The study also offers evidence that activities such as reading, storytelling and singing in early childhood help strengthen students' literacy skills in school.
Sweden, The Netherlands, England, Bulgaria and Latvia had the highest average achievement among the 35 countries surveyed, with Canada, Lithuania, Hungary, the United States and Italy rounding out the top 10 countries, according to the report from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Sweden and England had the highest achievement in reading for literary purposes; in reading for informational purposes, Sweden, The Netherlands and Bulgaria were the top performers.
Additionally, PIRLS collected extensive information about home, school and national influences on how well students learn to read, and queried parents and caregivers about their children's early literacy activities.
Among the key findings, fourth-grade girls had significantly higher average achievement than boys in all countries, and reading was emphasized more than any other area of the primary-school curriculum. Within all countries, students' attitudes toward reading were generally positive, and students with the most positive attitudes had the highest reading achievement. About half the students, on average, enjoyed reading and expressed an appreciation for books.
"The PIRLS report provides reliable and timely data within an international context," said PIRLS International Study directors Michael O. Martin and Ina V.S. Mullis in a statement accompanying the report. "The reading achievement results present each country with an opportunity to examine educational policies and practices against a globally-defined benchmark, while the report also contains rich information about children's early literacy experiences and reading instruction.
"The PIRLS findings underscore that time devoted to literacy-related activities, access to reading material, and a supportive atmosphere all are key," the researchers added.
With approximately 150,000 students surveyed, PIRLS is one of the largest international assessments of reading literacy. Directed by the International Study Center at BC's Lynch School of Education, which also conducts the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the largest international study of student achievement ever undertaken, PIRLS assessed a range of reading comprehension strategies for two major reading purposes: literary and informational.
In every country, according to the study, better readers had engaged in early literacy activities before starting school, such as reading books, telling stories, singing songs, playing with alphabet toys, and playing word games. According to their parents, more than half the students (54 percent), on average, across countries could do these early literacy activities when they began school.
Also, fourth-grade students from homes with many children's books (more than 100) had higher reading achievement than those from homes with few children's books (10 or less).
Students with highest reading achievement had parents who liked reading. These parents had favorable attitudes toward reading and spent on average more than six hours per week reading.
Teachers reported spending seven hours per week on language instruction, and as much as nine hours per week in Canada, Colombia, Cyprus, France, Greece, New Zealand, and the United States. More than one quarter of students had teachers reporting more than six hours each week specifically on reading instruction.
Both students and teachers reported that reading was a regular classroom activity. Better readers reported frequent independent reading and less frequent reading aloud (monthly). On average internationally, two-thirds of fourth-grade students (66 percent) reported reading silently on their own daily, and a further 27 percent at least weekly.
The full PIRLS 2001 report is available on-line at the International Study Center's Web site at pirls.bc.edu.
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