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  • Writer's pictureLove Ballymena

Primary school pupils in Northern Ireland continue to be among the best in the world in reading

Child reading book in library.

An international survey of pupil achievement in reading shows that young people aged 9 -10 in Northern Ireland are amongst the best readers in the world.

Data from the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) reveals that children from Northern Ireland significantly outperformed those in 52 of the 56 participating countries. Only young people in Singapore and the Republic of Ireland performed better than local pupils in the major international study.

The PIRLS study was carried out for the Department of Education by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Department of Education Permanent Secretary, Dr Mark Browne said:

“The PIRLS report highlights that our primary school pupils continue to perform strongly in reading in 2021, and that our overall reading score has increased significantly compared to 2011 when our pupils first took part in PIRLS. 

“I am very pleased to note that almost a quarter of our pupils reached the Advanced International Benchmark. This was the third highest percentage internationally. I pay credit to all those primary school teachers and principals who worked so hard to make this happen. It is a fantastic achievement and demonstrates the strength of the primary curriculum and the high levels of attainment achieved by pupils in our primary schools.”

PIRLS 2021 is the fifth in the series of comparative international surveys on reading achievement and has been administered on a five-yearly cycle since 2001. Northern Ireland participated for the third time in 2021 having previously participated in 2016 and 2011.

Mark Browne continued:

“Results from PIRLS show that our pupils’ confidence in reading has remained high as in previous PIRLS cycles.

“The study also reveals parents in Northern Ireland reported one of the highest percentages of pupils that were often exposed to early literacy activities. This was much higher than the international average and highlights the crucial role parents and guardians play in helping to develop their children from an early age.”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, PIRLS 2021 data collection extended over 22 months from October 2020 to July 2022. Because of the varying periods of data collection, the participating countries are classified into one of three groups:

  • Group 1: countries and benchmarking participants that tested according to the original plan, with pupils towards the end of Year 6 (internationally Grade 4).

  • Group 2: northern hemisphere countries and benchmarking participants that delayed their data collection period and assessed pupils at the start of Year 7 (internationally Grade 5). Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are Group 2 countries.

  • Group 3: countries and benchmarking participants that delayed their data collection period by one year and also tested pupils towards the end of Year 6 (internationally Grade 4). England is a Group 3 country.

It is important to interpret comparisons with caution because of the different periods of data collection and the potential achievement advantage among pupils in Group 2 countries, being on average three to four months older than pupils in Group 1 and Group 3 countries.

NFER is a leading independent provider of rigorous research and insights in education, working to create an excellent education for all children and young people. They are a not-for-profit organisation and their robust and innovative research, assessments and other services are widely known and used by key decision-makers. Any surplus generated is reinvested in projects to support the organisation's charitable purpose.

Find out more at or check out @TheNFER on twitter.


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