Irish primary children excel in international reading tests

International study examined hundreds of thousands pupils across almost 60 countries

Primary school pupils in Ireland rank among the best in the world for reading ability, according to a major international study.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) examined reading skills among hundreds of thousands of pupils across almost 60 countries in 2021. The findings will come as a relief to parents, schools and policymakers following concern about the impact of Covid-19 school closures on teaching and learning.

On paper, at least, Ireland moved up the international league table from fourth in 2016 to second place in 2021, behind Singapore. Ireland is followed by Hong Kong, Russia, Northern Ireland and England. Finland, a long-standing high achiever, was in ninth place while the US ranked in 11th.

Pupils in Ireland, however, were among a group of 14 countries which examined pupils about six months later than most other jurisdictions for Covid-19 reasons. As a result, the study’s international authors have cautioned that direct comparisons with other countries needed to be made with “great care”.


Officials at home believe that while Irish pupils performed “somewhat better” due to the six-month delay in assessment, it is unlikely that the difference would have been very extreme. They said Ireland remains one of a small set of high-achieving countries and that reading performance has “at least remained stable” since the last study in 2016.

Girls performed better than boys in Ireland, in common with most countries, but the gender gap here is relatively small.

In Ireland, just under 51 per cent selected the option boy, 47.5 per cent selected girl and 1.9 per cent selected “other”.

Reading achievement was significantly higher among children from more affluent socio-economic backgrounds, while pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds performed at a significantly lower level.

While schools in Ireland remained closed for longer than many other countries, the study notes that primary pupils spent a considerable amount of time reading during lockdown periods. This may have helped explain their strong performance in the 2021 study.

Nonetheless, most parents thought pupils’ learning had been affected at least to some extent and most teachers thought literacy learning had been negatively affected for between one quarter and three quarters of their pupils.

The findings show that the improved performance among Irish pupils was concentrated among more advanced readers.

Separately, education authorities have also published the findings of the National Assessments of Mathematics and English Reading (Namer) at primary schools in 2021. These assessments are administered to more than 10,000 pupils in second and sixth classes during the first two weeks of May 2021.

It found overall performance across reading and maths was broadly similar to the last study 2014. While there was a small drop in performance, officials said it was not statistically significant.

While girls outperformed boys in reading at second class, boys outperformed girls in maths in sixth class.

Officials said it was reassuring that results in these national assessments were consistent with the last study in 2014 despite the challenges faced by pupils and the wider education system during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It noted, however, that revised performance targets for reading and maths – set in an interim review of the national literacy and numeracy strategy – were missed.

There was also a special focus on Deis schools – based in socio-economically disadvantaged areas – which also found there were no significant gains or fall in average achievement between 2014 and 2021.

There remains a considerable achievement gap between schools in the most disadvantaged urban areas – known as Deis band one – and others, however.

About 40 per cent of second class pupils are low achievers in reading in Deis band one schools, while nearly half are low achievers in maths.

The report says the findings show the ongoing need to support both low and high achievers in these schools to ensure they reach their full potential.

They noted, however, that “stability is welcome” in the context of disruption to teaching and learning in schools during the pandemic.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent