PISA and the Development
Literacy in Teacher Training
by Liesel Hermes
(Revised version of a paper given at the IATEFL
Conference in Brighton, April 2003.)
The PISA study (Programme for International
Student Achievement) was first conducted in 2000 and will
be repeated every three years. It assesses reading (in the
mother tongue), mathematical and scientific literacy. In the
2000 survey, reading literacy was at the centre of the researchers'
interest. The results in Germany proved to be quite disastrous
in the eyes of the German public, authorities and ministries
of education. In all three fields assessed, German pupils(1)
came out well below the OECD standard or average. The aims
of this article are the following: it will explain what PISA
is about and what the results in Germany were in general.
It will then go on to demonstrate how important reading literacy
is for students of foreign languages and for teacher training
programmes in particular and what measures can be taken to
raise students' awareness of how reading comprehension functions.
Reading, mathematics and science are all
taught at school, but the assessments were not concerned with
school curricula. Rather they assessed the pupils' capacity
to meet real life challenges, i.e. the tasks were geared to
situations pupils may encounter later in life. The three literacy
abilities named were tested because they are thought to be
essential prerequisites for pupils to manage their lives,
both in their further education as well as in their occupational
and private lives. The objective was for the pupils to demonstrate
understanding of key concepts, to master certain processes
and to apply their knowledge in every-day situations.
The tests were developed by experts from the participating
countries. 15-year-old pupils were assessed because they form
the age group which is still at school around the world. By
the same token that means it was the age group that was tested,
not necessarily classes. 15-year-old pupils in Germany may
be in classes 8, 9 or 10.
Apart from solving the problems set, the
pupils had to fill in questionnaires with questions about
themselves and their family background. In addition, head
teachers had to fill in questionnaires and answer questions
about their schools. This brief description goes to show the
serious limitations of the PISA study. PISA offers no more
than a snapshot of pupils' performance. It is not a long-term
study. It does not assess classes to compare class achievements,
but individuals. It makes no assertions about the quality
of teaching or about developmental factors like learning progress
over several months. There was no video documentation of any
class, not even observation of lessons. Teachers were not
questioned to comment on their pupils or their own teaching,
such as preference of teaching methods or materials used.
All of these factors go to show that the results of PISA can
only be judged within the rigid framework of the tests conducted.
Within the PISA study reading literacy
is defined as "understanding, using, and reflecting on
written texts, in order to achieve one's goals, to develop
one's knowledge and potential, and to participate in society."
In other words, the focus is on knowledge and skills required
to apply "reading for learning" rather than on "learning
to read" (www.pisa.oecd.org).
Since the knowledge gap between readers and non-readers is
widening, it becomes all the more important for human beings
to be able to read in order to find their place in the world.
Pupils are required to deal with texts of different kinds
and perform a range of tasks.
The texts can be broadly differentiated into continuous and
non-continuous text types. The continuous ones are narration,
exposition, description, argumentation, and instruction. The
non-continuous ones are diagrams, charts, tables, forms and
advertisements. About 62% of the tasks to be performed relate
to the continuous texts, the remaining 38% to the non-continuous
Reading literacy is to be demonstrated in three
- retrieving specific information from texts,
- interpreting texts and
- reflecting on and evaluating texts.
These three levels reflect the use of
texts in everyday life, where one has to read texts for private
or public, for occupational or educational purposes. In the
study, all this has to be performed through closed multiple-choice
tasks as well as open questions. Pupils have to demonstrate
their proficiency in retrieving information, forming an understanding
of the text, reflecting on its content and integrating it
into their own world or prior knowledge.
Five competence levels have to be differentiated:
level 1 at the bottom means solving simple multiple-choice
tasks such as locating obvious information in the text. Level
2 demonstrates proficiency in solving basic reading tasks,
locating information and making low-level inferences. Level
3 involves tasks of moderate complexity, and level 4 means
locating embedded information and construing meaning from
nuances of language. Level 5 is the most sophisticated one,
requiring pupils to find information that is hard to find,
show detailed understanding and evaluate texts critically.
The results in Germany proved to be disastrous. Germany came
out 22nd of 32 participant countries altogether. The median
was 484 points, which means 16 points lower than the OECD
average of 500 points. The average reading proficiency of
German pupils is between competence levels II and III. The
third dimension, reflecting on and evaluating texts, was not
reached adequately by German pupils. Another striking result
concerns the internal variation of results, which is among
the highest world-wide. That means that in Germany the weakest
5% and the strongest 5% are more than 110 points apart. By
way of contrast there are countries like Finland, Japan or
Korea with fairly low internal disparities plus a high mean
performance. By the same token, very many students in Germany
do not even perform reading at level I, namely around 10%.
Here as in all the results concerning reading literacy, the
proficiency of girls and boys differs widely.
10% of all German pupils performed lower
than level I, another 13% performed no higher than level I.
That means that nationwide a little less than a quarter of
all pupils are extremely weak readers. For this astonishingly
large group, extracting information, interpreting and evaluating
a text will possibly pose grave problems in later life, be
it for private or public or occupational purposes. By the
same token around 9% of all pupils performed at level V, which
is the OECD average.
All around the world, girls are better readers than boys,
up to 35 points (which is one competence level). In Germany
more than 26% of the boys perform below level I or just at
level one, compared with 6.8% of the girls (below level 1)
and 11% (level I). And only 6.7% of the boys perform at the
highest level V compared with more than 11 % of the girls.
In a questionnaire the pupils were asked,
among other things, if they loved reading. German pupils to
a high degree do not, again with significant differences between
boys and girls. More than 50% of the boys asserted that they
are not avid readers, compared with only 26% of the girls.
Around the world girls read more and love reading more than
boys do. One consequence will have to be to guide boys towards
reading. That means making interesting and motivating reading
materials available as well as creating learning environments
conducive to successful reading. The family background also
seems to be of high importance. Pupils whose parents read
themselves and who used to read to their children in early
childhood produced significantly better results than pupils
from families where reading is not highly valued.
Another alarming result in Germany is
the high internal variance according to the type of school
visited. Results vary according to the type of school the
pupils attend, i. e., pupils at Hauptschul-level
perform less well than pupils at Realschul- or Gymnasium-level.
In other words: the tripartite school system in Germany, which
selects children at the age of nine or ten and assigns them
to a type of school, may be detrimental to the pupils' performance.
Children have less chance to succeed once they have been assigned
to Hauptschule. If one looks only at the proficiency
level of the German Gymnasien, they are significantly
above the OECD average. That means, by the same token, that
in Germany the type of school strongly determines the pupil's
success. (In Baden-Württemberg about 20% of the primary
school children who have been selected by their teachers for
the Gymnasium, go to Realschule, especially
in rural areas, which means in the present context that they
will in all probability not get the best training appropriate
for their talents [oral information at a PISA conference,
organized by the Ministerium für Kultus und Sport, Stuttgart])
refers to learners at school, whereas "student"
refers to learners at university.
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