Australia has shot up the international rankings in reading, reversing a decade of underperformance in literacy achievement in the country's schools.
- Australia's Year 4 students ranked 21 out of 50 countries for reading, up six places since the last study in 2011
- Australia outperformed countries including France, New Zealand and Spain
- Federal Education Minister says the results indicate teacher and school reforms are paying off
The Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS) ranked Australia 21 out of 50 countries among Year 4 students. This is up from a ranking of 27 when the last study was done in 2011.
Singapore and Russia were the stand-out international performers in reading, the study found.
Northern Ireland, England, Ireland and Poland were all in the top band of performance.
Australia fell in the middle band, along with the USA and Canada, but outperformed other countries including France, New Zealand and Spain.
However, it was not all good news. The study also found that among students in the low-performing 20 per cent, Australia's progress has remained stagnant.
The Australian Council for Educational Research coordinated the study in Australia, and its deputy CEO, Dr Sue Thomson, said the findings were pleasing.
"I think this is the first time I've been able to report on one of the international studies where the results have actually improved," Dr Thomson said.
"I think that we should be pleased that we have done something to address what was flagged as a real issue in 2011, and that our top level seems to be improving.
"But on further analysis there is still a lot of work to be done.
"The big issue is the proportion of students who are still not reading at a proficient standard for Australia or internationally, and the fact that it's still based on equity grouping, so it's still lower SES (socio-economic status) students and Indigenous students who are missing out."
Only 57 per cent of Indigenous Year 4 students met or exceeded the intermediate international benchmark, compared to 83 per cent of non-Indigenous students.
Significant differences in performance between states
The PIRLS data revealed Victoria was the best performer, with 86 per cent of students meeting the international reading benchmark.
The ACT ranked slightly above NSW at 82 per cent of students meeting the benchmark.
Western Australia and Queensland significantly lifted their performance to achieve 81 per cent and 78 per cent of students meeting the benchmark, respectively.
The Northern Territory and South Australia had the poorest results, with 75 per cent of students meeting international benchmarks.
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham welcomed the report but said there was still a large task ahead in lifting literacy performance.
But Mr Birmingham said the results indicated that reforms to teacher quality, simplifying the school curriculum, and focusing on basic literacy skills were paying off.
"Australia can be proud of the quality of our schools, the work of our teachers and the entire school system, but we should keep striving to do even better because that's what will guarantee our competitiveness in the future," he said.
'This data is telling us that many, many kids love reading'
The president of the Primary English Teachers Association of Australia, Robyn Cox, also welcomed the study's results.
"I really think that the PIRLS data from Australia is telling us that many, many kids love reading, and are reading more, and report themselves as being confident readers," Dr Cox said.
She pointed to the introduction of the Australian curriculum in 2010 that for the first time introduced the study of wider themes in literature for primary school students, rather than simply learning to read.
"The research tells us what we've all been arguing for years, and that is that there are the nuts and bolts of literacy, and we can't step away from those," she said.
"But we need kids to be enjoying reading, and having a nice time."
But many, including those pushing for a phonics screening test for all Year 1 students, remain concerned that Australia is not lifting the performance of its poor achievers.
A meeting of education ministers will discuss the proposed phonics check on Friday.
Advocates of a phonics screening test say the PIRLS findings demonstrate that although progress is being made among proficient readers, struggling readers need to be identified much earlier than Year 4.