PIRLS 2021 – Everything you need to know about the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

PIRLS, or the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, is an international program measuring the school reading achievement of ten-year-old pupils in their fourth year of schooling.

The first edition of PIRLS was held in 2001, and since then the survey has been conducted every five years. It was initiated and is organised by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an independent cooperative of research institutions and government agencies from nearly 70 member countries. In addition to PIRLS, the IEA conducts a twin survey programme called TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) that tests fourth-graders on their math and science skills, as well as many other international educational surveys. Dozens of countries from around the world participate in each edition of the study. 

Goals of the PIRLS survey

The main purpose of the PIRLS survey is to measure reading comprehension skills in its two forms: literary text and applied text. The survey also serves to:

  • provide reliable and comparable data on the school achievement of pupils from different countries and the variation in such achievement, including by such factors as pupils’ gender or social background;
  • provide reliable information on the trend, i.e., changes in the level of achievement and its variation;
  • provide contextual data, i.e., information about the conditions under which teaching and learning take place, as well as the attitudes of pupils and teachers, which can provide a basis for explaining observed pupil performance.

The international definition of the population that is the subject of the PIRLS survey assumes that it consists of children who attend school and complete their fourth year of schooling at the ISCED 1 level, and whose average age at the time of the survey is not less than 9.5 years. The survey in Poland – as in TIMSS – thus includes pupils in the fourth grade of elementary school. In each country, a representative sample (in Poland, this is about 150 schools) is drawn from among all the schools attended by pupils from the population so defined. In schools where pupils are divided into two or more divisions, no more than 2 divisions are drawn for the survey. All pupils in the randomly selected division participate in the survey, and questionnaires are also filled out by parents, Polish language teachers and school principals. The data sets are publicly available, which allows for secondary analyses.

Poland has participated in PIRLS since 2006. In 2006 and 2011, the achievements of third-graders were studied. In 2016, it was decided that Poland, like other countries, would conduct the survey among pupils in the 4th grade.

PIRLS 2016 survey – results

The previous edition of the PIRLS survey was conducted in 2016, with its report released in December 2017. Below we present the most important results from the previous edition of the survey, and the entire report can be downloaded here.

In 2016, Polish fourth-graders were among the world leaders in reading achievement. They scored 565 points and ranked sixth among 50 countries. Since seven countries (of the European ones: Ireland, Northern Ireland, Finland and Norway) had a score statistically indistinguishable from Poland’s, it can be said that only two countries – Russia and Singapore – were significantly ahead of Poland, which, on the other hand, was significantly ahead of 41 other countries.

In 2016, Poland had very few fourth-graders at the lowest skill level – only 2% of Polish pupils were below the low skill level. The average for such pupils in the countries that took part in the survey was 4%. Pupils who scored below the low level threshold may have difficulty understanding simple texts and messages, and as a result, their ability to function effectively in society may be hampered. Pupils with such low reading comprehension skills are also likely to have problems in other subjects. There were even fewer such pupils in Russia, Hong Kong, Norway, Latvia and the Netherlands. On the other hand, 20% of pupils in Poland were at the highest level (the average of the countries participating in the study was 10%), which involves distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information, drawing conclusions from multiple premises, interpreting the behaviour and interactions of characters, and assessing the impact of the means used on the reception of the text. 

Polish fourth-graders in 2016 did equally well with literary and applied texts.

Pupils in Poland are better at interpreting and evaluating texts than at finding information and making direct inferences. This may indicate that Polish schools place more importance on developing interpretive skills than on information retrieval and simple inference.

In 2016, girls in Poland read better than boys. The same was true in all countries participating in the survey. In Poland, the difference between girls and boys was 18 points, while the average in the countries that took part in the survey was 19 points. However, in Russia, which was ahead of Poland, and Ireland (with a similar score to Poland’s), the differences were smaller (13 and 12 points).

Polish fourth-graders surveyed in PIRLS 2016 felt safe among other pupils. Poland, as in previous editions of PIRLS and TIMSS, ranked a high 7th in this category, along with Finland.

In 2016, Poland and Slovakia topped the surveyed countries in terms of the percentage of pupils taught by teachers with a master’s degree. In the countries participating in the PIRLS survey, teachers with a master’s degree taught their native language to an average of only 26 percent of pupils, while in Poland this was almost 100 percent.

Polish native language teachers obtain little satisfaction from their work. They ranked a distant 40th in the world in this regard. In Europe, only teachers in Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic and least in France were less satisfied with their profession.

PIRLS 2021 survey

The survey in the 2021 edition took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the theme of school closure and remote education runs throughout the current edition of the survey – in the pilot, the main survey and the way the survey results are presented. At the time of the PIRLS survey, pupils in all participating countries were more or less learning remotely rather than on-site. The period of remote learning in Poland was among the longest in the world. The experience of the pandemic in educational and social terms, the adaptation of education systems to remote learning and online learning itself certainly did not go unnoticed by pupils and the level of skills measured in the survey.

Research tools

The study uses test workbooks and questionnaires. The most important element of the survey is to collect comparable data on pupils’ skills. To do this, pupils fill out test notebooks with texts and tasks, answering open and closed questions relating to the material they read. Each notebook contains one literary and one applied text and an average of 15 questions for each text.

The second type of tool is questionnaires, filled out by both pupils and teachers, principals and parents. Contextual data from these survey responses are used to deepen analyses relating to reading skills and school-wide issues.

Form of the survey

Up to 2016, the PIRLS survey in all countries was implemented only in a paper version. Since 2016, the survey could be conducted in two possible versions: paper and computerized. In 2021, 25 countries and 7 additional cities and regions used the computerized version. The paper version was used by 32 countries, including Poland, and 1 additional region.  Starting in 2026, the PIRLS survey will be conducted exclusively in the computerized version.

Learn more about the survey conducted by the IEA