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Reading Literacy Study

The IEA Reading Literacy Study examined levels of reading literacy across countries, as well as the nature of reading instruction and relationships between reading comprehension and aspects of the home and school environment.

The study had a number of aims:

  • produce valid international tests and questionnaires that could be used to investigate reading literacy and its correlates across countries;
  • describe achievement levels in reading literacy in participating education systems;
  • describe the voluntary reading activities of 9-year-old and 14-year-old students;
  • identify differences in policies and instructional practices in reading, and their relation to students' achievement and voluntary reading activities;
  • provide national baseline data for monitoring literacy levels over time.

The data were collected in 1990–1991.

Target population

Two target populations were included in the study: 9-year-old and 14-year-old students.

Participating education systems

Belgium (French), Botswana, Canada (British Columbia), Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany (FRG), Germany (GDR), Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

Key findings

Students' reading achievement

The students of Finland showed the highest reading literacy levels at both 9 and 14 years of age in almost all domains. Students in the United States also achieved relatively high scores at the 9-year-old level, as did students in Sweden, France, and New Zealand at the 14-year-old level.

Related factors

Students whose home languages differed from the language of instruction generally had lower literacy performance, with the exception of students from Singapore, who achieved high levels of literacy despite being instructed in a non-native language from the beginning of their schooling.

At the 9-year-old level, girls had higher achievement than boys in all countries for narrative passages and in 24 countries for expository passages. For documents, girls' achievement was significantly better than boys' achievement in only seven countries. At the 14-year-old level, girls had higher achievement than boys in the majority of countries. However, fewer of these differences were significant and several (in particular, for documents) favored boys.

The schools that were more effective in developing reading literacy had more female reading teachers than male, and the reading teachers were more experienced. Students in classes where teachers emphasized reading for comprehension and encouraged more reading also did better.

The availability of books at home, school, or the nearby community library was identified as a key factor for high achievement in reading literacy. The amount of voluntary book reading that students did outside of school was also positively related to their achievement levels.

For most countries, achievement in reading literacy was closely related to the national indices of economic development, health, and adult literacy. However, Hong Kong (which had average status on the developmental indices) attained high levels of achievement in both age groups. The achievement levels of 9-year-olds in Finland and Italy and 14-year-olds in Hungary, Portugal, and Singapore were also above the expectation baseline on the developmental indices.

Major publications

Binkley, M., Rust, K., & Williams, T. (Eds.). (1996). Reading literacy in an international perspective: Collected papers from the IEA Reading Literacy Study. Washington, DC: NCES.

Binkley, M., Rust, K., & Winglee, M. (Eds.). (1995). Methodological issues in comparative educational studies: The case of the IEA Reading Literacy Study. Washington, DC: NCES.

Elley, W.B. (1992). How in the world do students read? IEA Study of Reading Literacy. The Hague: IEA.

Elley, W.B. (Ed.). (1994). The IEA Study of Reading Literacy: Achievement and instruction in thirty-two school systems. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Lundberg, I., & Linnakylä, P. (1993). Teaching reading around the world: IEA Study of Reading Literacy. The Hague: IEA.

Papanastasiou, C., & Froese, V. (2002). Reading literacy in 14 countries. Lefkosia, Cyprus: University of Cyprus.

Postlethwaite, T.N., & Ross, K.N. (1992). Effective schools in reading: Implications for educational planners. An exploratory study. The Hague: IEA.

Wagemaker, H. (Ed.). (1996). Are girls better readers? Gender differences in reading literacy in 32 countries. Amsterdam: IEA.

Wolf, R.M. (Ed.). (1995). The IEA Reading Literacy Study: Technical report. The Hague: IEA.

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