Ireland top of the class in reading
Results from the latest global assessment show a remarkable improvement in standards, writes Katherine Donnelly
Irish 10-year-olds are holding their heads high after emerging as the best in Europe, and among the top in the world, in reading.
In fact, that goes for our 11 and 12-year-olds too, because the 4,800 Irish pupils who participated in the world's largest assessment of reading ability at primary level in April 2016 are now in sixth class. In five short years, Ireland has lifted its performance in PIRLS - Progress in International Reading Literacy Study - on all counts, making some remarkable leaps in the process.
The credit belongs to a combination of policy, dedicated teachers and principals and high-level engagement by Irish parents in their children's education.
As would be expected, there was a 100pc response rate from Irish teachers to questionnaires associated with PIRLS and 99pc response from schools. Parents were also surveyed about matters such as how often they read to their children and, In Ireland, some 92pc replied; in some countries, it was below 50pc.
PIRLS is a project of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which started in 2001. It runs at five-yearly intervals and Ireland participated for the first time in 2011, when alarm bells were ringing about key educational indicators in this country. There had been the shock lower-than-expected performance in reading literacy and maths among 15-year-olds in the country in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009.
Department of Education inspectors were raising issues about standards in their reports on school visits and there had been no improvements since the early 1980s in the National Assessments of English reading and maths. These are conducted by the Educational Research Centre (ERC), Drumcondra, on behalf of the Department of Education, and track standards within the country, but don't allow for external comparison. The ERC is also the Irish agency for PIRLS.
That perfect storm of unfavourable indicators led to the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy in 2011, around the same time as Ireland was getting the first results from PIRLS 2011.
Then, Irish 10-year-olds were 10th among 48 participating countries, with five countries, including Northern Ireland, performing at a significantly higher level.
Today, their score of 567 is 15 points higher than in 2011 and they are third out of 50 internationally and the best in Europe. Only two countries - Singapore and the Russian Federation - performed significantly better.
PIRLS assessment is equally divided between literary and informational texts. ePIRLS only assesses pupils' ability to read for informational purpose. However, while ePIRLS students have to navigate a simulated internet environment, the focus of the assessment is on reading comprehension rather than navigation skills.
In both PIRLS and ePIRLS, 60pc of the assessment is directed at examining pupils' ability to make straight-forward inferences and to interpret and integrate ideas and information. Some 20pc examines what is regarded as the generally easier process of retrieving explicitly stated information and another 20pc assesses the more difficult process of evaluating and critiquing.
What is particularly encouraging is that Ireland has improved on every measure in PIRLS.
At the top end, the percentage of pupils with "advanced" reading skills in Ireland rose from 16pc in 2011 to 21pc in 2016, more than double the international average of 10pc. And 62pc of Irish pupils came in the next category "high", compared with the international average of 47pc. The outcomes for weaker students are just as important, and the results show that the number of pupils with only basic reading skills has dropped significantly.
The gender gap in Ireland is smaller than the gap internationally and it has narrowed significantly because boys have made greater strides than girls, although girls have also improved. In ePIRLS, only Singapore outperformed Ireland.
Eemer Eivers of the ERC, one of the PIRLS report's authors, describes the results of ePIRLS as particularly interesting.
ePIRLS was the first assessment of its kind at primary level and she says "it is encouraging to see that most Irish pupils had little or no difficulty navigating through the complex online scenarios they encountered. Equally, they seem able to evaluate information in a digital environment - for example, identifying the more reliable sources of information and integrating information from multiple web pages."