The IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is an international assessment of reading comprehension that has been reporting trends in student achievement every five years since 2001. The study measures students’ reading comprehension at grade 4 and provides participating countries with comprehensive comparative data on reading achievement. In its fourth cycle 2016, PIRLS was further enhanced by introducing ePIRLS, an innovative computer-based assessment of online informational reading, designed by the IEA as a response to new and evolving requirements for learning in the information age.
The PIRLS 2016 release event, co-hosted by UNESCO and IEA, took place at UNESCO headquarters on 5 December. On this occasion Dr Dirk Hastedt, Executive Director IEA, shared some of the study findings with us.
What are the main findings of PIRLS 2016?
DH: The results of PIRLS 2016 demonstrate a number of positive developments in reading literacy worldwide. For the first time in the history of the study, as many as 96 percent of fourth graders from over 60 countries achieved above the PIRLS low international benchmark. Out of 41 countries, where comparative data is available from the 2011 PIRLS cycle, 18 countries showed statistically significant improvements in students’ reading comprehension. Additionally, we observed a number of positive long-term developments. Since the first cycle of PIRLS in 2001, the reading achievement has improved in 11 countries, while the average results of students from Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, Singapore, and Slovenia have increased by more than 40 score points. According to the study data, not only have parents become more involved in the children’s early literacy activities, many countries have also intensified their efforts to provide access to pre-primary education. Today, more children than ever are enrolled in pre-schools, with 59 percent receiving three and more years of pre-primary education.
As in previous cycles of PIRLS, we found that girls continued to outperform boys. Female students outperformed their male counterparts in 48 out of 50 countries with an average score difference of 19 points, often scoring better in both literary and informational reading purposes. Understanding the nature of the gender disparities in reading calls for in-depth analysis of the comprehensive longitudinal data available from PIRLS.
According to your experience with countries you work with, what is the influence of PIRLS findings on policymaking?
DH: Building a bridge between education research and policymaking is critical for the further advancement of education internationally. In order to be able to meet the needs of policymakers and provide them with information on the most pressing issues, our studies are developed in close collaboration with the national research centers.
In meetings with our members, we often ask how they translate the study results into concrete policy measures. In relation to PIRLS, the reported implications for policymaking have so far included a great range of curriculum changes, such as intensification of reading instruction programs, introduction of new reading and learning materials, targeting students with other native languages than the language of instruction, as well as identifying strategies to stimulate positive attitudes to reading, to name just a few. Some countries reported the introduction of special policies to address and provide better support for students with lower socioeconomic and immigrant backgrounds, as well as new teacher support and training programs.
How does PIRLS contribute to better measuring the achievements of SDG4?
DH: The central purpose of the IEA and its large-scale assessments is to improve education worldwide. In this sense, with such studies as PIRLS, TIMSS, ICCS, and ICILS, IEA directly contributes to the advancement toward Sustainable Development Goal 4, which aims to ensure quality education for all. Large-scale international assessments, including PIRLS, provide universal measurement instruments for achievement, be it in reading, science, or civics and citizenship. They report on the status quo in students’ skills and their learning progress, establishing a system of internationally recognized benchmarks for measurement and identification of learning trends. Furthermore, PIRLS and other IEA studies collect a large amount of background information about students, their parents, teachers, and schools, putting the students’ achievement in a greater context. The main contribution of PIRLS to the SDG 4 is, therefore, the unique combination of data it delivers. With this data, researchers and policymakers can track achievement over time and cross-reference results with such contextual factors as education reforms, curricular changes, developments in learning environments, while taking account of the socioeconomic and political situation within the participating countries.
Can you comment on the ePIRLS findings and how countries may use the results?
DH: ePIRLS is a new development in the PIRLS assessment. Fourteen countries and two benchmarking entities participated in its debut cycle in 2016. In contrast to PIRLS, ePIRLS assesses students in the reading of non-continuous texts in a simulated internet environment, where they have to navigate through multiple web pages, animations, tabs, and pop-up windows to fulfill the research task. In ePIRLS, we found a lot of good readers: on average, 50 percent of students reached the high international benchmark, demonstrating the ability to integrate information across websites and interactive features and evaluate how graphic elements supported content.
Interestingly, the results of PIRLS and ePIRLS varied slightly within and between the countries involved. For instance, students from Singapore, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates had higher scores in ePIRLS, whereas the fourth graders from Chinese Taipei, Italy, Slovenia, Portugal, and Georgia performed better in PIRLS. Trying to explain these variations, we found that a relative advantage in ePIRLS may be related to how familiar students are with using computers in learning contexts. As new technologies are being continuously integrated into curricula and learning resources are being digitalized worldwide, the future of learning is inevitably connected to the level of students’ self-efficacy while dealing with digital information recourses. As providing students with adequate skills for future education and work comprises one of the targets of SDG 4, we hope that ePIRLS will help countries to reflect on the digitalization of their education systems and to identify best methods for effective integration of technology into the learning process.