10 year-olds from England and Northern Ireland shine like PIRLS in global reading test

Janet Downs's picture
10 year-olds from Northern Ireland were 5th and English 10 year-olds were 10th= in a league of 45 countries which took part in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in 2011. Northern Ireland was one of only five countries which scored significantly higher than England – the others were Hong Kong, Russian Federation, Finland and Singapore. Eight countries, including USA, Chinese Taipei and Canada, had scores not significantly different to England, while thirty-one, including Sweden, New Zealand and Australia, had scores significantly below England’s.

The performance of Northern Irish and English pupils is even more impressive if we look at the percentage of pupils reaching the highest level – the Advanced International Benchmark. 19% of Northern Irish 10 year-olds reached this level. This was the same percentage as in the Russian Federation. Pupils in only one country, Singapore, exceeded 19%. 18% of English 10 year-olds reached the Advanced International Benchmark – the same percentage as in Finland and Hong Kong.

So, English and Northern Irish top performers are up there with the best in the world. It’s a pity, then, that the Government damned the performance of English pupils with faint praise. Schools minister, Elizabeth Truss, said the rise in reading performance was “encouraging” but England was being held back because of a “too long tail of under-performance”. While it’s true that 5% of English 10 year-olds didn’t reach the lowest level, 3% of Singapore’s 10 year-olds didn’t reach it either. And in Australia and New Zealand 7% and 8% respectively didn’t reach the lowest level.

Having thrown cold water on these results, Truss used them to promote the controversial phonics test. But PIRLS doesn’t test decoding - it tests comprehension. She followed this up with a plug for the “systematic teaching of phonics”. This is a slight change. The Government usually pushes just one type of phonics teaching: synthetic phonics. It’s encouraging that Truss appears to realise that there isn’t just one method of teaching phonics. Perhaps she’ll go further and allow schools to use the money from the matched funding scheme to buy any reading material and not just those on the Government’s mandated list.

But that’s enough grumbling about the Government downplaying the PIRLS results. Although it’s important to keep these international tests in proportion, it’s nevertheless pleasing that English and especially Northern Irish pupils have done so well in these international reading tests. The fault-finding by the DfE can be summed up by these words from one of Gove’s preferred poets, Dryden.

“Let those find fault whose wit's so very small,

They've need to show that they can think at all;

Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;

He who would search for PIRLS, must dive below.”

(With apologies to the poet)

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