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PISA and the Development of Reading
Literacy in Teacher Training
by Liesel Hermes
- 1

(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.

PISA Study

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.

Reading Literacy

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" ( 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 ones.

Reading literacy is to be demonstrated in three dimensions:

  • 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])

(1)"Pupil" here refers to learners at school, whereas "student" refers to learners at university.

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