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U.S. Fourth-Grade Students Perform Well in PIRLS Reading Literacy Study

 | Jan 16, 2013

Students in just four countries (Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, Finland and Singapore) achieved significantly higher average scores than students in the United States in the 2011 edition of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), administered to representative samples of Fourth grade students in 48 countries. The recently announced results show that students in Denmark, Croatia, Chinese Taipei, and England performed at about the same level as their counterparts in the US, while students in Canada, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Italy, and Israel were among those that did less well on average.

PIRLS is a paper-and-pen test that assesses comprehension of literary and informational texts. Students in the U.S. performed better on literary texts, and less well on informational texts, than on the test as a whole. Other countries showing this pattern of performance included Canada, Ireland, Sweden, and Germany. Students in Russia and Finland performed at about the same level on both text types. PIRLS also assesses reading comprehension processes. Students in the U.S. performed less well than on the test as a whole on questions involving retrieving and straightforward inferencing, and better on questions involving interpreting, integrating and evaluating. In contrast, students in European countries typically did better on retrieving and straightforward inferencing.

Students in the U.S. did significantly better on overall reading in PIRLS 2011 than their counterparts in PIRLS 2006. Gains were also recorded by students in Chinese Taipei, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Iran, Poland, and Slovenia, while declines were recorded by students in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania and Sweden.

In nearly all of the countries that participated in PIRLS 2011, girls outperformed boys.  This pattern is consistent with previous PIRLS and PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Differences were smaller in the United States than in a number of countries including Australia, New Zealand, the Russian Federation, England, and Finland.

William Brozo
William Brozo

William Brozo, a professor of literacy at George Mason University, and chair of IRA’s PISA-PIRLS Taskforce, expressed satisfaction with the strong and improving overall performance of US students, and added that ‘the relatively small gender difference in the United States (10 points in 2011 versus 18 points in 2001) may reflect an increasing awareness among American teachers of the importance of encouraging both boys and girls to read a broad range of texts. Although these initial PIRLS results do not provide data by ethnicity/race, Brozo continues to express concern about "persistent and significant disparities in reading achievement between White and Asian-American students and Black and Hispanic students" that are found on national and state-level assessments in the U.S. and have been evident on  PIRLS 2001 and 2006.

Gerry Shiel 
Gerry Shiel

Gerry Shiel, a member of the PISA-PIRLS Taskforce from Ireland, noted that, while students in the United States now perform well above the international average in PIRLS, they perform at about the average for developed countries on PISA reading literacy. This, he says, indicates "a relative drop in reading literacy between 9- and 15 years of age that should be of concern to both policy makers and teachers. Students in other countries with high performance in Grade 4, including Hong Kong and Finland, maintain these high levels at through lower secondary schooling."

In addition to measures of reading performance, PIRLS provides a wealth of background information based on questionnaires administered to school principals, teachers, parents and students. Teachers in the U.S. reported spending more time than their counterparts in other participating countries on teaching reading skills across the curriculum. They also reported strong levels of collaboration with other teachers, and strong efforts to engage students during reading lessons through such activities as relating lessons to students’ lives and using questioning to elicit reasons and explanations. The IRA PISA-PIRLS Task Force, which also includes Renate Valtin and Christine Garbe (Germany), Sari Sulkunen (Finland), and Ambigapathy Pandian (Malaysia), will examine these and other outcomes in the months ahead, and report on their findings at the IRA Annual Convention in San Antonio in April 2013 and the European Conference on Reading in Jönköping, Sweden in August 2013.

For additional information in PIRLS 2011, visit

Top-scoring countries in PIRLS 2011: 
1. Hong Kong SAR (571 points)*
2. Russian Federation (568)*
3. Finland (568)*
4. Singapore (567)*
5. N. Ireland (558)**
6. United States (556)
7. Denmark (554)**
8. Croatia (553)**
9. Chinese Taipei (553)**
10. Ireland (552)**
11. England (552)**
12. Canada (548)***
13. Netherlands (546)***
14. Czech Republic (545)***
15. Sweden (542)***

*Significantly higher than US
**Not significantly different from US
***Significantly lower than US

International Reading Association Research Resources

Research Sessions at the IRA Annual Convention

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