News story

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

Gibb: “Phonics is the proven method that will drive up reading standards.”

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

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.

A good start in reading

Statistics show that pupils who achieve a good start in the first few years of reading are very likely to progress quickly throughout school.

2010 data showed that of those children who had previously achieved a strong Level 2 (2a) in Key Stage 1 reading:

  • 98 per cent went on to achieve the expected Level 4 or above in KS2
  • 66 per cent achieved Level 5 in Key Stage 2

2010 data showed that: of the children who only just achieved Level 2 (2c) in reading at Key Stage 1 reading

  • 73 per cent went on to achieve the expected Level 4 or above
  • 20 per cent achieved Level 5.

Pupils who reach Level 2 in reading are expected to be able to read simple texts with some understanding, give an opinion about characters, events or ideas, and put sounds together to understand new words.

The Government believes all children should at least be secure in these skills by age seven, and that many should achieve a Level 2a. In Year 2, many pupils should also be covering some of the Level 3 reading skills. This means they should be reading books over and above their phonics scheme. They will be able to show an understanding of the writer’s purpose, and will be starting to discuss their ideas about the book.

The current expected standards of attainment have been in place as part of the National Curriculum since 1999. The National Curriculum Review will ensure that the content, breadth and level of challenge of England’s new National Curriculum is comparable with the curricula of the world’s highest performing education systems. This will undoubtedly mean raised expectations. This will help England to move back up the international league tables, and ensure children leave school with the knowledge which will stand them in good stead throughout their career and adult life.

The Pilot Check

The Year 1 phonics screening check was piloted in about 300 schools in June 2011 - 229 of these came from a nationally representative sample. In total, 8,963 children participated in the pilot from schools in the representative sample.

Pilot schools were recruited in February/March 2011. They were given details of the content and structure of the screening check at the training meetings in late May/early June, just ahead of their pupils taking the check.

The overall structure of the check was designed at a series of meetings in September and October 2010, with a group of phonics experts (academics and product developers) and teachers. Ofqual was also represented at these meetings.

In 2012, the check will take place in all primary schools with six-year-old children during the week commencing Monday 18 June.

How does the check work?

  • A pupil sits one-on-one with a teacher they know, and is asked to read 40 words aloud.
  • They have seen 20 of these words before. The other 20 words are new to them, and will be “non-words”.
  • The check normally takes a few minutes to complete. There is no time limit. If a child is struggling, the teacher can stop the check early. The check is designed not to be stressful for children.

Non-words are important to include because words such as “vap” or “jound” are new to all children. They cannot be read by memory or vocabulary - children have to use their decoding skills so it is a fair and accurate way to assess ability to decode.

An example of a check, including words used, can be found on our website.

How Phonics Works

Phonics teaches children how to:

  • recognise the sounds that each individual letter makes;
  • identify the sounds that different combinations of letters make - such as “sh” or “oo”; and
  • blend these sounds together to make a word.

Children can then use this knowledge to “de-code” new words that they see. This is the first important step in learning to read.

Research shows that when phonics is taught in a structured way - starting with the easiest sounds, progressing through to the most complex - that it is the most effective way of teaching young children to read. It is particularly helpful for children aged five to seven.

Almost all children who have good teaching of phonics will learn the skills they need to tackle new words. They go on to read any kind of text. Most importantly, they will read for enjoyment.

They also tend to read more accurately than those taught using other methods, such as “look and say”. This includes children who find learning to read difficult, for example those who have dyslexia.

High-quality evidence

The Department for Education today published an evidence note detailing some of the research supporting the use of phonics as the most effective method to teach children how to read.

It includes the findings of a number of studies, including:

A seven-year study in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, of the teaching of synthetic phonics to 300 children found they made more progress in reading and spelling than other children their age.

A 2005 Australian report, Teaching Reading, which said:

The incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based literacy research is that for children during the early years of schooling (and subsequently if needed) to be able to link their knowledge of spoken language to their knowledge of written language, they must first master the alphabetic code - the system of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that link written words to their pronunciations. Because these are both foundational and essential skills for the development of competence in reading, writing and spelling, they must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well.

The US National Reading Panel report of 2006, which said:

Systematic synthetic phonics instruction had a positive and significant effect on disabled readers’ reading skills. These children improved substantially in their ability to read words and showed significant, albeit small, gains in their ability to process text as a result of systematic synthetic phonics instruction. This type of phonics instruction benefits both students with learning disabilities and low-achieving students who are not disabled. Moreover, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving low socio-economic status (SES) children’s alphabetic knowledge and word reading skills than instructional approaches that were less focused on these initial reading skills… Across all grade levels, systematic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell.

The final report of the Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, by Jim Rose in 2006, emphasised that beginner readers should be taught using a systematic approach to phonics. He cautioned that evidence submitted to the review which suggested using a mix of approaches could hinder children’s progress: “A model of reading which encourages switching between various strategies, particularly when phonic work is regarded as only one such strategy, all of equal worth, risks paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition which must first be secured by beginner readers, [for example] if beginner readers are encouraged to infer from pictures the word they have to decode …It may also lead to diluting the focused phonics teaching that is necessary for securing accurate word reading.”

Ofsted’s 2010 report, Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It, looked at inspection evidence from a sample of 12 primary schools. It explains that “concentrated and systematic use of phonics is key to their success; this is based on high-quality and expert teaching that gives pupils the opportunity to apply what they have learnt through reading, writing and comprehension of what they are reading”.


An independent evaluation of the pilot check was conducted by the Centre for Education and Inclusion Research (CEIR) at Sheffield Hallam University for the Department for Education.

It found that:

  • 43 per cent of pilot schools were able to identify pupils with phonics problems of which they were not already aware.
  • All aspects of the check were seen as appropriate by at least 74 per cent of teachers.
  • Three quarters of pilot schools said the check assessed phonic decoding ability accurately. Most schools interviewed in the pilot also plan to use the results to inform their teaching and planning.
  • Most teachers and pupils understood the purpose of the check correctly.
  • More than 90 per cent of teachers said the content of the check was suitable on most levels.
  • 83 per cent of teachers said the number of words was suitable; 80 per cent said the type of vocabulary was suitable; and 74 per cent thought the non-words used were suitable.
  • The check took on average three hours for schools to prepare for the check, and 12-and-a-half hours to administer it.
  • 65 per cent of schools found the resources used to administer the check “straightforward” or “very straightforward” to manage.
  • 89 per cent of pilot schools said the guidance provided to them by the Department for Education was ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’.
  • Pilot schools wanted detailed results of the check. Almost all 97 per cent wanted pupil-level results and 88 per cent wanted commentary on national-level results. Some 90 per cent of schools wanted benchmarking data to help them set appropriate expectations for their pupils.
  • The experience of the check was positive for most pupils. Some 62 per cent of pilot schools felt the experience had been positive for all pupils, while 31 per cent said it was neither positive nor negative.
  • The check took on average between four and nine minutes to complete per pupil.

Case studies

A series of case studies can be found on the DfE’s website.

Information for Parents

The Department for Education today published a leaflet for parents on phonics and the check.

DfE enquiries

Central newsdesk - for journalists 020 7783 8300

General enquiries - for members of the public 0370 000 2288


Published 9 December 2011