The whole of this Digest is being devoted to the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Although the study was carried out in 2001, results were publicised only in mid-2003. The study was conducted under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Over 140,000 pupils in 36 countries participated. In England , 3156 children participated. The testing was carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which prepared the report on performance in England . The average age of the international sample was 10.3 years and of the English sample 10.2 years. This age-group was chosen because ‘at this point in children’s development they have learned to read and are now starting to read to learn’ (p. 3).
The headline on the Department for Education and Skills website was ‘English primary pupils are among the best readers in the world’. Further comments were that ‘ England ’s primary school pupils are the third most able readers in the world behind Sweden and the Netherlands ’ and that the study had shown that England was ‘the most successful English-speaking country’. Clearly, the results do suggest that England did very well. There are indications, however, that things may not be quite what they seem. In what follows, all page references are to the NFER report on the PIRLS study.
1. As children in England start school earlier than in most other countries, the English children had taken 5+ years to reach the level reached in other countries in 4 years or less (pp. 3, 8, 62). In addition, ‘The pupils in the England sample had 958 hours of instructional time per year as against an international average of 837 hours’ (p. 64). The extra hours and the extra year(s) mean that the English PIRLS children had had about 40% more instruction than the international average.
2. England had ‘one of the largest ranges of performance’ – although our best pupils are very good indeed, our worst are very poor by international standards (pp. 16, 18, 20).
3. Our children had generally poorer attitudes to reading than children in other countries (p. 48) – this is somewhat ironical in view of the fact that reading for pleasure is emphasised so much in England . Evidently things do not work quite as intended.
4. The English PIRLS sample was not quite as representative as it might have been: there was a ‘slight under-representation of children working at the lower levels’ (p. 4). How much did this affect our international ranking?
5. England’s performance in the 2001 PIRLS study was better than in a similar 1996 study carried out by the NFER (pp. 7, 22), where we were not highly placed but close to the international average. How do we know which of the two studies gives a more accurate picture of our performance?
6. In terms of gender differences, our ranking was low – 28th out of 36 (p. 24-5). As we know, synthetic phonics could make a big difference here.
7. Preschool literacy input was found to be higher in England than in virtually any other country. ‘Children in England start school earlier, show more reading readiness and have a higher level of early learning skills than their international peers’ (pp. 55-60). This must surely mean that a lot of the credit must go to parents rather than to schools.
All in all, the position may not be as encouraging as the DfES suggests.