In 1970, the New Zealand Professor Warwick Elley led the first international study of 10 year olds’ reading, summarising results in the book: ‘How in the World Do Children Read’. The 2016 cycle of the modern version, (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS) shows a drop in our reading compared with three stable scores dating back to 2001. What sense do we make of this?

Several reactions have followed the release. One was to reject them as country league tables, and all is well. Others accepting the evidence quickly identified a cause.

Caveats are needed. This was a single drop –no different from the initial 2001 score. However, it is consistent with other evidence, so needs to be taken very seriously. Four common explanations are: implementing national standards, use of digital devices, bullying, and lack of phonics teaching. But the devil is in the variability. While there was an overall drop, some groups dropped more than others, such as children from high socioeconomic status (SES) families and those in more affluent schools. The drop was more pronounced in some areas of reading than others, such as the more complex reasoning aspects and with informational texts. Some groups actually increased scores, such as Pasifika girls. Explanations should cope with this variability.

This illustrates why we do these studies and why we should keep doing them. Rather than uncritical rejection, they provide very useful diagnostic evidence. Countries, for example Germany, changed their systems partly given the evidence from the international comparisons. In Finland’s case, finding their students were very high in literacy measures provoked detailed international investigation of their strengths.

National Standards were introduced in 2008 so our cohort entering in school in 2010 experienced them. High stakes accountability systems restrict the focus of teaching and curricula, and indications are this might have happened in some schools. But we need robust evidence for how implementing them may have caused the variable patterns.

What about digital devices? One well-known cause is present in PIRLS; the amount and breadth of reading in and out of schools. Apart from the extremes of low or high use, it is not screen time, it’s the content and quality of usage, and how it contributes to ‘recreational’ reading that matters to achievement. Powerful examples such as the Manaiakalani schools, show how usage can be designed to enhance literacy.

Bullying, and more generally threats to engagement, well-being and resilience are pressing problems as the Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman has recently noted. These are clearly related to learning at school. Did the rates change markedly in the last 5 years, do the patterns of engagement and well-being relate to the variable patterns? These are crucial questions for us to be working on.

The last candidate is a not realistic. Phonics might be an early problem for some, but by 10 years most children have learned the basics, and the patterns suggest different concerns.

Three areas suggest themselves to me. We may have a problem with the ‘reading diet’ at school, specifically the range and variety of texts for reading. We need a greater focus on complex reading, figuring out meanings, appraising and critically reasoning. Independently of PIRLS, our children and young people need advanced literacy for resilience in a post truth world, awash with misinformation, bombarded with computational propaganda and with access to games with betting algorithms. Thirdly, engagement and confidence in reading may have dropped and many students in PIRLS report not seeing their identity and life experience in everyday school texts.

In different ways, these areas may be related to the more general explanations. Let’s use the evidence to carefully unpack causes, systematically test and change what needs to be changed, and make sure that the educational research to do this is well supported. The educational science of making a difference is very weakly funded, but critical for society’s needs.

Professor Stuart McNaughton is Director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre, at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work

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