Why does England outperform Australia when it comes to reading?

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It’s been almost three years since the state’s former education minister declared the reading wars were officially over. The verdict was in, phonics had won.

Since then, NSW has embraced a phonics-driven literacy strategy based on teaching students the sounds letters make to help them decode words. There is now a compulsory phonics check for year 1 students, and the kindergarten to year 2 curriculum overhauled to mandate phonics when teaching children how to read.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), released on Tuesday, shows that Australia’s overall results remained steady.Credit: Simon Schluter

The move came after decades of fiery debate between two camps: those who believe explicit phonic instruction is the key to teaching reading, and those in favour of a balanced literacy or whole language approach.

Evidence has shown phonics-based instruction is the best way to teach children how to read.

This week’s release of the latest global international literacy study, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), shows NSW’s decision to shift to a phonics-focused approach has put the state on the right track. It also reinforces the need to adopt evidence-based reading instruction in all Australian schools.

The results from the 2021 literacy test – an international benchmark for primary reading skills – shows that amid two-thirds of countries recording falling results, Australian year 4 students’ results held steady. But there were no improvements in the past five years either.

As federal Education Minister Jason Clare noted, it was good news Australia didn’t go backwards when multiple countries did. “A lot of that is down to the work that teachers, parents and students all put in during the pandemic,” he said.

But one in five Australian students are unable to read at a basic level. In NSW, boys are now well behind girls, the gap widening in the past decade.

Australia was outperformed by Singapore and Hong Kong, which tested in English, and Russia, England, Poland and Finland. But with an average reading score of 540 points, Australia placed ahead of 28 other countries including New Zealand and France.

England has been a standout success in PIRLS results, and in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests it has been recognised as one of the major improvers. This year it moved to fourth place out of 43 countries and overtook high-performing countries, including Finland and Poland.

The reasons for England’s continued success are signs Australia should double down on a phonics-based approach to reading instruction, says Jennifer Buckingham, director of strategy at literacy company MultiLit.

“England adopted an evidence-based approach to teaching early reading – which included systematic phonics instruction – more than ten years ago and the fruits of that are now being seen in that international assessment,” she says. “Australian schools need to hold the line, and keep following England’s lead.”

A statement released by the UK’s Department for Education said the country’s continued success in PIRLS “follows the focus on phonics and is driven by improvements for the least able pupils.”

A series of reforms to improve standards in reading, including the introduction of the phonics screening check and the introduction of the English Hubs program, were critical to its success.

Shortly after former minister Sarah Mitchell said the reading wars were over, NSW implemented a similar compulsory phonics check.

Buckingham also noted Ireland and Northern Ireland performed strongly, although it was difficult to make comparisons as it tested students at different times due to COVID disruption.

“Ireland’s results reflect the consistent use of phonics in early reading instruction for the past several decades. Initial teacher education is of high quality, where students are in intensive 9am to 5pm classes in university-based colleges,” she says.

Centre for Independent Studies’ Glenn Fahey believes education policy reformers would do well to look to England, rather than towards Finland.

“What England has shown is that commitment to explicit teaching, phonics-based early reading, proactive behaviour management, and deregulating schools can drive whole-system improvement,” he says.

Each state and territory has different policies around early reading instruction. Now is the time to adopt evidence-based reading instruction across the country.

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