But pupils are less likely to pick up a book for fun than their counterparts elsewhere. Helen Ward reports
PRIMARY pupils in England are better at reading than those in almost any other country, but are less confident about their ability and do not enjoy it, a new study has found.
England came third in the study of reading achievements of 140,000 10-year-olds in 35 countries, beaten by Sweden and the Netherlands.
Scotland finished 14th and Wales did not take part.
The gap between the highest and lowest attaining children tended to be wider in English-speaking countries such as England and New Zealand, than in other nations. Researchers said one factor might be the irregular nature of English.
The 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that 13 per cent of children in England disliked reading, compared to an international average of 6 per cent.
Children in England spent more time watching television or playing computer games than those in other countries.
When asked how good they were at reading, only a third of pupils in England were highly confident, compared to the international average of 40 per cent. The National Foundation for Educational Research, which conducted the study, carried out earlier research showing that 12 years ago, before the National Literacy Strategy was introduced, English pupils had average scores.
Dr Bethan Marshall, of King's College London, said: "I have always felt we were much better at reading than people gave us credit for, but I think we have lost the balance. We ought to look at whether we are destroying children's love of literature."
Professor Sig Prais, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said that the 3,156 English pupils in the study were relatively able.
He said: "As just over half of the schools originally chosen responded, the remaining schools surveyed were those which were happy to co-operate. Those schools are unlikely to be ones with pupils who are having trouble learning to read.
"It is not surprising that our top pupils do better when compared to other countries which have included their bottom-scoring pupils."
Researchers looked at pupils' performance in the 2002 key stage 2 tests.
They found the PIRLS sample included 5 per cent of pupils in the lowest ability range for reading, compared to a national average of 7 per cent.
This is a statistically significant, but slight, difference.
Dr Marian Sainsbury, of the NFER team which carried out the study, said:
"The sampling has been supervised and approved by Statistics Canada. It is of crucial importance to test national samples which are comparable."
Education Secretary Charles Clarke commented: "The fact that our 10-year-olds are reading at a higher level than almost every other country is a credit to them and our education system.
"But there is no room for complacency, and we cannot ignore the fact that 25 per cent of 11-year-olds in this country are still not achieving the expected level."
The gender gap was an international phenomenon with girls outperforming boys in all the participating countries.