New Zealand Students’ Engagement with the PIRLS 2006 Reading Passages

Publication Details

This paper summarises the findings from an ‘enjoyment’ survey administered to approximately 6300 New Zealand Grade 4 (Year 5) children. The research investigated whether or not the students engaged with the PIRLS 2006 reading passages, why they liked them, and whether their engagement related to their reading achievement as measured by PIRLS.

Author(s): Megan Chamberlain and Robyn Caygill

Date Published: November 2008



The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2001 showed that, when compared with other countries, New Zealand had one of the largest differences between boys' and girls' mean reading achievement (Mullis, Martin, Gonzalez, & Kennedy, 2003). Although the reported gender difference was consistent with other national and international studies (Crooks & Flockton, 2005; Satherley, 2006; Wagemaker, 1993), it was the magnitude of the mean difference relative to that of other countries which raised the researchers' interest in the area. Was the gender difference in reading literacy achievement exacerbated by the nature of the reading passages used in PIRLS 2001? PIRLS 2006 thus provided an opportunity to determine whether or not New Zealand's Grade 4 students liked the passages they read and then assessed.

The New Zealand Context

PIRLS, one of three international studies in which New Zealand regularly participates that provide information on the education system's performance in an international context, is used extensively by the Ministry of Education to identify strengths and weaknesses in the system. Building on a comprehensive gender-related literature review undertaken by Alton-Lee and Praat (2000) that highlighted differences between boys' and girls' literacy outcomes, a recent synthesis of data from the national and international assessment studies, including PIRLS 2001, emphasised again the differences between girls and boys in favour of girls in this area. Furthermore, significant achievement gaps between girls' and boys' literacy achievement start to appear soon after the beginning of compulsory schooling and persist until the end (Ministry of Education, 2007). However, New Zealand boys and girls are not viewed as homogeneous groups, with gender usually considered in the context of ethnicity and social class. That is, studies look at which girls and which boys have weaker performance, and which ethnic groups have the largest gender differences.

In New Zealand, ethnicity is a key social attribute used along with other features to describe the population. It refers to the ethnic group or groups with which people identify, or to which group they feel they belong. It is a measure of cultural affiliation as opposed to race, nationality, ancestry, or citizenship (Statistics New Zealand, 2005). Five classifications are used to describe ethnicity in New Zealand: Māori (the indigenous people of New Zealand); Pasifika (people who identify themselves culturally with the Pacific Islands); Asian (people who identify with west or east Asian groups); Other ethnic groups (people who identify as having a Middle Eastern, African, or South American background); and Pākehā/European (the largest grouping in New Zealand, which includes people mainly with British Isles or European heritage).

The international reporting on PIRLS 2006 showed that New Zealand's Grade 4 students' average performance in reading literacy was 532, with New Zealand students well represented among those with the strongest comprehensions skills internationally. Although New Zealand girls and boys achieved on average above their respective international means, New Zealand again recorded one of the largest gender differences in achievement, favouring girls (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy, & Foy, 2007). National-level analyses highlight the variation among New Zealand's ethnic groupings, with Pākehā/European (552) and Asian (550) students scoring on average at a much higher level than its indigenous Māori (483) and Pasifika (479) students. In terms of gender, the highest performers, on average, were Asian and Pākehā/European girls, while the weakest performers, on average, were Māori and Pasifika boys. Achievement differences favouring girls were observed between girls and boys in all but one of New Zealand's ethnic groupings; the one exception was the lack of any significant difference between the average achievement of Pasifika girls and boys (Chamberlain, in press).

Other Research

Closely associated with the notion of reading enjoyment is engagement with the materials students read. "Students are influenced and shaped by the quality and style of curriculum delivery, the choice of content and the suitability of resources" (Crooks & Flockton, 2005, p. 58). Reading interesting books was one of three key factors in a case study undertaken by Cullen (2006), in which she investigated ways of increasing the reading mileage of eight New Zealand Grade 6 students who were identified as weak readers. Along with scaffolding techniques, which underpinned the success of her programme, the students were given incentives to increase their mileage. Cullen herself also chose novels for them to read which had initially been deemed difficult (as measured by readability formulae) for this group. When asked to reflect on their own experiences in the programme, the common theme to come from the students was that the texts chosen by Cullen kept them engaged because they had interesting storylines.

The Children's Reading Choices research undertaken by Coles and Hall (2002) confirmed that although reading patterns and practices were predominantly highly gendered, there were misconceptions about boys' choices of reading materials, with both girls and boys choosing fiction in preference to non-fiction material. The types of fiction books boys read included science fiction and fantasy, spy and war, and humorous fiction, while girls read comparatively more adventure, horror, and animal stories. Clark and Osborne (2007) have also looked at text types that differentiate between students' self-evaluation of either being readers or non-readers. Fiction texts differentiated the two groups, with more than 60% of readers saying they read this genre out of school compared with just 11% of non-readers. Their findings showed that a high percentage of those students who were non-readers did actually read, but their source of reading material included magazines, websites, and emails.

PIRLS in New Zealand and elsewhere is regarded as a "low stakes" assessment, in that there are no implications for individuals or individual schools. At the time of the assessment children are encouraged to do their best, and so in some respects the success of the study relies on the motivation of the participants. Eklöf (2007) has shown that Swedish students were motivated to do their best in another low-stakes international assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2003. However, a fundamental difference between the two international assessments is the nature of the content being assessed: reading versus mathematics and science. According to Caygill, Sturrock, and Chamberlain (2007), New Zealand Grade 4 boys are more likely than girls to enjoy learning mathematics and science. In reading it is girls more than boys who enjoy it (Chamberlain, in press). The question then arises: if the reading material is not engaging or is uninteresting to boys, how does this affect their motivation to do their best?

Study Objectives

The purpose of this research was to give an overview of New Zealand students' views of the reading passages used in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2006, and to examine the relationship between their views of the passages and their reading literacy achievement. In our reporting we consider their gender and their ethnicity.


  1. New Zealand children were also found to be relatively positive about reading. However, about one in five students never read for fun in their own time. Boys, particularly Māori and Pasifika boys, were over-represented in this group of non-readers.
  2. In keeping with our original proposal, we also investigated the passages which engaged the group of New Zealand students who found reading boring and who had reported they read for fun. Because of reasons of brevity we have not reported this part of our work.

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