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Reading: why success comes before engagement

Success at reading leads to the joy of books - and this, in turn, improves performance, says this researcher

Children need to read books that make them feel uncomfortable - here are a few suggestions, says Aidan Severs

Success at reading leads to the joy of books - and this, in turn, improves performance, says this researcher

My niece and nephews are growing up fast, and while I love that I can now bring them with me on my trips around the world, I do miss the days when they thought reading to each other was the height of entertainment.  

As slightly surly teenagers, they now don’t delight in reading, but they are good readers: the foundations are sound.

For some children, that is not the case. And what is clear is that whether a child likes reading or not is a key component of how good a reader they become. 


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Through my work on IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), as a national research coordinator for the Netherlands, and now as director of IEA Amsterdam, I have conducted a lot of research on reading and literacy.

Achievement breeds engagement

One very clear finding is that past performance is the best predictor of future performance. This sets in place a cycle of high achievement boosting confidence, leading, in turn, to more reading activity, which results in continued high achievement. 

Our instinctual feeling that being good at something is encouraging is well backed up by Pirls data.  

Grade 4 (10-year-old) pupils who were very confident in reading scored 545, on average, in Pirls 2016, compared with 455 for pupils who were not confident in reading. That’s a difference of 90 points.

To place that in perspective, the international mean score was 500 points. 

Limited engagement

However, confidence is not the only factor that matters.  From the questionnaires that pupils fill in along with the test, we know how engaged the pupils are in reading, and how much they like it (or not).  

Using data from Pirls, we know that there is a correlation between pupils liking reading, being engaged with reading, being confident in their own reading ability and their average achievement. 

Because Pirls contains a questionnaire not only for the pupils taking part, but also for their classroom teacher, as well as the school principal, it provides us with a very broad picture of the factors affecting learning and achievement.   

From the analysis of this, we can clearly demonstrate that teachers know their pupilsand have a good idea of how engaged they are with reading.  

Find a hook

In Pirls 2016, we asked teachers to what extent uninterested students “limited” the way they taught reading.  

Because of the link between pupils taking our test, and their class teacher’s questionnaires, we can show that the pupils in the classes where the teacher perceived them to be disengaged, also reported that they were indeed less engaged, and had a lower interest in reading. 

So teachers know which children have an issue with reading engagement and they know how much impact that has. 

Unfortunately, teachers may have many wonderful skills, but they can’t time travel: they can’t go back and rebuild the foundations of a love of reading; they cannot go back and help pupils experience success in reading to impact their engagement with it. 

But teachers can influence their pupils’ current and future levels of enjoyment and confidence.  

In all, this means that teachers need to find good strategies to boost confidence, engagement and interest in reading. If they do, they stand a good chance of breaking into the cycle and, in turn, boosting performance.  

Dr Andrea Netten is director of IEA Amsterdam


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