PIRLS 2016: Russia's reading success

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) has measured trends in Year 4 students' reading literacy achievement every five years since 2001. When the last study cycle was conducted in 2016, students in the Russian Federation outperformed their peers in all 50 participating countries and 11 benchmarking regions. In today's article we're joined by PIRLS 2016 Russian Federation Research Coordinator Galina Kovaleva, Head of the Center for Evaluating the Quality of Education, Institute for Strategy of Education Development in the Russian Academy of Education and her colleague, Dr Marina Kuznetsova, a senior researcher with the Centre of Primary Education, Institute for Strat­egy of Education Development in the Russian Academy of Education. In this Q&A, we take a closer look at Russia's PIRLS results and discuss some of reasons behind the success.

The Russian Federation's PIRLS results have been improving over time: It has recorded average scores of 528 in 2001, 565 (2006), 568, (2011) and 581 (2016). What has Russia been doing well to achieve these results? Have there been any specific initiatives taking place in schools?

Participation [in PIRLS] has had a significant impact, not only on teaching reading but also on the assessment of reading literacy. Previously, in primary school the oral forms of reading literacy assessment were dominant in Russia: a child read the text, the teacher asked this child a few questions on the content, the child answered the questions orally, and the teacher made a qualitative conclusion about the awareness of reading. After Russia's participation in PIRLS 2001, written tests similar to PIRLS instruments which allowed quantitative and qualitative assessment of reading literacy, started to be used actively at the regional and federal levels.

Analysis of the results of PIRLS 2006 revealed problems with reading informational text. As a result, the section on informational texts in the literary reading program has been strengthened. Also, the interdisciplinary program ‘Reading. Working with a Text' was developed as the part of the new Federal State Education Standards (FSES) in 2009.

We think that the improvement of the 2016 results is due to several reasons.

  1. Recognition of the value of work on the literacy of younger schoolchildren in society as a whole, and among the pedagogical, parental community and the schoolchildren themselves in particular. High motivation for reading in society, school and in families.
  2. A good level of preschool preparation. Participation of parents in preparation for reading mastery.
  3. The fundamental changes in the educational process, both in the overall organisation of teaching, and in achieving substantive results in ‘Literary Reading' and metacognitive skills.
  4. Qualitative programs of primary education, the availability of quality textbooks, a thought out method of teaching reading.
  5. Successful work with students who have difficulty in reading.

PIRLS 2016 students learned literary reading according to the FSES of primary education issued in 2009 and entered into practice in 2011. The program of literary reading taught in all primary schools includes the following components:

The techniques of reading and understanding texts, including reading of literary and scientific texts silently and aloud, understanding the content and main idea of texts, answering questions regarding the content of texts, and making a simple outline from which to retell texts.

  • A reader's view and orientation to the world of books, including folklore, fairy tales, myths, and legends of the people of Russia and the world; Russian classics (from the list of children's reading) and modern Russian literature; foreign literature; children's newspapers and magazines; bibliographic information (eg: author, title, annotation, contents); and dictionaries and reference books.
  • Special literature knowledge, such as genres of works (e.g., story or fairy tale, fable, poem or rhyme, novel, play), the specific forms of folklore (eg: riddles, patterns, songs, proverbs), the topic of texts (eg: main idea, subject, the character and behavior of the hero), and means of expression in texts (eg: epithets, comparisons, sound and rhyme in poetry).
  • Language development, including activities in listening, speaking, reading, and writing; knowledge of text purposes (eg: narration, description, reasoning); etymology of the Russian language; emotional and stylistic colouring of speech (eg: expressive reading and storytelling, speech etiquette); and demonstrating understanding by retelling, creating a connected story about the main characters, and summarising students' impressions of texts.
  • The FSES also specifies the requirements for metacognitive skills, which should reflect the acquisition of skills to read for meaning in texts of different styles and genres in accordance with goals and objectives; to build verbal expression consciously in accordance with the objectives of the communication; and to prepare texts in oral and written forms.
  • In the course of primary education, the FSES allows for learning the intersubject program ‘Development of Universal Learning Skills', including through the program ‘Reading. Working with a Text.'
  • When working with a text, the following areas are emphasised: searching for information and reading comprehension, transformation and interpretation of information, and evaluation and application of information.

In PIRLS 2016, girls had higher average achievement than boys in 48 of the 50 countries, and boys did not have higher achievement in any countries. In Russia, why do you think girls perform better than boys?

We think that there are objective and subjective reasons. In order to be a good reader you need to read a lot. In order to read constantly, motivation and perseverance are very important. Girls at this age are more diligent and hardworking than boys. Girls are more motivated to succeed in learning. It remains exactly the motivation for reading. For boys it is very important that they read what texts are offered in textbooks. Boys do not care what they read. The text theme in the textbooks is more focused on the interests of the girls. At present, the authors of textbooks on literary reading have begun to pay more attention to the selection of texts that are of interest to boys.

Six per cent of students in Russia did not achieve the Intermediate international benchmark (475 score points). What are teachers doing to close the achievement gap between high and low performing students?

In Russia there is a tradition of helping the weak readers. Teachers during the lesson devote time to working with such students. Teachers allow more successful readers to work independently with the text. At this time, teachers individually work with weaker students.

Students in the Russian Federation performed better, on average, than students in all other participating countries. Was this a surprising result for you?

Yes and no. On the one hand, teachers and parents are concerned that children are reading less, that traditional reading on paper takes up less space. These thoughts aroused fear, that the results will not be as high as in 2011. On the other hand, in Russia much is being done to support reading. Every year many scientific and pedagogical conferences are held devoted to the issues of reading support. The activity of the Society of Russian Literature was resumed … in June 2017 the Government of the Russian Federation adopted ‘The program of support of children's and youthful reading in the Russian Federation'.

It is very important to add that the majority of libraries in Russia pay great attention in working with people of different ages on raising the interest in reading. For example, the Association of Libraries introduced the special program for women ‘Reading mothers – reading country!'

PIRLS shows that in the Russian Federation students perform well in Year 4 reading. Is this something that continues as they move through their schooling?

This is a real challenge in Russian education. On the worldwide scale, Russia showed the largest gap between PIRLS and PISA reading scores [PISA assesses 15-year-olds]: there is large gap in reading literacy between the primary and middle schools in Russia as shown by the PIRLS and PISA surveys. In Russia there is a lot of research on this problem (to explain this gap). Now, great importance is attached to the development of reading literacy (in general the functional literacy) in basic and upper-secondary school.

Galina Kovaleva and her colleagues have written more about Russia’s PIRLS success in this paper. Click the link to read more.