Pupils in Northern Ireland continue to demonstrate high levels of reading literacy

Press Release

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Almost a quarter of pupils in Northern Ireland who participated in an independent international comparative study demonstrated advanced reading skills.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2021, which has been published today, shows that 23 per cent of pupils reached the Advanced international benchmark in reading. This was the third highest percentage internationally; below Singapore (35 per cent) and the Republic of Ireland (27 per cent). Only three per cent of pupils in Northern Ireland failed to reach the Low international benchmark. In comparison, the international average was six per cent.

The research highlighted variation in performance by pupils’ characteristics and background. Girls continue to outperform boys in Northern Ireland. This was a similar pattern found in almost every nation which participated in PIRLS. The gender gap in Northern Ireland was 24 scale points in 2021. Concerningly, this is higher than in 2016 (18 scale points) and 2011 (16 scale points). An increase in girls’ attainment over time has driven the widening of the gender gap.

Additionally, pupils eligible for Free School Meals in Northern Ireland were more likely to have lower reading literacy than their peers from a more advantaged background - highlighting the real need to eradicate the link between socio-economic disadvantage and attainment.  

The research also shows that pupils who participated in PIRLS 2021 in Northern Ireland achieved higher results than those in 52 of 56 other PIRLS countries. Northern Ireland’s pupils were significantly outperformed by pupils in just two countries, Singapore and the Republic of Ireland.

It should be noted that a delay in data collection in Northern Ireland (from May/June to September/October 2021), due to the Covid-19 pandemic, meant pupils were at the beginning of Year 7, as opposed to the end of Year 6 as for many other countries and, on average, four to five months older in PIRLS 2021 compared to previous cycles. Therefore, it is important to interpret comparisons with caution because this introduces additional factors that may positively or negatively affect overall attainment, such as more contact time in the classroom, involvement in recovery programmes and summer programmes, but also the potential for a loss of learning over summer.

The study conducted in Northern Ireland by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and organised worldwide by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) takes place every five years. It provides data about trends in reading literacy over time and assesses the knowledge and skills of pupils aged nine to 10 in just under 60 countries.

Rachel Classick, NFER Research Manager and lead author of the report, said:

“Northern Ireland pupils are still performing really well in PIRLS, demonstrating high levels of reading attainment despite clear disruptions to pupils’ learning caused by the pandemic.

“However, there is still evidence of significant differences between groups. The performance of pupils who are eligible for free school meals compared to those who are not clearly shows the disadvantage gap remains and must be addressed. Although a gender gap is evident in most PIRLS countries, Northern Ireland must look at the increased differences between boys and girls.”

The study also found that in Northern Ireland:

  • There was a relatively wide spread of reading attainment. The scores for low and high attainers have remained similar between 2016 and 2021 but there has been an increase since 2011, most noticeably for higher attainers. This has resulted in a wider distribution and is likely to be a driver in Northern Ireland’s significant increase since 2011 in overall score.
  • Pupils appeared more confident in reading than the international average; (47 and 43 per cent of pupils respectively were Very confident readers) but liked reading less. The proportion of pupils who Very much like reading (28 per cent) in Northern Ireland was lower than the international average (42 per cent) and lower than in 2016 (39 per cent). This large decrease between 2016 and 2021 in Northern Ireland mirrors what is seen in other comparator countries such as the Republic of Ireland and Poland.
  • The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is also thought to have had an adverse impact on children’s learning in Northern Ireland. The survey shows that 31 per cent of pupils had parents who reported that their child’s learning had been adversely affected A lot; 54 per cent Somewhat adversely affected; and 11 per cent Not at all adversely affected.
  • Teachers appeared to be less satisfied with their job than was seen internationally. Less than half of pupils in Northern Ireland had teachers who were Very satisfied with their job (46 per cent). This was lower than the international average (61 per cent) and lower than in 2016 (62 per cent). There was also an increase over time in perceived limitations on their teaching such as pupils lacking pre-requisite knowledge and skills, and pupil absence.

The full national report for PIRLS can be found here.