The PIRLS reading passages, as well as the ePIRLS online reading texts, undergo extensive review by the Reading Development Group and the National Research Coordinators. Considerable effort is expended to ensure that the texts and websites have the following characteristics:

  • Clarity and coherence;
  • Appropriate content across countries and cultures;
  • Interesting, engaging content for a wide range of students; and
  • Adequate basis for assessing the full range of comprehension processes.

In order to reflect the goal of approximating an authentic reading experience in the assessment, the reading passages—whether presented digitally or in printed formats as well as the simulated online materials—must be typical of those read by students in their everyday experiences and reflect students’ authentic reading experiences, in and outside of school. In order to help achieve this goal, the texts are typically provided and reviewed by the participating countries to be representative of the literary and informational materials their students read.

The time constraints of the assessment situation place some limits on the length of texts, because students need time to read the entire passage and answer comprehension questions. Consistent with the range in difficulty across PIRLS, the passage length generally averages from about 500 to 800 words. However, length will vary somewhat because other text characteristics also affect rate of reading.

With the transition to a digital environment, the aim is to increase the diversity of text types included in PIRLS 2021. For example, PIRLS could include texts from plays, magazines, and newspapers as well as traditional letters, emails, and short messages. Also, information can be presented in many different formats. Even informational pieces that are primarily presented via text may include a table to document facts or a picture to illustrate a description. Both print materials and websites present a considerable amount of information via lists, charts, graphs, and diagrams. Hybrid texts are not new, but there have been developments that have proliferated due to rapid changes in communication styles and modes brought about by new media and digital texts.

The ePIRLS online informational reading tasks in science or social studies are adapted from internet websites. Each task involves approximately three different websites totaling about five to ten web pages. Reflecting the fact that online reading often involves sorting through more information than is actually necessary to achieve one’s goal, the texts contained in an ePIRLS assessment task average about 1000 words in total.

Clarity and coherence are essential criteria for PIRLS texts. Typically, the passages and websites have been written by successful authors who understand writing for a young audience, such that the texts have an appropriate level of linguistic features and density of information. In the context of an international study, attaining authenticity in assessment reading experience may be somewhat constrained by the need to translate the texts into numerous languages. Thus, care is taken to choose texts that can be translated without loss of clarity in meaning, or in potential for student engagement.

In selecting texts for use in an international reading assessment, it is crucial to pay close attention to the potential for cultural bias. Texts that depend heavily on culture-specific knowledge are automatically excluded. Text selection thus involves collecting and considering texts from as many of the participating countries as possible. The goal is for the texts to be universally applicable across cultures, and for the set of texts in the assessment to vary as widely as possible across nations and cultures, such that no country or culture is overrepresented in the assessment texts. The final selection of texts is based, in part, on the national and cultural representation of the entire set of assessment texts.

The appropriateness and readability of texts for the PIRLS assessment primarily is determined through iterative reviews by educators and curriculum specialists from countries participating in the assessments. Taking into account fairness and sensitivity to gender, racial, ethnic, and religious considerations, every effort is made to select texts that are topic and theme appropriate for the grade level and that elicit the full range of comprehension processes.

Finally, it is extremely important for the texts to be interesting to the greatest number of students. As part of the field test, students routinely are asked how well they like each of the texts, and a high level of positive response is fundamental for a text to be selected for the final set of assessment instruments.