael Gove made it clear that he wouldn’t go quietly unless Nick were reinstated.

    So far as synthetic phonics is concerned, Kevin is way behind the times. Despite a lot of last-ditch resistance from other enthusiasts for an eclectic strategy, even the dogs barking in the streets now understand that synthetic phonics is the only way forward for the 25% who can’t work out the spelling code without very explicit instruction in how it works. And you’d have to search far and wide to find a cognitive scientist who would claim that it’s possible to become a good reader with the ability to effortlessly decode print to sound. Reading comprehension is nothing but comprehension full stop–if you don’t understand what you’ve read, you won’t understand it if it is read to you. And once again, you have to be a real numpty if you think that understanding can develop in the absence of a wealth of knowledge about the subject in question. Back to school with you, Kevin.

    • Convictions? Don’t experts need relevant qualifications or at the very least some relevant experience?

      PS. An argument is weakened when it resorts to personal slights and name-calling. And as educators, we should always model the type of behaviour we expect of others. Not always easy to do, admittedly, but important nonetheless.

      • Tom Burkard

        On the Synthetic Phonics issue, Nick has worked very closely with Ruth Miskin, who eliminated reading failure altogether when she was head of Kobi Nazrul. Critics whose beliefs echoed Kevin’s questioned her 7+ English results, claiming that her pupils would fall behind later. In 1999 I tested all of her Yr 4 pupils with the London Reading Test and Young’s Parallel Spelling test–every pupil was present; I checked them against the register. There were no scores <85 on the LRT, and on YPST the pupils were on average 22 months ahead of norms. They were only 7 months behind the Yr 7 intake at the suburban Norwich comp where I was teaching literacy skills to SEN pupils. Ruth achieved this despite having over 80% EAL and 60% FSM.

        Being that Kevin was a physics teacher, I can't see that he is any more 'qualified' or 'experienced' to comment on synthetic phonics than Nick, who at least has been advised by teachers who have extensive experience teaching children who've been failed in eclectic classrooms. And your comment about 'personal slights' is pretty rich, considering the tweets Andrew Old gets from teachers who share Kevin's views about synthetic phonics.

    • Tom – Funny, but the ‘eclectic’ strategy seems to be working in Northern Ireland where ten-year-olds significantly outperformed English ten-year-olds in PIRLS 2011 and 2016. ‘Phonetic’ knowledge is integrated with other approaches and no one method (ie synthetic) is imposed. Methodology is left to the professionalism of teachers.
      And that’s how it should be in England. Ministers have no business enforcing their view on how teachers should teach reading. I’d be just as annoyed if the minister was imposing Whole Books, Look and Say or the Initial Teaching Alphabet.

  2. The evidence cited by the DfE and others in favour of systematic synthetic phonics actually recommends the systematic teaching of ANY method of teaching phonics. The EEF KS1 Literacy report said there was insufficient evidence to recommend synthetic phonics over analytic phonics (or vice versa) – some reading schemes used both. And the DfE’s own report into PIRLS 2016 said it was too soon to claim Coalition policies were responsible for the rise in performance from 2011 (which was, in any case, not as large as the rise from 2006 to 2011). http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2017/12/dfe-report-contradicts-dfe-spin-its-too-hasty-to-say-policy-changes-improved-reading-performance-in-global-test
    Northern Irish ten-year-olds ‘significantly’ outperformed English ten-year-olds in PIRLS 2016. The teaching of reading in Northern Ireland favours a more integrated approach.

    • Tom Burkard

      Your post is typical of efforts (such as those by Torgerson, Brooks and Hall) to discount synthetic phonics by defining it strictly in terms of synthesising phonemes, whereas in fact it has a rather more specific meaning as defined by Rose, Miskin, Lloyd, Watson & Johnston, etc, etc. It certainly includes analytic phonics, but it also EXCLUDES the infamous ‘searchlights’ in the NLS. This latter injunction is, sadly, still widely ignored in England, and it absolutely crucial. When slow readers are offered an easy way out, they take it–even if it seldom works.

      Advocates of synthetic phonics acknowedge Gough and Tunmer’s ‘simple view of reading’ which argues that reading comprehension differs little from oral language comprehension: assuming that you can decode words to sound efficiently, if you don’t understand what you’re reading, you won’t understand it when it is read to you. Sadly, attempts to conflate these skills–as per the 1975 ‘Bullock Report’ and the 1998 NLS–have proved disastrous. I am one of a very large legion of parents who were appalled by being told that my son wasn’t ‘ready’ to read, only to find out that synthetic phonics not only got him ready to read but got him way ahead of his class in only six months.

      You, on the other hand, are one of a much smaller army of denialists who can’t accept that their ideas have caused untold anguish. I know–I started a charity to help other parents in the same predicament, and was later engaged by our local comp to teach all the other pupils who’d been failed by our doctrinnaire primary schools.

      Of course there are still a lot of things wrong with our schools, and I will grant you that they can’t all be fixed by top-down measures. England’s teachers are vastly overworked trying to meet the ever-changing requirements of Ofsted, and I have no doubt whatever that our children are still falling vastly short of their potential. My most recent paper argued that Ofsted should be stripped of its role of judging teaching and learning: http://parliamentstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Free-Schools-For-A-Free-Society.pdf