Country Language(s) of Instruction

The historical background of language and literacy in a country can influence the challenges and instructional practices in teaching students to read. For example, some countries have one commonly spoken language, while others are historically multilingual. Immigration also can increase language diversity. Multilingual countries across the world have different policies for educating their population and specifically for language literacy. Thus, decisions about the language(s) of instruction and how to implement those decisions can be very complicated.

System for Preprimary Education

Even before children begin formal primary school, they receive considerable exposure to literacy as part of their preprimary educational experience (e.g., preschool, kindergarten). Preprimary education is an area of investment for many countries. Research findings indicate that attendance in preprimary programs can have a positive effect on academic outcomes.141 The PIRLS curriculum questionnaire gathers information on countries’ provisions of early childhood education and preprimary education detailing the degree of universal coverage. In PIRLS 2016, almost all participating countries provided universal preprimary education for children age 3 or older, and a number of countries also sponsored universal programs for children younger than 3 years old. Additionally, the European Union recently legislated that member countries should provide universal access to preprimary education142 and Norway recently began universal access to early childhood education starting at age 1.143

It is also becoming increasingly clear that the effect of preprimary education on later academic and life outcomes is dependent on the quality of the preprimary program.144,145,146 PIRLS gathers data on any associated curriculum for early childhood and preprimary education. As described in the PIRLS 2016 Encyclopedia, preprimary education programs often have curricula that focus on children’s physical and socioemotional development and incorporate literacy and numeracy pedagogy as well as experiential science activities.

Age of Entry and Retention

Policies about the age of entry into formal education (first year of primary school, ISCED Level 1) are important for understanding achievement differences as well as the variation in students’ ages across countries at the fourth grade.147 Students who enter school at an older age are more mature at school entry and may be able to cope more easily with complex reading materials from the first grade onward. Data on country’s age of entry to primary school are reported by National Research Coordinators.

Additionally, because PIRLS is a grade-based study, PIRLS also gathers information on countries’ student promotion and retention policies, an important factor to consider when evaluating achievement results. Research has shown that grade retention does not have a positive relationship with student achievement or the emotional well-being of the student and is overall inefficient.148,149 For these reasons, many PIRLS countries practice automatic promotion, especially in the primary grades.150

Number of Years of School

More years of required schooling allow more time for students to learn and become more educated individuals with higher educational attainment. PIRLS collects data on nationally mandated compulsory years of education. In PIRLS 2016, most countries reported beginning compulsory education around age 6 and ending compulsory education around age 16.