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Experts respond to PIRLS literacy study

5 December 2017
New data from Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

University of Sydney experts have commented on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and suggested ways to help young Australians become confident and self-sufficient readers.

A young child happily reads a book. Image: iStock

Fifty countries participated in PIRLS 2016, with Australia’s involvement entailing 286 schools and more than 6000 students. Image: iStock

Literacy experts from the Sydney School of Education and Social Work have responded to an international comparative study that provides policy information to improve teaching and learning to help young students become better readers.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) released locally by the Australian Council of Education Research on December 5 shows that Australian Year 4 students performed significantly higher, on average, than students in 24 countries.

However, Australian Year 4 students were outperformed by students in 13 countries, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland, Northern Ireland and England (all testing in English), as well as the Russian Federation, Finland and Poland.

The report also shows clear distinctions in reading ability by socio-economic status, with one finding showing that students attending more affluent schools scored 61 points higher, on average, than students attending more disadvantaged schools.

Associate Professor Alyson Simpson, an expert in English and literacy education, and the role of children’s literature in teaching, said access to reading materials can play a crucial role in improving literacy.

“Reading is a weapon of mindful disruption,” said Associate Professor Simpson. “Teachers who give their students regular and extended engagement with literary texts build inclusive practices that support children from poorly resourced homes to achieve equitable learning outcomes.

“Students from homes with more books and other reading materials achieve at higher levels on average in Year 4 than students who have access to less.

“The PIRLS data is as much about inequality as it is about reading ability. It is a reminder that teachers and policymakers alike need to redouble efforts to ensure disadvantaged students are given greater reading opportunities,” said Associate Professor Simpson.

Associate Professor David Evans, an expert in special and inclusive education, with research interests in developing literacy skills for students experiencing difficulties learning, said low literacy rates can have lifelong implications.

“While the PIRLS data reports positive outcomes for many students, there is a significant proportion of students – at least 19 percent – who continue to achieve at levels of reading that do not provide them full access and participation in the classroom curriculum,” said Associate Professor Evans.  

“This has lifelong implications for society. There is an urgent need for much stronger provisions for early, intensive intervention in, and monitoring of, the big ideas of reading.” 

An expert in the psychology of academic achievement in literacy, Associate Professor Susan Colmar, said students’ attitudes and levels of confidence in their own reading are important measures for teachers to be aware of.

“We know that a child’s confidence in their own reading ability is more important than whether or not they like reading and that a confident reader has a better chance of reading success,” said Associate Professor Colmar.

“The relationship between reading confidence and achievement is very strong, suggesting that supporting children by providing regular feedback and general encouragement on their progress, is critical in maintaining their confidence in their ability.”

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)