What will the PIRLS results tell us about reading in England and Northern Ireland?

By Juliet Sizmur

Friday 1 December 2017

Next Tuesday (5 December), sees the release of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results.

As one of the key international surveys run by the IEA, data is now collected from over 50 different countries every five years on pupils aged nine and ten. PIRLS not only gathers information on the reading comprehension skills of pupils in different countries, but also explores their attitudes to reading, such as whether they read for pleasure and what they read. Information is also collected from principals, teachers and parents, allowing for comparisons of home learning environments and teaching across countries and over time. The study is now in its fourth cycle and NFER has been involved with the design and delivery of the study since it began in 2001.

As the only international study to provide information on the reading habits of primary-aged children, the data is used by governments and researchers for a number of purposes, including to judge the effectiveness of their country’s primary education system in a global context. As such, media headlines often focus on a country’s ranking. While this can be an eye-catching aspect of the study, just looking at the rankings can be misleading as differences between countries might not be statistically significant and small differences in score could be due to chance. For example, in a group of six countries with similar scores, any one could, in reality, be ranked 1st or 6th within that group because there will always be a small margin of error. Similarly, a country’s overall ranking could change simply because more countries join the survey each cycle. It is more important that countries use the PIRLS results to find out where improvements have been made (or not), or whether particular areas of weakness can be identified. This kind of evidence is invaluable for both evaluating and informing policy decisions.

Likely to be of great interest for England this year is the information on changes over time. The cohort of children who participated in PIRLS 2016 started school in 2010, meaning their entire school experience has been under a Conservative government. During this time, the national curriculum has been overhauled to improve literacy in schools. A strong emphasis is now placed on synthetic phonics as a method of teaching children to read. Early phonics instruction is mandatory in schools and, since 2012, a phonics screening check has been carried out in year 1, in which teachers assess pupils’ ability to decode simple words and non-words. The proportion of pupils meeting the expected standard in this test has risen over time. It will be interesting, therefore, to see whether this change in teaching method has translated to an improvement captured by the PIRLS data.

Similarly, the government has worked to encourage reading for pleasure among school children through a range of measures. In particular, funding and advice has been offered to help schools set up book clubs and establish stronger links with their local library, as a way to promote library membership among pupils. PIRLS offers a chance to get more insight into whether such initiatives are actually leading to changes in reading habits, both at school and/or at home.

Northern Ireland, which took part in the study for the first time in 2011, will be keen to find out whether it has been able to maintain the impressive high score it achieved last time. Like England, it will be looking to see if any of the education initiatives introduced since then, such as the Education Works programme, correlate with changes in pupils’ achievement or reading habits.

NFER will be helping to unpick the results of the PIRLS 2016 study, publishing further blogs following the release of the data next week. You can subscribe to our blog using the form on the right-hand side to receive these and other NFER blog posts direct to your inbox. We will also be publishing a detailed analysis of the results for Northern Ireland, which will be available on our website.