PIRLS 2016: New Zealand's Achievement

Publication Details

This report presents the key findings from New Zealand's participation in PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) 2015/16.

Author(s): Ministry of Education

Date Published: December 2017



New Zealand has been participating in PIRLS since the first cycle in 2001. PIRLS 2016 took place across New Zealand and 49 other countries during late 2015 and early 2016. In addition, 11 jurisdictions, regions, or language groups also took part as benchmarking participants. New Zealand is one of 20 countries that has taken part in all four cycles.

PIRLS is a representative sample based study that is designed to ensure that the results can reliably indicate what is happening across the whole population of children at that year level. In New Zealand, PIRLS 2016 involved 5,646 Year 5 children from 188 schools. In addition 178 principals and 365 teachers completed questionnaires. Parents/caregivers were asked to answer a questionnaire, and 2,762 of these were completed. The children were typically about 10 years old. Schools were given the option of assessing in English or te reo Māori to allow children to take undertake the assessment in the language in which they are taught.

Reading is a foundational skill for children and young people to be able to engage in any other areas of learning as well in other life areas. The middle primary time is a key developmental step in children's learning to read journey and PIRLS provides us with insight directly into this phase. In PIRLS, reading literacy is defined as:

"The ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual. Young readers can construct meaning from a variety of texts. They read to learn, to participate in communities of readers in school and everyday life, and for enjoyment."

New Zealand values understanding how our children are achieving in reading and the results from PIRLS 2016 discussed in this report provide an important snapshot in time to help this understanding. There are a number of positives in these results. For example, a large proportion of children continue to achieve at the higher end of the assessment and achieve well across the different aspects of reading which PIRLS assesses. However, after a period of relative stability some of the results indicate a slight weakening of reading performance in New Zealand. This slight decline is not limited to one reading area or aspect of reading comprehension or one specific group of children; it is across these areas.

Studies like PIRLS cannot tell us what causes a certain result. However, by highlighting changes over time across the student population they do provide useful insights for policy makers and school leaders.

Key Findings

  • New Zealand's mean reading score (523) remained statistically significantly higher than the PIRLS Scale Centrepoint (500).
  • There was a small, but statistically significant, 8-point decrease in the mean score from PIRLS 2011 to 2016. Results from different groups of children indicate that this change is across the board as it is visible in both genders, across ethnic groups, and in children from well-resourced homes as well as less resourced homes.
  • A reasonable number of New Zealand children reached the High Benchmark (41%), meaning they demonstrated an ability to engage with increasingly complex texts and questions.
  • However, slightly fewer children overall reached three of the benchmarks (low, high and advanced) in PIRLS 2016 than in PIRLS 2011.
  • New Zealand children's performance was, in general, relatively stronger when reading literary texts than informational texts.
  • Reading comprehension was relatively stronger when using reasoning strategies (interpreting, integrating and evaluating) than using text-based skills (retrieving and straightforward inferencing).
  • Girls and boys both generally achieved above the international means. Internationally and in New Zealand, girls tended to have higher reading achievement than boys. The difference between boys and girls is larger in New Zealand than many other countries.
  • While, as groups, Māori and Pākehā/European children's mean scores have decreased since PIRLS 2011, there was a moderate increase in the mean for Pasifika children. This was largely due to stronger performance among Pasifika girls. There is more variability in Asian childrens' reading scores in PIRLS 2016 than in previous cycles, but no change in their mean score.
  • Children who always or almost always spoke the same language at home as they used in the test (English or te reo Māori), generally had higher reading achievement than those who generally spoke a different language at home from that used in the test. Since PIRLS 2011, the size of this difference has decreased.
  • New Zealand children were moderately positive about reading, but much less confident about it than their international peers. This is important because children who lacked confidence scored about 120 score points lower, on average, than those who were very confident.


  1. The majority of countries taking part in PIRLS are in the Northern Hemisphere and they administered PIRLS at the end of their school year in about April or May 2016. New Zealand as well as Australia, Singapore, Argentina, Chile, and South Africa
    administered PIRLS towards the end of 2015.
  2. The achievement estimates for two of the countries (Israel and Morocco) are not comparable across all four cycles.
  3. A total of 2762 questionnaires were completed either on paper or online. This represented an (unweighted) response rate of 49%. Their results should be treated with some caution.
  4. Mullis, Martin, & Sainsbury, 2015, p. 12.
  5. A statistically significant change indicates that difference or relationship is not due to random chance. See glossary for further details. This applies throughout the report.
  6. The PIRLS Scale Centrepoint was set in the first cycle of PIRLS as the average of the countries means. It remains constant from cycle to cycle to allow for accurate comparisons over time

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