Singapore’s Primary 4 pupils are world’s best in reading

More than a third of Singapore pupils achieved the highest “advanced” level in the study, which refers to high competency in reading difficult texts. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE – Primary 4 pupils in Singapore have emerged as the top readers in the world in an international test.

Results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), which were released on Tuesday, showed that pupils here were strong in both foundational and higher-order reading skills compared with their international peers.  They could also navigate digital texts, drawing out central ideas and making simple judgments about the credibility of information. 

Held every five years, Pirls is an international study that evaluates fourth-grade, or Primary 4, pupils’ reading and comprehension skills, such as interpreting and drawing connections between texts. 

A total of 57 education systems across the world took part in the test, which was sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. The association released the results, with Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) giving the detailed findings for the Republic.  

This was the first time the test could be administered fully online, but the education systems could choose whether to do it on paper or digitally.

Ireland took second spot in the latest 2021 study, followed by Hong Kong, Russia and Northern Ireland. The findings could be released only in 2023 because the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in delays in data collection. In the 2016 edition, Singapore came in second out of 58 participating education systems. Russia was first.

A representative sample of 6,719 Primary 4 pupils across all 183 primary schools here participated in the study from October to November 2020. About 400,000 pupils worldwide took the test.

Even with the pandemic, Singapore’s reading literacy scores improved from the previous 2016 edition, with its mean score going up from 576 to 587. 

Schools had to pivot to home-based learning in place of face-to-face lessons at several points during the pandemic. Despite concerns that this could have significantly affected the learning of lower-income pupils, the study found that the gap in reading performance between them and those from more affluent homes did not widen between 2016 and 2021.

In a statement, the MOE said Singapore is the only education system where students have made steady progress over the 20 years since the Pirls study was first administered in 2001. It said this could be attributed to refinements made to the English-language teaching and learning curriculum over the past two decades, additional literacy support for pupils who need it, and efforts to ensure learning could continue during the pandemic. 

More than a third – 35 per cent – of Singapore pupils achieved the highest “advanced” level in the study, which refers to high competency in reading difficult texts and showing higher-order thinking skills. The international median was 7 per cent. In the 2016 iteration, 29 per cent of pupils here reached the advanced benchmark. 

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The lowest-performing 10 per cent of Singapore’s pupils were also among the highest-scoring across all education systems in the test, said MOE, adding that it will continue to support pupils across all academic abilities and backgrounds and uplift those who need more help. 

Like in previous years, Singapore pupils reported being confident in their reading abilities. 

But fewer of them enjoyed reading. The proportion of those who reported enjoying reading a lot fell to 51 per cent in 2021, the lowest in a decade. This is compared with 55 per cent in 2016 and 60 per cent in 2011. Similarly, the proportion of pupils whose parents reported enjoying reading a lot dropped to 48 per cent in 2021, from 53 per cent in 2016 and 60 per cent in 2011.

MOE said the decline in reading enjoyment is not unique to Singapore. “(It) may in part be driven by the rapid proliferation of other forms of entertainment and content formats like social media over the last decade,” it said. 

Ms Liew Wei Li, MOE’s director-general of education, said: “Reading literacy is the foundation for learning and one of the most important skills that our students acquire in primary school. Our MOE specialists and master teachers have improved our curriculum and strengthened the capabilities of our teachers.”

Pupils showed strong reading literacy by international standards despite the pandemic challenges, she said, because of teachers who ensured learning could continue, and the close partnership with parents in adapting to the circumstances.

“Building a strong culture of reading takes a whole-of-society effort. We thank parents and community partners for their dedication towards fostering good reading habits in our young, and in nurturing them to become confident, competent readers,” said Ms Liew.

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