What is PISA 2018 telling Wales about reading

By Jane Nicholas and Robert Smith, NFER Cymru

Wednesday 19 February 2020


There was positive news for Wales with the publication of the 2018 PISA results late last year. For the first time, Wales was similar to the OECD average in reading, science and maths. The focus of PISA 2018 was on reading (the main domain) and Wales’ mean score (483) was not statistically different from the OECD average (487).

Pupils in Wales showed relative strengths in the reading skills of ‘locating information’ and ‘evaluating and reflecting’, but in common with those in many other countries, they performed less well in ‘understanding’.

While pupils in Wales tended to be more confident in their reading ability than the average for the OECD, they were less likely to read books and had more negative attitudes towards reading than pupils across the OECD.

Girls outperformed boys in reading in every country. However, in Wales the results reveal that there was a significant increase in girls’ scores in reading, but the average score for boys in reading was especially low when compared with boys in England and Scotland.

What does this mean when we look behind the headline data? 

Comparison with the other UK countries and implications for Wales

While performance in Wales is closer to the OECD average, the results suggest that further progress is needed if pupils are to reach the Welsh Government’s stated target of an average score of 500 across all domains by 2021.

England, Scotland and Northern Ireland significantly outperformed Wales in reading. Furthermore, the improved reading performance in Wales compared with the OECD is due to two changes which statistically may be due to chance: a 6 point increase in the score of pupils in Wales and a 3 point decrease in the score of pupils across the OECD on average. Taken together, these changes in scores mean that for the first time pupils in Wales performed similarly to pupils across the OECD in reading.

This raises questions about the impact of reforms introduced by the Welsh Government in the last decade (including the National Reading Tests introduced in 2011).

  • Are the approaches to reading practised in Wales different from those being used elsewhere and can this account for the gap in performance?
  • Are they having a different effect in Wales – and, if so, why?
  • Are there more effective alternatives, and are those approaches transferable?
  • Are there other measures that should be introduced to address the issue?

It will be interesting to dig into the data and explore in more depth what changes have occurred in schools which may have contributed to an increase in girls’ scores since 2015, but not to boys’ scores, and whether girls outperformed boys across the board or if they had particular strengths, for instance in the digital aspects of reading assessed for the first time in 2018.

Does reading matter?

Similarly, analysis of the evidence presented about the different components of reading shows that learners in Wales, in common with their counterparts across the OECD, performed less well in ‘understanding’ what they had read, as distinct from ‘locating information’ and ‘evaluating and reflecting’.

More fundamentally, PISA suggests that pupils in Wales are less likely to read books and to have more negative attitudes towards reading than their counterparts across the OECD. The last time reading was the main domain in PISA in 2009, analysis of the results noted the importance of daily reading for pleasure which ‘is associated with better performance in school and with adult reading proficiency’ [1]. It is vital, therefore that the Welsh education system develops a thorough understanding of these issues, based on evidence of what is happening on the ground in schools (including when reading disengagement first becomes apparent), alongside an understanding of supporting international evidence. Promoting reading comprehension will be a key focus for many other education systems, not just Wales, but it will be useful to explore how other countries are tackling this issue going forward.

Whatever conclusions policymakers draw from the headlines, the contribution the PISA study makes to research and data insight provides policymakers and researchers with an opportunity to dig down beyond the baseline figures to understand the educational, social, cultural and other influences affecting educational outcomes. The fact that the PISA results coincide with the work of developing a new curriculum in Wales provides a golden opportunity to embed strategies designed to address these challenges in reading.


[1] www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisainfocus/48624701.pdf