PISA 2009: Reading to Learn: New Zealand 15-year-olds' reading habits, learning approaches and experiences of teaching practices

Publication Details

This report investigates the reading habits and learning approaches examined in PISA 2009, with a focus on gender and a particular emphasis on boys. It also briefly examines the attitudes of 15-year-olds' parents/whānau to reading, and their (or someone else in the home's) involvement in literacy-related activities with the child during their first year of schooling and when they are 15-years-old. Teaching practices used in the students' English classes, student-teacher relationships and the disciplinary climate in the classroom are also examined.

Author(s): Maree Telford, Research Division, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: March 2013

Executive Summary

To participate fully in 21st century life it is critical that students acquire the skills that will enable them to access, understand, evaluate and reflect on the information in all learning areas.  This is why reading literacy is so important.  As the New Zealand Curriculum (p. 18) notes, "all learning areas (with the possible exception of languages) require students to receive, process and present ideas or information using the English language as a medium". Students must master the particular literacy skills required for each learning area before they can move full from 'learning to read' to 'reading to learn' (Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy 2010).

Reading literacy begins at home and is cultivated during the very early stages of a child's life, in both formal and informal settings in the community, and in early childhood education centers.  This is a process that continues throughout schooling and into adult life. PISA defined reading literacy as "understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written text, in order to achieve ones' goal, to develop one's knowledge and potential, and to participate in society" (OECD 2010a, p.37).

The rigorous and robust data gained from the PISA assessment enable the measurement of learning outcomes at the system level after students have completed approximately 10 years of schooling.  The rich contextual data gained from the student, school and parent background questionnaires and analysed by achievement level contribute to the evidence base the informs teaching and learning at both primary and secondary school levels.

About this report

This report presents evidence from PISA 2009 for primary and secondary school learners, teachers and policy makers who are concerned with enhancing student learning.  In particular, it indicates that the following factors have the potential to raise students reading skills:

  • involving parents and whānau in their child's learning during the early stages of their life, and also throughout their schooling.
  • fostering and nuturing students' reading enjoyment
  • encouraging students to read for enjoyment, in a wide range of materials.
  • providing a classroom environment that is conducive to learning
  • extending students' reading skills by providing challenging text and scaffolding students to tackle complex reading tasks (particularly students with weaker reading skills).
  • empowering students with the knowledge of the most effective strategies that will enable and promote their learning.

This report is divided into three parts. Part 1 begins with a brief examination of 15-year-olds' early childhood education experiences, their early home literacy-related activities, and other family influences examined in PISA (sections 1.1 and 1.2). Sections 1.3 to 1.5 then look at three of the five reading habits show in Figure 1. (Reading for school is discussed in Part 2, and online reading materials are not examined in depth in this report1).

Part 2 focuses on teaching and learning and it begins by examining 15-year-olds' reports on the types of reading takes they undertake as part of their schoolwork (section 2.1). It then investigates students' view on the extent to which their teachers use structuring, scaffolding and motivational practices in their English classes (section 2.2). the classroom climate, and their relationships with their teachers (section 2.3). Section 2.4 and 2.5 examine the approaches to learning show in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Reading habits and approaches to learning


1.  Source: OECD 2010b, p.26

Finally, Part 3 summarises the findings and presents and model of PISA reading profiles.

Overview of PISA 2009 reading literacy results

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the PISA 2009 results for the 65 participating countries and economies on 6 December 2010, and New Zealand published a summary of the reading, scientific and mathematical literacy results on that date (Telford & May 2010).

Overall, New Zealand 15-year-olds' reading performance was very strong.  New Zealand's mean reading score of 521 points was substantially better than the average across the 34 OECD member countries (493 points2 and than 56 of the 64 other participating countries and economies, including the United Kingdom and the United States.

New Zealand's mean score was statistically similar to three OECD countries (Canada, Japan and Australia) and one partner country3 (Singapore). Only two OECD countries (Korea and Finland) and two partner economies (Hong Kong-China and Shanghai-China) achieved a better result4.

In PISA 2009 New Zealand 15-year-old boys scored on average 499 points and girls scored 544 points. This disparity is consistent with results from the three previous administrations of PISA, which show that, overall at age 15 years, New Zealand boys' reading literacy skills are much weaker than girls'. Although this phenomenon was evident in all of the 62 countries and three economies participating in PISA 2009, in New Zealand the disparity was relative large at 46 score points, which is equivalent to more than one year of schooling5.  Among PISA's high-performing countries and economies, only Finland had larger gender difference (55 points).

New Zealand boys (21%) were more than twice as likely as girls (86%) to have reading literacy skills that according to PISA are below the baseline competencies necessary for effective and productive participation in the 21st century (below PISA's proficiency Level 2, OECD 2010a, p.13). Conversely, only 12% of New Zealand boys were proficient at the two highest levels (Level 5 and 6 and 20% of girls were proficient at these levels (see Appendix 5, p. 90).

Reading differences in favour of girls were evident among Asian, Pākehā/European, Māori and Pasifika students (with 39, 41, 50 and 60 average score point differences, respectively). The disparity was also evident in national studies6 and in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international study that looks at younger (Year 5) students7.  It is interesting to note that in PIRLS 2005/2006, at the Year 5 level the gender disparity was smaller (24 points). This finding suggests that as New Zealand learners transition through schooling the disparity may increase in favour of girls.

While factors such as socio-economic background and home language influence reading literacy performance, further analysis of the PISA 2009 data showed that reading enjoyment and knowing about effective learning strategies play a relative key role in mediating gender difference.8


At the age of 15 New Zealand students are at a crucial point in their lives. After 10 years of schooling they are making educational choices about what courses they will take, choices that will influence their future careers. How well they achieve educationally will influence the kinds of job they get, along with their future earnings and their ability to function fully as citizens in the 21st century. Knowing the factors that determine the likely outcomes of these 15-year-old boys and girls is therefore hugely important for teachers, school leaders and education policy makers.

This report covers the responses to questions asked of 15-year-olds (and their parents/whānau) across a wide array of topics in reading literacy. These finding are relevant for both primary and secondary school learners, because PISA is designed to measure the cumulative learning at age 15-years – often referred to as 'the cumulative yield of education'. Following is a brief summary of the findings for New Zealand students.

Do early educational experiences influence reading literacy at age 15?

The PISA evidence indicates that participating in early childhood education (ECE) and home literacy-related activities when children are young has a positive association with reading literacy at age 15. Ninety-one percent of our 15-year-olds had participated in ECE, and more than two-thirds had participated for longer than one year. Almost all parents/whānau (or someone else in the home) reported that they had frequently read books to their child during their first year of schooling. The majority were often also involved in other early home literacy-related activities, such as reading signs and labels aloud and telling stories. The difference in mean reading scores between 15-year-old students whose parents and whānau read books to them regularly when they began school and those who did not was equivalent to more than one-and-a-half years of schooling.

Can parents/whānau influence their 15-year-old's reading skills?

Parent/whānau reading habits and being involved in their 15-year-old's academic and non-academic activities are positively associated with reading literacy. Our students are more likely to be strong readers if their parents/whānau role-model their reading enjoyment by reading books on a regular basis. New Zealand 15-year-olds whose parents/whānau frequently discussed books, films and television programmes, or political or social issues with them, or simply spent time just talking with them, were generally much better readers than those whose parents and whānau were not involved in these types of activities as often.

Do our 15-year-olds enjoy reading?

Spending time reading for enjoyment on a daily basis and enjoying reading are positively associated with reading literacy. Two-thirds of our 15-year-olds reported that they read for enjoyment every day. Typically, the more time they spent reading for enjoyment, the better their reading score.

Overall, the gap in reading performance between our 15-year-olds who enjoyed reading the most and those who enjoyed reading the least was equivalent to three years of schooling. The gap was larger for boys than for girls, and girls were twice as likely as boys to hold positive views about reading.

What do our 15-year-olds read for enjoyment?

Reading a range of reading materials, including fiction is positively associated with reading literacy. Students who read a wide range of reading materials were generally stronger readers than those who did not. Regularly reading fiction books had a strong association with reading performance: one-third of our boys and over half of our girls read fiction regularly.

Our 15-year-old students read magazines and newspapers more often than fiction books, non-fiction books or comics. More than half of them regularly read magazines and newspapers (ie, at least several times a month), well over a third read fiction books, a quarter read non-fiction books, and just over 10% read comics regularly.

Boys read newspapers and magazines more often that they read the other types of reading materials, whereas girls read magazines, fiction and newspapers the most. Boys were more likely than girls to read comics.

What reading literacy tasks did our 15-year-olds do?

Students with strong reading skills were more likely to undertake tasks that were more challenging and complex (interpreting literary text and using non-continuous tests). Our weaker readers were more likely to undertake reading tasks that involved functional texts and literature course activities (those examined in PISA), literacy tasks that have a lower demand on students' reading literacy knowledge and skills.

Do teachers use motivational, structuring and scaffolding practices?

Exposure to motivational practices and structuring and scaffolding practices in English classes was positively associated with reading literacy.  Students with strong reading skills were more likely to have been exposed to a range of motivational practices and structuring and scaffolding practices examined in PISA. Overall, these practices are found to contribute to making a significant difference to our students' reading literacy skills and knowledge.

How aware are out students of effective learning approaches?

Knowing the strategies that are effective for summarising information and using control strategies are learning approaches that are positively associated with reading literacy. Students who knew about the strategies that international reading experts rated as the most effective for summarising complex information and for understanding and remembering information in a text were on average very strong readers. This was also the case for the students who used control learning strategies.

The performance gap between students who used or knew about these effective learning approaches and those who did not was substantial. Boys were less aware of effective summarising strategies and understanding and remembering strategies than girls. They were also less likely to self-direct their learning by using control learning strategies and to use memorisation strategies.

This is why we have focused on these factors in the analysis presented in this report.


  1. Results for New Zealand 15-year olds are reported in Kirkham 2012.
  2. Meaning reading scores often appear in parenthesis throughout this report.
  3. Non-OECD countries are referred to as 'partner countries'.
  4. For more detail see Telford & May 2010.
  5. According to PISA, 39 score points is equivalent to one year of schooling (OECD 2010a).
  6. For example, the National Education Monitoring Programme (NEMP) and Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (asTTle); see Satherley, 2006.
  7. PIRLS is an international study that assesses Year 5 students. It is conducted under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).
  8. Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Iceland, Austria and Germany are also noted as countries where reading enjoyment and knowledge of effective learning strategies play a relatively key role in mediating gender difference. For further detail see OECD 2010c, pp. 88-89.

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