And now good news for reading!!

DSCF0239Last week I was able to bring you good news in relation to group work in terms of our performance in PISA tests (for 15 year olds). And now, other international comparison tests (PIRLS – for 9/10 year olds) tell us that we’re doing pretty well in reading too
– around 8th out of 50. So let’s give our teachers a really lovely big pat on the back. And now let’s be really careful about jumping to conclusions. The good news is:-

  • We improved our scores by 7 marks in five years – from 552 to 559 an increase of around 1.25%.
  • More significantly, we narrowed the gap between the lower achieving pupils and the higher achieving ones.
  • And we made progress on closing the gap on gender differences with boys improving.

This is really heartening. And in addition, our pupils do really well at inference from fictional texts, though less well on extraction of information from non fiction texts. So, after cracking open the champagne and giving teachers a pay rise, what conclusions are the government making from this outcome?

Well, they are demonstrating that they too are better at making inferences than drawing out facts. Nick Gibb was keen to point out that this was the first cohort of children to have taken the phonics test and that therefore the improvement was an endorsement of the phonics check. But wait…this cohort of children achieved only a 58% pass rate in their Phonics Check in 2012. In 2017 it was 81%. Can we expect a rise of 23% in the next PIRLS test? It seems unlikely. And an analysis of the results conducted by Oxford university found only a moderate correlation of 0.52 between the two – that’s without taking statistical variance of the results into account. Of course, it’s also important to consider that correlation is not cause. The correlation simply suggests that on the whole, children who did well in one test, tended to do well in another. And vice versa. Not that one test CAUSED the results in the other. In fact the report concluded that  “while the average PIRLS scores of the lowest performing pupils in England have increased since 2011, it appears too hasty to claim that these improvements are attributable to policy changes.”

Nevertheless, it would seem churlish not to accept that surely SSP teaching has played a part in this improvement. This cohort are the first to have truly been impacted by the introduction of SSP in 2007 by the previous Labour government. Credit where it’s due.

And the performance in inference skills suggest that schools are doing well on ensuring children are reading fiction and developing comprehension and analysis skills.

However, the enjoyment of reading for both boys and girls was lower than the average for the countries taking part, and much more so for boys. This supports the findings too of the Clackmannanshire report into early reading that found that although SSP led to boys improved reading outcomes, they nevertheless reported lower levels of enjoyment of reading than the girls in  spite of their accelerated success. A tendency for boys’ enjoyment of reading to be not only lower but to reduce between the ages of 11 and 16 is problematic. This is a worry, particularly when we consider recent IoE data that showed that children who read for pleasure between the ages of 11 and 16 know 26% more vocabulary and tend to do better at GCSE. It may be that although we are teaching children to read well, the fact that they don’t enjoy reading is ultimately impacting on outcomes further down the line.

Interestingly, the correlation between books at home and performance in PIRLS was far stronger than the correlation between the introduction of the phonics check and the PIRLS reading result. Clearly there are complexly inter-related social, cultural and economic factors at play here and again, correlation is not necessarily cause.

So in short, what are our headlines? Lots will depend on your point of view. But for me, I’d say:-

  • Phonics seems to be impacting. Just make sure you keep it short, sweet, interactive and fun so they don’t get put off reading.
  • Focus on reading for pleasure and see how books can be brought into and kept in the home. Second hand book sales at school? Swaps? Gifts?
  • Consider information retrieval as this is one of our weaker areas. Are we allowing children to read enough non fiction and pull information out of texts? This can be done in really imaginative and creative ways – doesn’t have to be a comprehension worksheet.

But most of all, let’s just take a moment to say, well done primary teachers. Well done pupils. In spite of everything – you’re making a difference.


12 thoughts on “And now good news for reading!!

  1. Much as I would like to share Debra’s elation at this news I must caution a high degree of scepticism. Janet Downs explains her worries in this article.

    And I give my (different) reasons in my comment.

    I absolutely support Debra’s approaches to teaching and learning, but I am not confident that there is enough of it going on in our schools for us to be happy with the management of our education system by the DfE.

  2. I agree Roger. But every time we do well in an international comparison test, government takes credit. And every time we do badly, they bash teachers. So I was putting some positive spin on things 🙂 I think these successes are in spite of, not because of DfE policy – in fact the report says so. And also, I didn’t mention it (didn’t want to spoil the party I guess) but there is a lot of worrying stuff in the original data about children in poverty, feeling hungry etc. So, yes, I accept that this is a rose tinted view. But sometimes teachers need some good news.

  3. Debra Kidd writes: ‘Interestingly, the correlation between books at home and performance in PIRLS was far stronger than the correlation between the introduction of the phonics check and the PIRLS reading result.’

    I don’t see that in the DfE/Oxford University report. What I DO see, on p.72, is this: ‘The characteristics that are most predictive of PIRLS performance include performance in the Year 1 phonics check, followed by the number of books the pupil reported to be in their home.’

    According to that, performance in the Year 1 phonics check was a stronger predictor of PIRLS performance than books in the home.

    I also haven’t seen anywhere that the Clackmannanshire researchers found a reduction in boys’ enjoyment of reading. Can we have chapter and verse for that allegation, please?

    1. Clackmannanshire report 5.1 and 5.11 plus subsequent commentaries by Johnson and Watson including a presentation at BERA that I attended. PIRLS evidence is for all countries – including those who don’t do phonics at all yet whose overall achievement was higher than ours. The common correlating element to all successful systems was parental support and books at home. Anything else?

      1. Is this the Clackmannanshire report you have in mind? –

        5.1 doesn’t mention boys’ attitudes at all. In 5.11, the authors say that ‘the girls showed a more positive attitude to reading than the boys, and made more use of the public library, despite having lower word recognition skills’ – that does not mean that there was a ‘reduction’ in boys’ enjoyment of reading.

        You wrote that ‘the correlation between books at home and performance in PIRLS was far stronger than the correlation between the introduction of the phonics check and the PIRLS reading result’. As you mentioned ‘the introduction of t`he phonics check’, you seemed to be talking about England, not about ‘all countries’. Your statement is not supported by anything that I’ve found in the national report for England –

        1. Yes, as I said, their presentation at BERA suggested there had been a fall in boys’ enjoyment of reading, though this tends to happen across all OECD countries. Boys in general show reductions in enjoyment of reading over time. This is also interesting on gender differences – seems to challenge some of the findings in the Clackmannanshire report but with a similar sized sample.

          The report on PIRLS for all countries, as I said, shows that the single biggest factor was books at home. Not all PIRLS countries do phonics of course and of those that do, not all do SSP – so this is a common factor. Even the government commissioned report into England’s performance in particular, sponsored by Pearson, which you helpfully share here says “While the average PIRLS scores of the lowest performing pupils in England have increased since 2011, it appears too hasty to claim that these improvements are attributable to policy changes.” And also that “Pupils in England who report having more books at home also report much higher levels of confidence and enjoyment in reading. Of those with 10 or fewer books in their homes, 42% report that they do not like reading, compared to just 12% of pupils who have more than 200 books in their home. Only a third of pupils with 10 or fewer books at home report being confident readers, compared to 73% of pupils who have more than 200 books. In England, of the pupils who report having few books at home, higher levels of confidence are also associated with higher average performance in PIRLS 2016. This is also the case for pupils with high numbers of books in their homes.” Given the recent research by Sullivan and Brown at the IoE into the impact of reading for pleasure on academic achievement and vocabulary gain, I think you’ll agree that this is a significant and important factor.

          It is also more statistically significant that the small correlation for the phonics test. Oddly, the report focuses on the test/check rather than the fact that SSP is taught and taught well which seems very strange. The latter would seem more important. But that’s just my observation.

          Anyway, have a good Christmas.

  4. Can you give a date for the BERA presentation and references for the ‘subsequent commentaries’ by Johnston and Watson? I’d like to check exactly what was said if possible.


  5. Ooh gosh I don’t know if I can – would have been when I was working at MMU so between 2007 and 2011 and it wasn’t long after the Rose Review – we had Miskin training at around the same time. Not much help sorry – but there was a workshop led by both that opened up into a discussion about motivation of reading. You might find this useful though about affective dimension of reading as separate to reading skill – also by Rhona Johnston.

    1. So I can’t check the BERA presentation.

      I fully agree that enjoyment of reading is important and that it is related to performance. What I was querying was your use of the word ‘reduction’, especially in relation to the two paragraphs in the Clackmannanshire report which you cited as support for your statement that ‘although SSP led to boys improved reading outcomes, it also led to a reduction in their enjoyment of reading’. Johnston and Watson did not say that in those paragraphs or anywhere else in the report. In fact they measured enjoyment at only one point in that study, as far as I can see, and they would have had to measure it more than once in order to show that there had been a reduction in enjoyment over time.

      I don’t think you should say that Johnston and Watson themselves have said certain things unless you can provide references which really do prove the point.

  6. I do have more refs somewhere in the mountain of research I’ve done on this over the years Jennifer, but it’s Christmas, I have a lot of work to do and I’ve already spent quite a lot of time trying to help you. I’m sure if you do some reading yourself, you’ll be able to find what I did.

    1. Thank you for removing the word ‘reduction’ in your blog-post. Your subsequent comments still suggest, however, that Johnston and Watson implied this reduction in a conference presentation, so I’d just like to place on record that I’ve heard from Rhona Johnston herself that this is not the case. I tried posting to this effect yesterday, but the post didn’t appear.

  7. No I don’t think they do, but I was happy to clarify. The evidence from across the world is overwhelming that boys in particular have a reduction in enjoyment of reading right up to the age of 16 – I’m not really sure why this point is such a bone of contention for you, but have a good Christmas.

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