The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016, the results of which have been released today, ranks Northern Ireland joint sixth and England joint eighth out of 50 countries.
Russia came first in the international education league table, based on a study of the reading comprehension and enjoyment of 340,000 nine- and ten-year-olds around the world.
The Republic of Ireland, in fourth, is the second highest-rated European country on the list.
Wales and Scotland did not participate in the study, which is directed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.
PIRLS 2016 represents the fourth time the tests have been run internationally. The survey has been carried out on a five-yearly cycle since 2001 and measures the achievement of Year 6 pupils or their equivalents, aged between nine and ten.
The top ten countries in 2016 were:
3. Hong Kong
4. Republic of Ireland
= Northern Ireland
England’s average score was higher than previous PIRLS tests in 2011 and 2006, largely due to increases in the average performance of boys and lower-performing pupils.
Girls came ahead of boys in almost every country taking the tests. There were only two countries, Portugal and Macao SAR, in which girls did not significantly outperform boys.
In 2011, England had one of the largest gender gaps, but improvements by boys reduced this to be consistent with the gender gap across all participating countries in PIRLS 2016.
In Northern Ireland the gap between boys and girls increased slightly since 2011, with an increase of two scale points, compared to the international average of three.
PIRLS assesses two types of reading comprehension; ‘retrieving and straightforward inferencing’, and ‘interpreting, integrating and evaluating.’
English and Northern Irish children both performed better at interpreting, integrating and evaluating texts than at retrieving information and straightforward inferencing, according to the results.
They were also better at ‘literary’ than ‘informational’ reading in the 2016 tests.
Northern Ireland’s Department of Education permanent secretary, Derek Baker said, ‘The PIRLS report highlights that our primary schools continue to perform strongly in reading. This follows the publication last year of another international report into trends in maths and science with local pupils once again achieving a very high standard in these subjects.
‘I am very pleased to note that primary school children are very positive about reading and enjoy their lessons. Helping our children to succeed is why we educate our children and I pay credit to all those teachers and principals who work so hard to make this happen. Parents and guardians also play a critical role in helping to develop their children from an early age by reading to them and supporting them with their school work. Results from these reports also show that primary schools have highly qualified principals and teachers with the majority stating they were very satisfied with their job.’
School standards minister Nick Gibb attributed England’s increased scores in part to the use of phonics in schools.
He said, ‘Today’s results put the success of our increased emphasis on phonics and continued focus on raising education standards on a global scale. Thanks to the hard work of teachers across the country, 154,000 more six year olds are reading better than ever before – this is fundamental to our ambition of helping every child fulfil their potential.
‘Our rise through the global rankings is even more commendable because it has been driven by an increase in the number of low-performing pupils reading well. This demonstrates our determination to ensure this is a country that works for everyone, regardless of background.’
Writing on Twitter, author Michael Rosen (@MichaelRosenYes) disagreed with Mr Gibb’s comments. He said, ‘It seems @NickGibbUK said '154,000 more six-year-olds are reading better than ever before – this is fundamental to our ambition of helping every child fulfil their potential.' What was the test to find this out? Decoding or “reading for understanding”?'
Mr Rosen added, ‘In 2011 @NickGibbUK said he would “eradicate illiteracy”. He makes announcements in which he says that children now are “reading more fluently” when he means they “decode” more fluently - which is something different.’
‘At the same time as administering systematic synthetic phonics, they asked schools to provide a rich diet of rhymes and stories. That's two variables. Whatever effects have been measured, it has to take into account both variables.’