Henley & Partners
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Henley & Partners

Finding What Makes a Good
Reader in a Rapidly Evolving World

Ina V.S. Mullis and Michael O. Martin, Executive Directors, TIMSS & PIRLS
International Study Center at Boston College, USA

The Information Age is fast paced and constantly evolving, with each year bringing new developments to sectors like technology and the medical fields. More than ever, it is imperative for educators to ensure that students have the core skills they need to succeed in such a world, and reading is at the root of acquiring all such skills. It was on this principle that the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) was founded.

PIRLS, a study of the International Association for the Evaluat ion of Educational Achievement (IEA) — an international cooperative of national research institutions and government agencies based in Amsterdam — and directed by the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College, assesses global trends in reading achievement for students at the fourth grade. It is at this crucial stage that children in many countries transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Inaugurated in 2001 and administered every five years, the latest iteration of PIRLS in 2016 included 50 countries and 11 regional entities such as states, provinces, or language groups. PIRLS aims to provide countries with the best policy relevant information about improving teaching and learning and helping young readers become accomplished and self-sufficient readers. PIRLS and TIMSS, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, comprise the IEA’s core cycle of studies on student achievement.

The Global State of Reading
PIRLS 2016 delivered a positive outlook on student readers internationally, with students in a number of countries performing very well. The Russian Federation and Singapore were the top performers, and other countries that excelled were Hong Kong SAR, Ireland, Finland, Poland, and Northern Ireland. Although the average reading achievement score differences from country to country were small, there was a substantial range in achievement from the top-performing countries to the lower-performing ones. For countries that participated in previous PIRLS cycles, the trends show that students became better readers in both the short and long term. In the five-year interim between PIRLS 2011 and PIRLS 2016, 18 countries saw higher average achievement. In the 15-year interim from PIRLS 2001 to PIRLS 2016, 11 countries had higher achievement, seven countries stayed about the same, and two countries saw performance drop.

As the use of digital devices became ubiquitous across the globe, the IEA and Boston College created ePIRLS as a companion to PIRLS 2016. This innovative assessment of online informational reading uses a simulated internet environment to present fourth grade students with authentic school-like assignments on science and social studies topics, monitoring how well they can read, interpret, and critique online information. Students navigate within and across web pages containing text and visual data before answering comprehension questions.

Singapore was the top performer on ePIRLS out of 14 countries, followed by Norway and Ireland. However, students in all 14 countries proved to be good to excellent readers of online information, demonstrating the ability to integrate information across web pages and interactive features and evaluate how graphic elements support content. A Take the ePIRLS Assessment feature released after the study was completed allows the public to try out the digital assessment.

When evaluating reading performance by gender, PIRLS 2016 reinforced findings consistent since PIRLS 2001 that showed girls are stronger readers than boys, on average. The gender gap does not appear to be narrowing. Girls outperformed boys in 48 of the 50 countries, with an average difference of 19 points. Similarly, in ePIRLS, girls outdid boys in 11 of the 14 countries, with an average difference of 12 points. There was no significant difference between genders in the remaining countries on either assessment, meaning there was no country in which boys were the stronger readers.

According to PIRLS 2016, the top performing countries with respect to reading are the Russian Federation, Singapore, and Hong Kong SAR. The least performing countries are South Africa, Egypt, and Morocco (Source: TIMSS and PIRLS 2018)

What Makes Good Readers?
Educators and policy-makers who seek solutions to challenges signified by poor reading performance look to the extensive data collected in the PIRLS questionnaires. In 2016, 319,000 students, 310,000 parents, 16,000 teachers, and 12,000 schools participated in PIRLS. All students and their parents, teachers, and principals completed questionnaires about students’ home and school experiences in learning to read. Those data show that students who engaged in literacy learning from an early age have benefits over their peers that last through the fourth grade. Students with parents who engaged them often in early literacy activities such as reading, telling stories, and teaching them to write were better readers. Higher reading achievement also was related to having parents who enjoy reading, more digital devices in the home, and more home resources that support learning (such as books and educated parents with professional or technical jobs).

Reading competency was tied to the academic orientation of schools as well. On average, students were stronger readers if they attended schools that had more affluent than economically disadvantaged students, a higher proportion of peers with early reading and writing skills, and instruction that was not affected by reading resource shortages. Students who reported a positive sense of school belonging tended to have higher reading achievement, as did students who attended schools with positive environments where principals and teachers reported greater emphasis on academic success.

PIRLS found that the majority of fourth grade students internationally were in safe school environments. However, students in schools with disorderly environments exhibited lower reading achievement than their counterparts. In PIRLS 2016, 62% of the students were in schools that teachers found very safe and orderly, while 3% were in schools that teachers reported as less than safe and orderly. Bullying, unsurprisingly, has a negative association with reading achievement — 57% of the students reported never or rarely being bullied, but the 14% who reported being bullied about weekly had an average achievement 39 points lower.

The climate in schools internationally is generally positive, but two issues that stand out are inadequate nutrition and frequent absence. More than one in four students in PIRLS 2016 — an astonishing 26% — arrived at school hungry every day, with an average achievement 32 points lower than peers who never felt hungry. The 15% of students who said they were absent at least once every two weeks also underperformed their peers. There is considerable research indicating that positive attitudes toward reading and high achievement are related, and in a bidirectional way — that is, better readers may enjoy reading more and, thus, read more often than poorer readers. This can lead to better development of reading comprehension skills and strategies. Of the PIRLS 2016 students, 84% liked reading, 95% were engaged in their reading instruction, and 80% were confident in reading.

Outlook for 2021 and Beyond
With their focus on the contexts of learning at school and home, the PIRLS data show that seeking to improve the teaching and learning of reading is a complex affair that requires examination of education systems from multiple vantage points — there are no easy answers. We do know that good readers have home environments that support literacy learning, an early start in literacy learning, attend well-resourced schools with well-trained teachers, and possess positive attitudes toward reading.

As the de facto global standard for reading achievement at the fourth grade, PIRLS is an invaluable resource for countries to monitor system-level achievement trends in a global context. PIRLS serves not only to inform countries of how well their students read but provides data to help them pinpoint any weaknesses in their education systems and stimulate reform. Administered regularly over time, PIRLS can be used to monitor the effectiveness of any new educational policies.

With more than 70 countries and regions signed on to participate in the next cycle, PIRLS 2021 is well underway. This iteration of PIRLS will offer a completely digital version that presents a variety of reading texts in an engaging and visually attractive computer-based format, which will motivate students to read and interact with the texts and answer questions about them. As always, the PIRLS texts will address the two overarching purposes for reading that account for most of the reading done by young students inside and outside school — for literary experience and to acquire and use information. PIRLS 2021 will again include the assessment of online informational reading.

Countries that have participated since the inception of PIRLS in 2001 will have 20 years of trends in reading achievement to analyze after 2021, giving policy-makers a wealth of information to inform evidence-based educational decisions. What students should know to succeed in school and the workforce has evolved over those two decades, but what remains unchanged is that, before mastering STEM subjects or the latest technologies, students must be able to read well.

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