Literacy achievements of Australia’s Year 4 students has improved on average, according to a new report from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), but not for students with the lowest literacy skills.
Results from the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), released on 5 December, show Australia’s average score was lower than those of 13 other countries, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland, Northern Ireland and England, which all tested in English, as well as other top-performing countries the Russian Federation, Finland and Poland.
Australia recorded an improvement of around 20 points in the average reading score between the 2011 PIRLS assessment and 2016. That average score was significantly higher than in 24 other countries, including France and French-speaking Belgium, as well as New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, and Malta, which tested in English.
PIRLS has measured trends in Year 4 students’ reading literacy achievement every five years since 2001. Australia participated for the second time in 2016, following participation in 2011.
Releasing the ACER report, PIRLS 2016: Reporting Australia’s results, ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson said while the results indicate positive changes in Australian students’ average reading performance since 2011, they also highlight the existence of groups of students for whom reading comprehension remains an area of great difficulty.
“PIRLS 2016 shows that 81 per cent of Australian Year 4 students are achieving at or above the Intermediate benchmark – the proficient standard for Australia – compared to 76 per cent in 2011, with more students achieving at the High or Advanced benchmark,” Dr Thomson said.
That improvement is broadly consistent with the observation that Year 3 reading levels in NAPLAN have been improving nationally since 2008, she said.
“Nevertheless, the fact remains that about 6 per cent of students are not reaching the Low benchmark in PIRLS 2016, a proportion similar to PIRLS 2011. In addition, significant achievement gaps by gender, Indigenous status, socioeconomic background and school location remain. The priority for policymakers and educators is to focus on addressing the learning needs of these groups of students.”
Results from the questionnaire administered as part of PIRLS 2016 show that students who attended schools where less than 25 per cent of their peers have literacy skills when they start school achieved significantly lower, on average, than students who attend schools where greater proportions of their peers begin formal schooling equipped with literacy skills.
Dr Thomson said learning is not a race but, if it were, for students who have no or low literacy skills when they start school, it would be like starting 50 metres behind those with literacy skills and trying to make up that gap.
“In order to close that gap we need to provide schools with the resources to facilitate the language development and growth of students who start school with few literacy skills. This is critical in ensuring that they develop their skills and, essentially, catch up,” she said.
The PIRLS 2016 results and questionnaire also revealed that higher levels of enjoyment of reading are associated with higher levels of achievement, so long as students have books in the home.
“Without access to reading materials, a positive attitude alone is not sufficient for students to develop their reading abilities,” Dr Thomson said.