How did Irish schoolchildren become the best readers in Europe?

Not so long ago there was real anxiety Irish students were falling behind others

Irish ten year olds are now the best at reading in Europe and among the top-performers in the world. Photo: iStock

Irish ten year olds are now the best at reading in Europe and among the top-performers in the world. Photo: iStock


Every five years, more than 300,000 fourth class pupils are assessed in their reading skills across 50 countries.

It is the world’s largest comparative study of reading achievement at primary level.

Not so long ago there was real anxiety that our 15 year old students were at risk of falling behind other countries.

In 2009, Ireland had slipped sharply down international OECD rankings for literacy and maths.

Alarm bells rang as politicians and business leaders fretted about the potential damage to the strong international reputation of the Irish education system.

But latest literacy results show impressive results: Irish ten year olds are now the best at reading in Europe and among the top-performers in the world.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) resultsfor 2016 show that under the main  version of the study, only two countries recorded a significantly higher score than Ireland: Russia and Singapore.

On a new online assessment of reading skills, Singapore was the only one of 14 participating countries to secure a significantly higher national score than Ireland.

Key factors

So, how did all this happen?

As the old saying goes, “success has a thousand fathers” - but policy-makers feel some key factors have been at play.

The  introduction of a 10-year national literacy and numeracy strategy in 2011 is one.

This followed concern over our record in Pisa (the OECD's global education survey of 15 year olds) 

The b;ueprint set ambitious targets, accompanied by the kind of detailed actions needed to boost performance.

It included dedicated time in the school day to focus on literacy and numeracy (about half an hour a day at primary level).

Millions of euro was spent on boosting professional training for existing teachers in targeting literary and numeracy improvements, while changes were also introduced to teacher-training programmes for new entrants.

More regular standardised assessments were also introduced for children, with results communicated to parents to help give them a greater sense of involvement in their children's education.

In addition to curriculum reform, a much broader range of texts were introduced - such as graphic novels, for example - to help boost engagement among young boys who were underperforming compared to girls.

Another sweeping change was the scaling up of schools’ capacity to assess their own performance.

School-self evaluation

This so-called school-self evaluation tool has been a game-changer, say policy-makers,  in that that principals and teachers in all schools now set their own targets for improvement.

It’s worth noting that at the time there were concerns over some of these approaches.

Some teachers worried that too much focus on literacy would harm pupils’ love of reading for pleasure.

Some also expressed concern over the bureaucratic burden of requiring schools to evaluate their own performance.

If anything, the new results show even more pupils are reading for pleasure.

Some teachers and principals may still grumble about self-evaluation, but the outcome of the strategy speaks for itself: schoolchildren at primary level have reached targets for reading and maths performance four years ahead of target.

What’s extraordinary is that all this has come at a relatively modest cost.

About €17 million a year is being spent on literacy and numeracy-related activity, such as professional training for teachers, changes to initial teacher education and updating of standardised testing.

In an education budget of about €10 billion, this is equivalent to spare change.

A big challenge ahead will be to build on this success and continue these improvements into second-level.

For the time being, these survey’s results represent a major achievement by the education system

The results appear to show that introducing a dedicated policy focus, accompanied by high-quality training and ensuring teachers and principals have the right tools, can yield highly impressive results.