We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

English children ranked fourth in international reading test. Yes, really.

England came fourth out of the 43 countries that tested children of the same age in the Progress International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), announces the government. Singapore, Hong Kong, Russia, England. Yes, dear highly literate Samizdata readers, your own reading skills have not failed you. English schoolchildren are the fourth best readers in the world and the best in Western Europe.

Pinching myself, I offer my sincere congratulations to England’s teachers and to the Department of Education, in particular Nick Gibb MP, the Minister of State for Schools. Mr Gibb is serving the third of three non-contiguous stints in this ministerial role. That suggests he is genuinely interested in education, and indeed his Wikipedia biography says “Gibb is a longstanding advocate of synthetic phonics as a method of teaching children to read”. He himself says, “Our obsession with phonics has worked”.

Tomorrow I will get back to calling the teachers “the Blob” and the government “the government” in a voice that suggests I can think of no worse insult. Today, I give credit where credit is due. For British education nerds, this is like our own little 1989. OK, perhaps that is over the top, but a wall that seemed no more than slightly cracked as recently as January 2022 has finally fallen. By the “wall”, I mean the side in the so-called “Reading Wars” that wasn’t phonics. The Not!Phonics side has had many names, “Look and Say”, “Whole Word”, “Whole Language”, and most recently “Balanced Literacy”. That last name was an attempt to paper over the cracks in the wall. Or perhaps, since I am allowed more than one metaphor, it was a deliberate breach in the wall of a dam, done in an failed attempt to stop the whole damn dam wall collapsing.

To see what the wall looked like in the days of its Krushchev period, discredited but still seemingly impregnable, read this 1998 paper that Brian Micklethwait originally wrote for the Libertarian Alliance: “On the Harm Done by Look-and-say: A Reaction to Bonnie Macmillan’s Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read”, and this one written in 2002: “The Failure of Politics and the Pull of Freedom: Reflections on the Work of the Reading Reform Foundation.” I wish I could ask Brian what he thinks about this now, but thanks to the Brian Micklethwait Archive you can see what he thought about it then, and be reminded that truth stays true. Read those two papers and you will know most of what you need to know about the battle that raged across the Anglosphere over how to teach children to read, including these cynical words of wisdom:

The phonics-persons have pretty much proved their case, probably even in the eyes of many of the look-and-say people. But the look-and-say “experts” at the DfES are in an arkward position. (The inverted commas around “experts” being there because these people don’t know things which are true, they “know” things which are untrue.) Suppose their bad techniques are completely swept away and completely replaced by completely good ones. The teaching of literacy in schools would leap forward. A mass of seemingly “complex” problems, like the recent huge rise in “dyslexia”, the spiralling cost of “special needs” education, and the general inability of several generations of people to learn how to spell, will be revealed as not so complex after all. These problems will be revealed to all as having been caused by the government’s own literacy “experts”. Thus it is that even – especially – those “experts” who have been completely convinced of the wrongness of their own former opinions now face a huge, career-saving incentive to perpetuate their follies as much as they can, to disguise the enormity of the disaster they have caused.


That would have been a fine, dramatic line with which to end the post, but I must add a couple of footnotes and admit that my inner Phineas Taylor Barnum enjoyed inserting the “Read more” HTML button at exactly that point.

Firstly, I have seen several people ask if the PIRLS tests all over the world are all conducted in English. Obviously it would not be much of an achievement for English children to be fourth best in the world at reading English. However the tests for each country are in the first languages of the children concerned, and I believe provision is made for minority languages. Given that, for all its beauty, the Chinese writing system is notoriously difficult to learn, it is notable that large percentages of pupils in the two top-scoring countries in the 2022 PIRLS (Singapore and Hong Kong) must have sat the test in Chinese. However there is some evidence that the visual distinctiveness of each Chinese character makes Chinese words easier to perceive “in a flash”, especially for fluent readers. In Chapter 10 of his book Writing Systems, Geoffrey Sampson argues that “the logographic principle for writing is by no means self evidently inferior than the more familiar phonographic principle”. Noam Chomsky of all people has argued that, once learned, the irregular spellings of many English words offer a similar benefit of instant extra recognisability. The “Whole Word” people were wrong about the way children learn to read but they might turn out to be right about the way fluent readers perceive words.

Secondly, note that the constituent countries of the UK are counted separately in this PIRLS test. Northern Ireland was only just behind England, coming fifth. We do not know how Scotland would have done because the Scottish Government pulled out of the survey in 2010. The Scottish government also pulled out of several other international educational tests, studies or surveys or whatever you want to call them, including what is probably the best-known worldwide comparison of different countries’ success in education, PISA or the Programme for International Student Assessment. Like Scotland, Wales does not take part in either PIRLS or PISA. Both countries withdrew for excellent financial and pedagogical reasons and not at all because they were frit.

28 comments to English children ranked fourth in international reading test. Yes, really.

  • Kirk

    The fact that anything other than phonics was ever used in mainstream education is in and of itself a damning indictment on “education” as an institution.

    The further fact that it’s taken decades for the idjit class running “big education” to figure that out? Even more damning. My mother, grandmother, and great-aunt were all professional teachers from back before the era of “schools of education”, and not a one of them thought that “whole language”, “see-say”, or any other suchlike BS was valid. Yet, they’d have been forced to use it, in many school districts.

    Our institutions are largely useless and entirely unfit for purpose. This sort of idiocy should never have gotten out of the experimental stage, and even then, the testing should have been ruled borderline abusive and against all human rights and “informed consent” laws about human testing.

    There are generations of kids out there whose reading proficiencies are far below what they should have been, because of this crap.

  • Steven R

    The “new math” for reading results shock experts.

  • jgh

    Everything I’ve tried to find about “phonics” is to me just “reading”.

    And surely, you don’t *teach* children to read, you just…. let them *learn*… to read. Surely children learn to read by, well, there being writing around them. How can you have a street sign or a packet of sugar within your visual range and your brain not automatically read it?

    Everything I’ve observed in 30+ years of interacting with the UK education system has shown me that the biggest problem is teachers actively *preventing* children learning to read. I remember several times at primary school of teachers actually *telling* *me* *off* for reading.

  • bobby b

    I’d be curious to see if there is any correlation between advancing reading skills in a society and the prevalence of smart phones – with their texting/messaging uses, and for reading on the internet.

    I know that my own kids picked up easy reading and writing skills very quickly – more quickly than I remember my generation doing so – once they had phones.

    As alluded to by jgh above, just doing it regularly would seem to be the best way to advance in it.

  • APL

    Well, I learned French first, a very phonics language. By comparison, when in later years I had to learn English, well…it was certainly not what other languages would consider phonics. So it ended up being pretty much see and say.

  • Roué le Jour

    Similar story here. My teachers were horrified to discover that my mother had already taught me to read before I started school. I reeled off Janet and John and Spot the dog like a Texas auctioneer and spent the next couple of years sitting at the back while the teachers glared at me for screwing up their system.

    I suspect though that at some point young teachers realize they are going to spend the next forty years with Janet and John and Spot the dog and they try and find different ways of doing it so they don’t go mad.

  • lucklucky

    By comparison, when in later years I had to learn English, well…it was certainly not what other languages would consider phonics. So it ended up being pretty much see and say.

    Same for me.

    PS: do they offer the tests for us to see how it works?

  • Paul Marks.

    It is indeed good news – congratulations to all involved.

    And, yes, Brian would have been very pleased.

  • Paul Marks.

    As far as I know Eastern Europe, including Russia, never had a Progressive period in education.

    Classical Marxism is not the same as Frankfurt School Marxism (Frankfurt School Marxism “Critical Theory”, “anti racism”, “anti sexism”, “anti homophobia” “progressive education” and all the rest of it)- although, yes, I am sometimes guilty of conflating the two.

    Indeed in English speaking countries the Frankfurt School types found the Progressive education ideas of John Dewey and others already-there to work with – the difference being that John Dewey and the older Progressives believed they were doing good (they really did), whereas the Frankfurt School types – who dominate the teacher unions in Chicago and other big American cities, do harm ON PURPOSE.

    They really do undermine education, including reading, on purpose – as part of their war on “capitalist society”.

  • Paul Marks.

    It is sadly rare that a minister can truthfully say “I helped achieve ..”, but in this case, by his pushing of phonics, Nick Gibb really can say that he helped achieve the improvement in reading.

    When one considers the vast power of “the experts”, as well as the inertia of officials, that had to be overcome, this achievement is impressive.

  • Deep Lurker

    My understanding is that fluent readers do normally read by variants of ‘whole word’ and when the ‘experts’ discovered this, they jumped to the conclusion “We’ll teach everyone to read this way, and then everyone will be a fluent reader!”

    Only it didn’t work that way. It turns out that fluent readers have a toolbox of multiple methods that they use as needed, including phonics tools. So while the best practice is to start with phonics, it’s also important not to insist that a kid keep using phonics when he doesn’t need to. Teachers who teach reading via phonics are also subject to glaring at the smart kid who screwed up their system.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Deep Lurker – yes. Some of the belief in “Look and Say” is a subset of the understandable but mistaken reliance by teachers on “discovery learning”, i.e. the theory that the best way to teach anything is to step back and let the pupils explore the subject and discover the way it works for themselves. The teachers have many happy memories of the moment when some concept in spelling or mathematics “clicked” with them. I expect most of us have similar happy memories. Brian Micklethwait talks about how much fun discovery learning is in the first paper I linked to.

    However, the teachers who conclude that straight up telling the pupils “this letter makes this sound” is to deprive the pupils of the joyous experience of discovery forget several things.

    One is that they, as teachers, were selected from a pool of successful learners.

    The second is that these happy memories are not their earliest memories; they are memories from when they had already passed the hump. Few people who grow up to be good readers can truly remember what it was to be four and to have no idea what those squiggles meant.

    The third is how much help they actually had, most commonly from their parents. People who grow up to be fluent readers usually had parents who read to them and with them, in houses filled with books which they see their parents enjoying. They’ll almost certainly pick up reading, whatever happens in school. Children growing up in households where no one is a fluent reader have a much greater need to be taught how to read.

  • NickM

    Mr Gibb is serving the third of three non-contiguous stints in this ministerial role.

    “contiguous”? Alaska and Hawaii are non-contiguous states*. Stephen Grover Cleveland was president non-consecutively.

    So Miss Solent, an excellent essay (especially the point about Chomsky also getting something right in the manner of a stopped clock), but I can only give you an A- due to your delinquent use of language there.

    *Or as that great American philopsopher Homer Simpson puts it, “freaky states”. Of course his father was whupped by Grover Cleveland on two non-consecutive occasions.

  • Sam Duncan

    Both countries withdrew for excellent financial and pedagogical reasons and not at all because they were frit.

    Sure they did. At the turn of the last century, Scotland claimed (and there’s no reason to believe it was anything other than a mild exaggeration) 100% literacy. The most recent estimate is 67%. Even as recently as 2010 it was over 70%.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    NickM, what’s wrong with the way I used “non-contiguous”? According to the Wikipedia page for “Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for School Standards”, Nick Gibb had his first stint in the role from 2010 to 2012. Then he was sacked and David Laws did the job for a bit. Gibb came back in 2015 and kept the job until 2021. Then he was sacked by Boris Johnson in the September 2021 reshuffle and no less than three other MPs had the post in quick succession, it being a crazy time in politics. Finally Gibb came back to the same role in October 2022 and still holds it now. In other words, he had three stints in the same job separated by periods not in that role.

  • A lowly, lowly cook

    My mom was a remedial reading teacher and would get quite frustrated when the education bureaucracy would decide to try something besides phonics.

  • NickM

    I was being snarky in (I hoped) a mildly amusingly pedantic manner.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)


    You were being snarky in (what was, you hoped) a mildly amusingly pedantic manner.

    I will excuse you for using two successive adverbs ending in “-ly”. A certain latitude is permissible when employing humour.

  • Mr Ed

    Was the reading test taken in English everywhere? Just asking for a friend.

  • Mr Ed

    what’s wrong with the way I used “non-contiguous”?

    ‘Contiguous’ refers to ‘touching’ and hence ‘location’, whereas the scenario in question relates to ‘time’. Perhaps if one renders ‘time’ in a ‘vector’, ‘contiguous’ is permissible.

    Yours ever,

    Grammar Gruppenführer Mr Ed.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Mr Ed, no, the tests were taken in whatever the local language was. See top of penultimate paragraph.

  • John

    It is pleasing to learn of the high level of literacy in our children.

    One obvious consequence is that we can begin to reduce the cost of translating official documents into so many different languages as the next generation will be capable of reading English with world-class proficiency. Pleasing news for those of us who believe in the benefits of assimilation.

  • Paul Marks.

    What the SNP has done to education in Scotland is terrible, just as what they have done to Scots Law is terrible.

    Before “Devolution” Scottish education and Scots law were, perhaps, better than English education and English law. And the mess that “Devolution” has created in Wales (in just about everything) is known to most people in public life.

    However, one is not allowed to condemn “Devolution” (even though the Conservative Party opposed it when Mr Blair introduced it) as it is POLICY. One might as well try and condemn the terrible mess that is the local government of London – any suggestion that it be abolished (as Margaret Thatcher abolished it) would be shouted down – and attract punishment.

    The only permitted position is to say that the United Kingdom is still “over centralised” and that Regional Governments or enhanced Local Government structures should be set up.

    Everyone knows that such moves would cause terrible harm – but the Economist magazine (and all other establishment publications) will demand such moves anyway.

    Real “decentralisation” – allowing taxes to be reduced at the local level and NO to cross subsidy (i.e. no money going from “rich areas” to “poor areas”) would be condemned by everyone in public life. Even Canada and Switzerland have these cross subsidies now – which rather undermine real “voting with your feet”.

    It is only fake “decentralisation” (setting up new layers of government funded by complicated subsidies) that is supported – supported because (yes because) of the harm it does.

    I expect the next Labour Party government to set up new layers of government – and/or to “enhance” the spending and regulation powers of existing layers of government.

  • Paul Marks.

    If the new layers of government do not do Progressive things – then the Progressive things will be imposed (which exposes just how phony the “devolution” is – but no one will mention that).

    For example, the “devolved” Assembly in Northern Ireland did not pass baby killing and “Gay Marriage” (as opposed to miserable marriage?), but these things were then imposed anyway – as they are policy, international (world governance) policy.

    No layer of government can go against international policy – at least not in the United Kingdom. Even handing over essentially unlimited power to unelected international “health” officials is likely to pass almost unopposed.

    Stand by for Climate Lockdowns and for “Racism is a Public Health Emergency” justifying XYZ forms of tyranny.

    Including in education. Plenty of room for “Climate Justice” (part of “Social Justice” or “Equity” totalitarianism) and “Anti Racism, Anti Sexism, Anti Homophobia, Anti Transphobia” (and the rest of the Frankfurt School tap dance – these are all “health” matters you see, phobias are medical conditions, dissent is a mental illness) to be pushed in education.

    Still perhaps I am mistaken and the international “health” treaty will be rejected – we shall have to see.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Still lost out to Singapore, nyah nyah nyah! :p

    Our kids also have to contend with a 2nd language – malay(easiest), tamil (quite difficult), and mandarin (difficult).

    Chinese students here find learning english a lot easier than mandarin exactly because of phonics.

  • Paul Marks.

    The Wobbly Guy.

    England and Singapore have something in common – lack of children.

    The advanced countries are dying – but the establishment (meeting right now in Japan, another country with a fertility rate well below 2) rant on about the “population crises” – meaning too many babies (hence their desire to prevent babies being conceived, or to kill them if they are conceived) rather than too few babies.

    “Policy” (always spoken in hushed tones – as if it was a sacred word) is stuck in the 1960s with the Club of Rome and other groups of totalitarian lunatics.

    Elon Musk understands that the situation we now face is just about the opposite of the situation that “Policy” is designed to deal with – but he does not go to these international conferences any more (leaving them to Mr William “Bill” Gates and others of totalitarian opinions).

  • druid144

    Close on 70 years ago, my parents realised their 6 year old was going backwards in reading skills after starting school. My father invested in a set of phonics books called, I think, The Songs the Letters Sing. Basic and simple with crude stick figure illustrations. He taught me from from them, perhaps half an hour each day. I hated the waste of valuable play time until we reached the end of the last book. I looked at him and said “Does this mean I can read now?” “Yes!” I ran to my room, took a book at random and started reading. The joy I felt then has never left me.
    Living in Wales, we sent our children to Welsh Language school, which we believe has an edge on the English schools available to us. Unfortunately their monolingual parent could not help their reading progress, to the impoverishment of both of us.

  • Kirk

    One should be highly suspicious of any “official data” reported by those that have self-interest in the results of said data…

    I, for one, would like to know how the metrics have changed, along with the testing regime.

    Is the improvement real? Or, is it an artifact of people fiddling with the damn testing and reporting regimes?

    Gotta be quite honest with you: Anything I’ve run into from the modern “educational-industrial complex” has been suspect. Their work-product is simply not to be trusted. Sure, they’re crowing about “improved scores”, but are you seeing any improved performance from the young?

    On top of that, there’s the very real Hawthorne Effect to take into account.