Last 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.