Lessons from PISA for Libraries

While it is not without its critics, the PISA test remains a key reference point for education policy-makers around the world.

By looking to test what fifteen year-olds can do in reading, maths and science around the world, it looks to provide a basis for thinking about what works in education.

Understandably, therefore, for anyone involved in schools, the release of the latest results in December 2019 was a critical moment. But what about for libraries?

This blog looks to share a number of lessons from PISA which, we hope, will help you in your work and your advocacy.

The Nature of Reading is Changing…: while this will not be news for anyone invested in promoting literacy and reading, the PISA test does place a strong emphasis on the importance of digital reading, and how this varies from more traditional reading. While reading of newspapers and magazines has fallen sharply, numbers of 15-year olds chatting online, reading online news, and searching for practical information online have gone up. In this situation, there is a greater need to assess quality and reliability of information, deal with information abundance, and develop your own ideas and understanding. As the report suggests, ‘the past was about delivered wisdom, the future is about user-generated wisdom’. Lesson: more than ever, developing information literacy skills matters.

… yet Too Many Lack the Necessary Skills: Yet across the 79 countries that undertook the PISA test, 10 million 15-year olds do not have the most basic reading skills. 23% do not have the level of reading needed for learning in general, and the share of low performers, even just across OECD countries, rose. Those who do score less well are likely to find it hard to get by in an information-rich world. As concerns information literacy skills, the issue is more widespread still – fewer than one in ten students able to distinguish between fact and opinion. Lesson: there is a need for new and reinforced approaches to strengthening reading performance and the ability to deal with information effectively.

Reading for Pleasure Matters…: With a particular focus on reading in this edition, there is lots of data around young people’s abilities, and habits, in reading. In particular, enjoyment of reading is strongly correlated with better scores for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds – far more than measures of motivation to master tasks, clear goals, a sense of meaning of life and even positive feelings in general. In turn, it appears that when children have teachers who are enthusiastic and encourage them to enjoy reading, this really does have an effect on their own willingness to do so. Lesson: there is a real value in reading promotion efforts in schools.

… but is Less Common: However, at the same time, PISA suggests that children are spending less time on reading for pleasure than in the past – 5 percentage points fewer than in 2009 (the last time there was an in-depth look at reading), with five points more young people declaring that reading was a waste of time. Only 25% of boys and 43% of girls read for enjoyment for 30 minutes or more a day. Interestingly, though, once men get into work, other OECD work has suggested that they are more likely to read than women, balancing overall amounts of reading out. Lesson: more needs to be done to encourage reading for pleasure.

Variety of Reading Materials Helps…: One response, according to the summary, is to provide a wider range of things to read. When children can choose more freely between different types of material, this may make the difference in building a desire to read for pleasure in this way, and so address some of the issues faced. Even moderate video-gaming can help improve digital reading scores among boys. Lesson: a promising way of increasing reading for pleasure is through a diverse offer of resources, including online.

… as Does Reading Environment…: While more detailed results will only appear later this year, there is a greater emphasis in data collection on the extent to which students are prepared for a world where they will need to deal with ambiguity, and work with others, showing empathy and understanding. There is also a sense that children need an environment where they feel like they can explore and realise their potential, with the support of teachers and school staff. Lesson: giving students a measure of freedom with support, and encouraging an openness to the world and others, can make a difference.

… and Socio-economic Disadvantage Doesn’t Need to Mean Lower Education Performance: In many countries, PISA scores are strongly associated with socio-economic background – i.e. coming from a poorer household, with parents who are less well-educated, too often means that children do less well at school. Yet this is not the case everywhere, with less than 10% of difference in reading performance explained by background in fifteen countries. In particular, PISA involves an over-sampling of children from immigrant backgrounds, in order to assess how well they are doing compared to the population as a whole. There is a variety of performance here, but it appears that the best results come in countries that invest in sustained language training across grade levels, in particular early-childhood education. Lesson: crucially, there is no reason why coming from a certain background should condemn a child to poor performance, as long as there are good services and support with reading on hand.

Overall, the PISA report paints a picture of a world where there is a real need to reassess how reading is taught in order to prepare children for the world of tomorrow. With a growing need for information literacy, a diverse offer, the right environment and general encouragement of reading, libraries potentially have a major contribution to make to success.

As highlighted in a growing number of SDG stories, this is already happening, for example in Singapore, where libraries are helping children from low-income families to avoid falling behind, or in India, where they are giving children in rural areas a new taste for education. They are intervening from early years, for example in the Netherlands (here and here), in Czechia (here and here) and in Australia.

We encourage you to look at the PISA report in more depth, and share the elements that you find most interesting and relevant for libraries!