Today's PIRLS international study (pdf) of reading literacy standards - the ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society - raises some interesting issues. On the one hand, English pupils do better than the average for their international counterparts, outperforming countries like New Zealand, Scotland, Spain and France. On the other, English readers fell back to 19th in the world in 2006 (though a raft of Canadian provinces appear individually this time, distorting the rankings), compared with 3rd in 2001. There is more to this than whether youngsters enjoy reading, or indeed whether the brighter or weaker youngsters are dragging the results down. The 2001 survey came after a period of rapid improvement in primary schools, as a result of national tests and the literacy strategy. But the improvements have been slower since, while other countries have clearly improved more rapidly, not least places like Germany which were startled by their low performance in international studies.
Much of the increase in the proportion of children achieving the expected standard – level 4 – in English from 49% in 1995 to 80% this year took place by 2000, when the figure was 75%. (The proportion doing so in reading is now 84%.) The same was true of the top pupils - the proportion reaching level 5 rose from 12 to 29% from 1996 to 2000, and is now 33%. This test improvement was also reflected in Ofsted inspections: the literacy and numeracy strategies nationally had a dramatic effect on the quality of primary school teaching between 1996 and 2000 – only 43% of lessons for 7-11 year-olds were deemed good or better in 1996. By 2000, this had risen to 72%. That figure fluctuated a little until 2005, when it stood at 74%. Under a tougher inspection system, it has again started to rise.
There is no doubt that we need to regain the momentum of the period before 2000. The government is now rightly promoting synthetic phonics – using letter sounds to build up words - reflecting the growing evidence that it is the most effective way to teach children to read. Jim Rose's review in 2005 set this in train, and phonics has been the expected method since September 2007, as a result. This will need the sort of intensive rollout that accompanied the literacy strategy, with Ofsted inspecting how effective schools are in teaching reading, and whether they are using phonics. And it must be pushed hard before falling back on Every Child A Reader, which should be used as a recovery programme for the few who don't learn through phonics, not to provide literacy help for the many.