By Irene Picton, Research Manager
England’s highest ever ranking in the PIRLS league table this month is a cause for commendation and celebration – for the children involved, and for those engaged in supporting their reading every day.
This five-yearly international test of fourth grade (year 5) reading performance placed England’s 10-year-olds fourth of 43 countries, behind only Singapore, Hong Kong, and Russia. This represents a significant jump from the joint 8th position that England placed in the previous cycle in 2016.
The PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) assessment tests reading strategies and comprehension. More than 400,000 children took part across the world in 2021, with 4,150 completing the assessments in England. England’s 10-year-olds had an average score of 558, higher than the international average and similar to the score achieved in the previous cycle (559 in 2016).
The leap to fourth place in the table is, in part, a result of England’s average reading scores holding steady over the COVID pandemic, while other countries saw steeper drops in performance. Whilst it is too early to say with certainty why this was the case, PIRLS provides some clues. Alongside reading tests, PIRLS also asks children about their reading attitudes, and gathers contextual information through optional school and family questionnaires.
The importance of early literacy and book ownership
Researchers found that the top three predictors of reading performance in 2021 were:
- Children’s earlier performance in their year 1 phonics screening check
- The number of books in the home (with higher numbers associated with higher scores) and
- Home Socio-Economic Status (SES) . Across all countries, students with higher home SES had a much higher achievement than those with lower SES.
These predictors highlight the importance of early literacy, book ownership, and initiatives designed to support literacy in children from lower income backgrounds. We know from our work that a child’s early spoken language skills are a key indicator of their future literacy skills. This is reflected in our early years programmes such as ‘First Words Together’. Our research and programmes also recognise the benefits of increasing book ownership, particularly for children from areas of disadvantage, where our work is targeted. In 2022, 1 in 10 (9.7%) children and young people receiving free school meals said they didn’t have a book of their own at home. The National Literacy Trust has proudly worked to lower this statistic, having provided over 575,000 books and resources to support students during lockdown. We continue to do so through our regional Literacy Hubs.
Reading attitudes and achievement are 'mutually reinforcing'
Researchers also found that, across all countries, positive reading attitudes – such as liking reading and feeling confident about it – and higher average reading achievement tended to have “mutually reinforcing” relationships. However, overall reading enjoyment, including that of English children, was down on previous years, a trend that we have also observed in our own research.
Our recent research also found that reading enjoyment levels saw a significant uptick during the pandemic as children had more time to “get into” reading again, and many rediscovered themselves as readers. Sadly, enjoyment levels were not sustained as children went back to school, and the percentage of children and young people who say they enjoy reading is currently at a 15-year-low. Recognising the mutually reinforcing relationships found in PIRLS, it is essential that we do all we can to support both reading enjoyment and attainment – indeed, our research has found that children and young people who enjoy reading are three times more likely to read above the level expected of their age (30.1% vs. 8.1%).
At the same time, the success of England’s 10-year-olds in this international test must be recognised and lauded. Such international assessments can complement existing national assessments by providing policymakers, schools, and education experts with additional insight into the impact of longer-term reading support strategies and approaches. Indeed, some commentators have hailed the result as “a major policy success story”, and “proof that education policies can have a real impact if implemented correctly”.
The gap between the highest and lowest performing readers is narrowing
Perhaps most encouragingly, long-term trends in PIRLS indicate that the gap between our highest and lowest performing readers is narrowing over time due to an increase in lower achievers’ scores. Several initiatives may have made some contribution to this. For example, the phonics screening check was introduced in 2012, a new national curriculum in 2014 (this the first PIRLS cycle where children have been exclusively taught under this), and the English hubs programme, started in 2018. However, it is important to note that, as relationships between education policy and large-scale international assessments are very complex, researchers caution that scores should not be causally attributed to any specific reading policy or practice.
There are clearly many factors at play, not least the incredible hard work of teachers, librarians, families, and all those engaged in supporting children’s reading. We must also now look ahead to PISA, a similar study of 15-year-olds due to be published this coming December. Furthermore, as research suggests that the youngest children (those learning to read, in KS1) and older children (in early secondary) showed the greatest learning loss in reading following the pandemic, future cycles may have more to tell us about any lasting impact of educational disruption during the pandemic.
Note: Scotland and Wales did not take part in PIRLS in 2021 (Scotland is set to join the next cycle). Ireland and Northern Ireland both took part, and had higher average reading scores than England (577 and 566 respectively, vs 558 for England). However, they were left out of the league table as they assessed pupils at the start of their following year of schooling (as a result of the pandemic) rather than the same school year as most other countries, including England. Explore findings from Northern Ireland.
 Home Socio-Economic Status as defined by PIRLS based on parents’ report on home resources, parental education, and occupation.