In literary reading, readers engage with the text to become involved in events, settings, actions, consequences, characters, atmosphere, feelings, and ideas, and to enjoy language itself. In order to understand and appreciate literature, each reader must bring to the text his or her own experiences, feelings, appreciation of language, and knowledge of literary forms. For young readers, literature can offer the opportunity to explore situations and feelings they have not yet encountered.

Events, actions, and consequences depicted in narrative fiction allow readers to experience vicariously and reflect upon situations that, although they may be imagined, illuminate those of real life. The text may present the perspective of the narrator or a principal character, and a more complex text may even have several viewpoints. Information and ideas may be described directly or through dialogue and events. Short stories or novels sometimes narrate events chronologically, or sometimes make more complex use of time with flashbacks or time shifts.

The main form of literary texts used in PIRLS is narrative fiction. Given differences in curricula and cultures across the participating countries, it is difficult for PIRLS to include some forms of literary texts. For example, poetry is difficult to translate and is therefore avoided.