A third of children reach expected level in pilot of phonics check

Published on Friday, 09 December 2011 14:24
Posted by Scott Buckler

Schools Minister Nick Gibb today said that the Government was “unashamedly ambitious” in its bid to drive up the standard of children’s reading

Mr Gibb said that although it was good that more than 80 per cent of children routinely met expected reading levels at age seven and age 11, it was time to focus on driving up the performances of the one in five children who fail to reach the expected level and on getting more children to exceed expectations.

He said synthetic phonics, taught systematically, was the method proven to improve reading standards for all children, including the weakest readers, and ensure they reached their potential.

Mr Gibb acknowledged classroom teachers’ efforts to improve children’s reading skills but pointed to figures showing that:


  • More than 80,000 seven-year-olds can read no better than a five-year-old.
  • One in 10 11-year-old boys can read no better than a seven-year-old.
  • The percentage of seven-year-olds and 11-year-olds who meet the expected level has flat-lined over the last five years.
  • Business leaders repeatedly highlight the poor standard of literacy among so many of our school leavers.

Internationally, he said that:

  • England is rated 25th in the world for reading, according to the 2009 PISA reading study, down from seventh nine years ago.
  • Our 15-year-olds are judged by PISA to be 18 months behind those in Shanghai and at least six months behind those in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  • England was third in the PIRLS international reading tables in 2001. In the most recent 2006 survey, England was 16th.

Nick Gibb was speaking as figures were released showing that 32 per cent of six-year-olds who took the screening check reached what he called the “appropriately challenging” expected level, which was set by about 50 teachers whose schools were involved in the pilot.

He said the figures suggested many more pupils could benefit from phonics, giving them a solid grounding in the basics at an early stage. Teachers can then build on these skills so that more children develop into flourishing, confident readers by the end of Key Stage 1.

The pilot check was taken this summer by Year 1 pupils in about 300 schools, 27 per cent of whom said they teach phonics systematically, as opposed to teaching children mixed methods such as picture clues and sight memory to read words. This ratio is believed to be broadly in line with the picture across England’s primary schools.

The short check involves pupils reading 40 words to their teacher. The type of words in the check are covered by all good quality phonics schemes by the end of Year 1. Mr Gibb said it was vital that pupils are able to read these words by the end of Year 1 to give them the best chance of future success. The most common score achieved by pupils in the pilot was 40 out of 40.

Following a positive independent evaluation in September, the phonics check will be rolled out nationally next summer. The check will help provide teachers with vital information to identify pupils needing extra help with reading. Schools’ individual results will not be published.

Nick Gibb said:

We need to face up to the uncomfortable truth that, despite the hard work of teachers, not enough of our children are able to read to a high enough standard. We have to take account of our place internationally and listen to business leaders concerned about many school leavers’ literacy.

The Government can no longer simply congratulate itself on the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level.

The phonics check’s expected level, set by teachers, is appropriately challenging. We must adjust our sights if we are to tackle the country’s reading problem. The levels we expect children to reach at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 must not be the limits of our ambition – they should be considered the minimum we expect. And we must get those below the level up to a standard that will help them progress further.

A solid grounding in phonics will help many children who are weak readers to improve. It will also see more pupils achieve a high Level 2 or a Level 3 score at the end of Key Stage1. It is this level of achievement which puts children on the path to success.

I am unashamedly ambitious in wanting to see all children reading to the very highest standard.

Evidence from around the world points to synthetic phonics, taught systematically, as the method that will bring all children up to the high level we want. Teachers in the pilot say the new check will allow them to identify children’s reading problems they hadn’t previously been aware of. Those pupils will then be given the extra help they need to become confident, fluent readers.

Many teachers have started to embrace phonics and some schools performed very strongly in the pilot.

But the results also show that some other schools could be more systematic in their teaching of phonics and we are supporting them to do this. The teaching of phonics is being prioritised in primary teacher training. We are giving schools up to £3,000 in match funding so they can buy training products and books. And we are making phonics and reading a key part of the new Ofsted inspection process.

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