The 2016 PIRLS results announced this week are bad. PIRLS (the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) compares the reading ability of Year 5 students.

Ours ranked 33rd among the 50 participating countries. More worrying still, their scores were significantly worse than the last time the test was administered, in 2011.

So far the decline has been blamed on smartphones, and the previous government’s fixation with National Standards.

Smartphones are used throughout the world, including in high performing countries like Singapore and England.  As a result, this explanation seems unlikely.

As for National Standards, these were introduced in our primary schools in 2010. But New Zealand’s dismal rankings in the PIRLS tests pre-date this by many years. Among our English-speaking cousins, we have consistently ranked bottom since 2001 (except in 2011 when Australia dipped slightly below us).

By itself scrapping National Standards will not solve our reading problem.

So what might be the solution?

Learning to read is a multipart process. Children must learn to decode. This means to hear and manipulate the individual sounds in words, and then memorise the code that links sounds to written letters. They must also learn the meaning of lots of words, so that once decoded they can understand what they are reading. Vocabulary is developed through accessing a broad, content-rich curriculum.

Happily, there is a vast, peer-reviewed scientific literature on the best way to teach decoding. It is called systematic synthetic phonics.

Some children are exposed to so many books and opportunities to crack the code at home, that they become reasonably good decoders without systematic instruction. However, other children are not.

This creates a gap on entry. Without systematic instruction to eliminate it, it grows wider over time.

According to two recent surveys by Massey University, 85-90% of New Zealand schools use some form of phonics instruction. This is encouraging. However, Massey’s observational research also suggests that teachers have not been trained to use systematic synthetic phonics in their literacy instruction. Instead, many just clip some phonics on to other methods.

Through government imperative England has done great work to support teachers to teach systematic synthetic phonics alongside a broad curriculum. The gains made, and the latest PIRLS results speak for themselves.

Having scrapped national standards, we must hope that our new Minister now follows the evidence on what leads to world-class readers.

Briar Lipson is a Research Fellow at The NZ Initiative.

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