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Why have reading standards risen in England?

="education news, reading and literacy - UK Study Centre blog"
7 December 2017

The results of an international reading and literacy test have shown that English children are amongst the most advanced in the world – a tremendous result after decades of underachievement.

The results of an international reading and literacy test have shown that English children are amongst the most advanced in the world – a tremendous result after decades of underachievement. English children participating in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) were ranked in joint 8th position out of 50 competing countries, higher than in any preceding year, and a significant improvement on 2006 when England was ranked 15th.

Behind the improvement is the decision made by the Conservative – Lib Dem coalition government in 2010 to switch to a phonics-based system of teaching reading. This year’s group of children were the first to take the Pirls tests having grown up under the new phonics guidelines, and their success is vindication for a policy that was unpopular with many teachers at the time.

A phonics-based approach means teaching children to recognise groupings of letters that make up sounds, rather than words themselves. When testing children phonics teachers use a combination of real and fake words to see if children are able to sound out the combinations correctly. Switching to phonics involved moving away from the more established system of showing children words repeatedly until they recognised them, described as “look and say”.

The curriculum of 2012 brought in a Phonics Screening Check for six year-olds to monitor the success of the new system, and in the first year 58% of participants passed. That number has now risen to 81%.

Though performing well, English children were placed behind their peers in Northern Ireland (5th place) and children in the Russian Federation and Singapore had the highest reading skills on average.

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