Teaching phonics and reading: PIRLS of wisdom?

Government ministers claim improved reading ability among primary pupils is down to a prescriptive approach to how to teach children to read. But, as Dominic Wyse reveals, the facts behind the figures paint quite a different picture.


In an article in the Telegraph newspaper in May 2023, the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb MP, claimed: “Our ‘obsession’ with phonics has worked”. This claim was based on his interpretation of the Progress In International Reading and Literacy (PIRLS) study published in 2023. Gibb’s main point was that: “England was fourth out of 43 comparable countries” because apparently teachers had “embraced phonics”. What he did not mention was that England’s average scale score in PIRLS in 2021 was 558 – compared to a score in PIRLS 2016 of 559.

Another of Gibb’s obsessions is with “education academics” driven by “progressive teaching methods”. According to Gibb, these unnamed academics have been wrong to suggest that England’s narrow synthetic phonics could “kill children’s joy of reading”. 

PIRLS 2021 asked pupils directly about how much they liked reading, and found that England was 42nd out of 57 countries. A worrying 24 per cent of England’s pupils said that they did not like reading; 48 per cent said they somewhat like reading; only 29 per cent said they very much like reading. PIRLS also found a link between pupils not liking reading and lower attainment in reading. 

To summarise the PIRLS outcomes more fairly, Gibb should have reported important, less positive, aspects, such as the reading motivation scores. Whether there is a causal link between England’s synthetic phonics approach and children’s motivation for reading remains an open question, because experimental trials to test this have not been carried out. 

The Covid pandemic created a series of extreme challenges for the methods of PIRLS 2021. This means it is even more questionable than usual to make a crude causal link between England’s synthetic phonics policy and the PIRLS ranking. 

One of the many Covid challenges faced by the PIRLS researchers was the timing of the assessments of each country’s pupils’ reading. England’s sample of pupils was tested between May and July 2022: the cohort of pupils were tested a full year later than originally scheduled. By May 2022 this cohort had had more time post-lockdown to settle back into teaching and learning than in most other countries – an advantage that could have affected the test scores. If we look closer to home, Ireland’s success in the PIRLS average scale score is interesting because Ireland has performed well but does not have the narrow approach to synthetic phonics that England has. 

There are many other factors that must be taken into account. For example, the PIRLS report makes clear that there is a lot of overlap in the range of pupils’ scores for each country (known statistically as ‘confidence intervals’), so although it is good news that England is towards the top of one of the PIRLS ranking tables, so are many other countries. And crucially, none of those countries has the rigid narrow approach to synthetic phonics that England does. The PIRLS report cannot reasonably be used to justify England’s narrow approach to synthetic phonics.

Synthetic phonics in England

The DfE approach is ‘synthetic phonics’ first and foremost: it strongly discourages other types of systematic phonics teaching and does not allow any other approaches to teaching early reading – even though robust research clearly shows that a range of approaches to teaching phonics and reading are effective.

The reality of England’s “obsession with [synthetic] phonics” means: 

  1. irrespective of whether children can read when they enter year one (age five to six) they must take part in all synthetic phonics lessons for at least two years;
  2. synthetic phonics must be prioritised, above all other aspects of reading, for at least two years of primary schooling and continues to be emphasised in Year 3;
  3. the DfE specifies that children must be taught to decode words using phonics first and foremost, rather than use meaning and syntax and the other words in the sentence (“context”); 
  4. ‘decodable books’ are preferred for use in synthetic phonics lessons and use of ‘real books’ is discouraged; 
  5. teachers are to all intents and purposes required to choose a Government mandated commercial synthetic phonics scheme, and are discouraged from using their professional judgement – stopping potential savings of tens of thousands of pounds on commercial schemes;
  6. and finally, it is advised that if children are assessed with reading difficulties the solution is…even more intensive synthetic phonics. 

A better future for all pupils

We don’t have to rely on PIRLS 2021 for evidence of the most effective teaching methods because we have what some call the ‘gold standard’ of evidence: randomised controlled trials. The evidence from hundreds of studies strongly suggests that England’s approach to the teaching of phonics and reading could be so much better

England needs robust research-based teaching of reading and writing, built through genuine collaboration between researchers, practitioners and policymakers, over sufficient time scales. It does not need this obsession with synthetic phonics. 

We eagerly await political manifestos that will have the vision to make changes to the primary curriculum in England, so that breadth, balance, and creativity are restored, because that is what the research evidence shows is needed. 

Small child doing homework with a pencil

Primary and early years assessment

There is now more primary and early years assessment than ever. English children are among the most tested in the world.

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