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Learn about the fourth cycle of PIRLS! Assess primary school students' reading comprehension in an international context.

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Relationships among reading, mathematics, and science achievement at the fourth grade—implications for early learning



Results of the PIRLS and prePIRLS 2011 international reading assessments

Technical documentation about the studies' development and implementation

Education policy and curriculum in reading

Blueprint for the PIRLS and prePIRLS 2011 assessments of reading literacy

PIRLS 2011

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2011

The IEA Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2011 was the third assessment, after PIRLS 2001 and PIRLS 2006, in a five-year cycle of assessments measuring trends in reading literacy achievement in primary school.

Combining newly developed reading assessment passages and questions for 2011 with a selection of secure assessment passages and questions from 2001 and 2006, the study offered a state-of-the-art assessment of reading comprehension that allowed for measurement of changes since 2001.

PIRLS 2011 also examined the national policies and practices related to literacy, and included a set of questionnaires for students, parents/caregivers, teachers, and school principals to investigate the experiences that young children have at home and school in learning to read. A number of new context questionnaire scales were developed to offer greater insights into home supports and school environments for teaching and learning. As PIRLS and TIMSS were both conducted in 2011, countries had the opportunity to assess the same fourth grade students in reading, mathematics, and science.

For the first time in the 2011 cycle, prePIRLS was offered to assess basic reading skills as a bridge to PIRLS, for countries where most children are still developing fundamental reading skills at the end of the primary school cycle. The PIRLS 2011 main data collection was carried out in 2010–2011.

Target population

The international population for PIRLS consisted of students in the grade that represents four years of schooling, provided that the mean age at the time of testing was at least 9.5 years.

Participating education systems

Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium (French), Botswana, Bulgaria, Canada (with Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec as benchmarking systems), Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Honduras, Hong Kong SAR, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kuwait, Lithuania, Malta, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain (with Andalusia as a benchmarking system), Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, United Arab Emirates (with Abu Dhabi and Dubai as benchmarking systems), and United States (with Florida as a benchmarking state).

Botswana, Colombia, and South Africa participated in prePIRLS 2011.

Key findings

Student achievement in reading

There was a substantial range in scores between the highest and lowest performing countries. The top-performing countries were Hong Kong SAR, the Russian Federation, Finland, and Singapore. Singapore had the largest percentage of students (24%) reaching the Advanced International Benchmark, followed by the Russian Federation, Northern Ireland, Finland, England, and Hong Kong SAR with 19% to 18%. Notably, most participating countries had a large percentage (95% or more) of their students reaching at least a basic reading level (Low International Benchmark). Many top-performing countries had relative strengths in the processes of interpreting, integrating, and evaluating, compared to their overall reading achievement.

Of 21 countries with comparable trend data from 2001 to 2011, ten countries showed increases in average reading achievement and only four countries showed declines. Similarly, there were more countries showing improvements at all four international benchmarks than declines over the past decade.

Gender differences

Girls outperformed boys in nearly all of the participating countries, particularly in the area of literary reading. There were fewer achievement differences in informational reading across countries. Trend data indicate that there has been little reduction in the reading achievement gender gap over the last decade.

School factors and teachers

Although there was variation across countries, higher average achievement in reading was associated with students attending schools where a greater percentage of students were from relatively affluent socioeconomic backgrounds, spoke the language of the PIRLS test as their native language, and entered school with early literacy skills. The most successful schools in reading also tended to emphasize academic success (as indicated by rigorous curricular goals, effective teachers, students that desire to do well, and parental support), have better working conditions and facilities, and have more instructional materials (books, computers, technological support, and supplies). Students who attended schools with discipline or safety problems and who reported more frequent bullying had much lower achievement than their counterparts in safe and orderly schools.

Higher average reading achievement was also related to engaging instruction, as well as having reading teachers with specialized education in language or reading, more experience, and greater career satisfaction.

Home and background factors

The PIRLS findings showed a strong positive relationship between students' reading literacy and their early learning experiences. In general, students had higher reading achievement if their parents reported that they themselves liked reading, they engaged in early literacy activities with their children (e.g., reading books, telling stories), they had more home resources for learning, their children had attended preprimary education, and their children started school able to do early literacy tasks (e.g., read sentences, write some words).

Student attitudes

The PIRLS results showed a strong positive association within countries between students' achievement in reading and their attitudes (e.g., liking learning and feeling confident in their abilities). Although many students reported that they were motivated to read, substantially fewer reported liking it.

Relationships among reading, mathematics, and science achievement at the fourth grade

Among the 34 countries and three benchmarking systems that administered TIMSS and PIRLS 2011 to the same fourth grade students, the majority had at least 90% of their fourth grade students reaching the Low International Benchmarks in mathematics, science, and reading. Over 35% of students in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong SAR, and the Russian Federation reached the High International Benchmarks in all three subjects. Most countries were relatively more successful in one or two of the subjects than another, particularly at the higher levels.

Findings for these countries also suggest that reading ability was associated with mathematics and science achievement: greater reading demands made the fourth grade TIMSS items more challenging for weaker readers, although this varied across countries. In particular, the mathematics achievement difference between good and poor readers was significant in a number of countries. Analyses also indicated several characteristics of schools—being safe and orderly, supporting academic success, and providing engaging instruction—that were associated with higher achievement in these subjects, even after controlling for home background.

A home environment supportive of educational attainment was shown to be important. The number of books in the home was related to the frequency of early literacy and numeracy activities, and these activities were related to the child's early literacy and numeracy skills at the beginning of first grade. Interestingly, a stronger emphasis on early literacy activities than on numeracy activities seemed to be associated with both the level of children's literacy and numeracy skills when entering school and their fourth grade achievement.

For more information, please contact the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center.

Major publications

Foy, P. (2013). TIMSS and PIRLS 2011 user guide for the fourth grade combined international database. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Foy, P., & Drucker, K.T. (Eds.). (2013). PIRLS 2011 user guide for the international database. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Martin, M.O., & Mullis, I.V.S. (Eds.). (2012). Methods and procedures in TIMSS and PIRLS 2011. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Martin, M.O., & Mullis, I.V.S. (Eds.). (2013). TIMSS and PIRLS 2011: Relationships among reading, mathematics, and science achievement at the fourth grade—implications for early learning. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Foy, P., & Drucker, K.T. (2012). PIRLS 2011 international results in reading. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Kennedy, A.M., Trong, K.L., & Sainsbury, M. (2009). PIRLS 2011 assessment framework. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Minnich, C.A., Drucker, K.T., & Ragan, M.A. (Eds.). (2012). PIRLS 2011 encyclopedia: Education policy and curriculum in reading (Vols. 1–2). Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

National reports

For information about national reports and other analyses resulting from PIRLS 2011, please visit National Study Reports.

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