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PIRLS 2016: the good news and the bad news

By Paul Gardner - posted Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The 2016 PIRLs results show that Australia has risen 6 places in the rankings since 2011. PIRLs assesses and compares literacy achievement of 10 year olds across 50 countries. Whilst the improvement is gratifying, there will be those who will argue, 'more needs to be done' to further improve the literacy of the nation's children. Given that literacy is a constantly changing field more always needs to be done. Everyone is agreed on that issue. It is what 'the more' consists of that proves to be the controversial subject.

The 'synphons', those who advocate the exclusive teaching of synthetic phonics and who denigrate broader multi-faceted approaches to early reading, may seize upon England's rise of two places, from 10th to 8th, in the PIRLs 'league table', as irrefutable evidence that the improvement in literacy amongst English school students is due to one single cause: the statutory teaching of synthetic phonics, even though this is not the cause of Australia's much larger improvement. They will use this irrefutable 'evidence' as further proof that Australia should follow England and introduce the Phonics Screening Check (PSC), which is one of the subjects to be discussed at a meeting of the federal and state education ministers on Friday 8th December.

The 'synphons' will invariably re-iterate the words of their guru, English Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, who is reported in the Daily Telegraph (4th December 2017) as attributing England's ascension to two factors: synthetic phonics and the 'fact' teachers no longer use the old 'look and say method' of teaching reading, which he alleges was widespread before his government introduced synthetic phonics, as the only method to teach reading.


Both claims need to be scrutinised. Firstly, to suggest that before Nick Gibb's government implemented the exclusive teaching of synthetic phonics, the 'look and say method' was the predominant approach is nothing short of 'revisionism'. Teachers have always used a repertoire of strategies, including phonics, to teach reading. Secondly, the assertion that synthetic phonics is the single causal factor for England's rise of two places deserves close interrogation.

PIRLs has been conducted four times and occurs every five years. Table 1 shows England's position in each PIRLs ranking from 2011; the third column shows the year each PIRLs cohort started school and the final column identifies the year various literacy initiative in England were implemented.

Table 1. England's Position in PIRLs 2001 - 2016

What is most noteworthy about the table is that before the English government began meddling in the teaching of reading (i.e. before the implementation of the NLS in 1998), England achieved its highest PIRLs ranking (3rd). Five years later it had dropped 12 places to 15th. This 2006 cohort was the first to be taught exclusively through the NLS. The NLS introduced the 'Literacy Hour' and whole class direct instruction, the approach strongly advocated by the 'synphons.' It was widely criticised for being a reductionist approach; one that restricted the use of whole texts and opportunities for extended writing.

In 2006, the NLS was replaced by the Primary National Strategy (PNS), which gave teachers greater freedom. In many ways it was a return to how literacy was taught before the NLS. The cohort taught exclusively through the period of the PNS saw England's ranking improve by 5 places. This was the period during which synthetic phonics was being 'rolled-out' across the country but it had not become a universal, systematic approach, nor had it become the exclusive method of teaching early reading. Indeed, the fact it was not the exclusive approach was the very reason the Conservative Coalition Government introduced the statutory teaching of synthetic phonics and, in 2012, implemented the PSC. So, the current (2016) PIRLs cohort is the first to be tested by means of the PSC at the age of 5-6. For Gibb to claim the improvement of 2 places in the PIRLs rankings is due to synthetic phonics is an assertion built on sand, given that 42% of the cohort failed the PSC in 2012.


The results of the 2016 PIRLs assessments have been analysed by Boston College. Findings suggest the best readers had:

  • books in the home
  • parents who regularly read themselves
  • parents who shared books with them and talked about reading
  • access to digital devices in the home
  • affluent backgrounds
  • high achieving peers
  • plentiful school based reading resources
  • safe school environments

Twenty six percent of students admitted to being hungry on a regular basis and 15% reported absenteeism once or twice a week. These students were amongst the lowest performing students.

As this brief discussion demonstrates, causes and effects in relation to PIRLs and the rise and fall in measures of literacy are far more complex than the 'synphon' ideologues would have us believe

At every soundbite, their arguments have been found wanting. The time has come for the war of words over synthetic phonics to cease in favour of a more measured debate about the teaching of reading and about literacy more generally. We now need to listen to those who have informed evidence about effective reading pedagogy instead of those who prefer simplistic messages and arguments based on insubstantial evidence and continual criticism of teachers.

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About the Author

Paul Gardner is the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) Ambassador for Australia and is an academic in the School of Education at Curtin University. He is also a member of the Western Australian Council of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA).

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