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Bullying linked to lower performance in 4th grade reading

TORONTO – Canadian fourth graders rank in the top ten of more than 60 countries tested for reading achievement, but bullying emerged as a new factor linked to performance.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is the only international program that assesses reading skills of Canadian students in early education according to the intergovernmental body Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC).

Read the full PIRLS 2011 Canada in Context report by CMEC here, with Canadian results explained.

Bullying and reading achievement

The PIRLS 2011 Canada in Context report states that depending on the type of school bullying behaviour (verbal, emotional, physical, cyber), between seven and 17 per cent of Canadian grade 4 students are being bullied at least once a week.

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“We’re talking about one in five students in Canada – according to the students – being bullied about weekly,” said the CMEC’s Pierre Brochu. “This is about at the same level as internationally.”

The report says students bullied the most tend to have lower performances in reading, but Brochu could not comment on the nature of the link.

“Is it because they’re weaker achievers that they’re being bullied more, or is it because they’re bullied more, then they are lower achievers?” he pondered. “The only thing we’re saying is that there is a relationship.”

Ben Levin, professor and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, believes the relationship goes in both directions.

“Students who are struggling more in school are probably less comfortable, and are probably more subject to those kinds of unpleasant circumstances,” he said. “And equally, being subject to those would further depress achievement.”

Canadian Results from the Progress in International Literacy Study

PIRLS 2011: Canada in Context: Canadian Results from the Progress in International Literacy Study. CMEC: Toronto. p. 80.

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Overall, the relatively high achievement in reading level for Canadian fourth graders was to be expected and is fairly consistent with past national or international assessments, according to Brochu.

He says in this case, British Columbia performed better than the other provinces (with Ontario, Nova Scotia and Alberta also performing above the Canadian average).

The PIRLS is administered every five years. While 2011 was the first year the majority of provinces participated (nine), Ontario and Quebec students took the PIRLS starting in 2001.

Those provinces have seen no significant change in results, while Albertan performance has slightly decreased, and Nova Scotia’s Grade 4 students have improved since joining in 2006.

“It’s a five-year span between assessments, so quite a bit can happen,” said Brochu.

No homework = higher scores

Another surprising finding was that in Canada, students doing “no homework or doing 15 minutes or less per day” performed better than those spending more time. This was contrary to most other countries where more time spent on homework was linked to higher achievement (up to a 60-minute threshold).

However, assigning ‘not so much’ homework has been championed by high achieving countries like Finland, and recently introduced by an elementary school in Maryland, that gives 30 minutes of reading time instead of homework for students in kindergarten to Grade 8.

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Brochu noted that results depend on what students and teachers defined as homework, explaining some may consider reading time as homework, while others may not.

Charles Ungerleider, a sociology of education professor at the University of British Columbia, says he was reassured to see that fourth graders were only getting modest amounts of homework.

“There is some connection between homework and achievement, but that connection is primarily at the secondary school level,” said Ungerleider, who is also the managing partner at Directions Evidence & Policy Research Group.

Gender gap

Another well-documented finding was that girls tend to out-perform boys when it comes to reading, but the PIRLS 2011 data uncovered two situations where that gap was closed.

“There’s a fairly wide gap between boys and girls in what we call literary reading, but the gap in informational reading is much, much smaller,” said Brochu. The literary texts were fictional stories, while informational reading included passages on science, history, or practical topics with organizational features like subheadings or lists.

In addition, girls tend to like reading better than boys in general, but boys who reported enjoying reading as much as their female classmates performed just as well as the girls.

Ungerleider suggests that boys need good models of reading, stressing the importance of seeing their fathers read for a variety of purposes.

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“Boys don’t get to see males read as frequently as they get to see females read, and that’s very influential,” he said.

Levin considers the gender gap a “vastly overrated issue in education” and says there’s more variation “among girls and among boys” than there is between them. He suggests gender has a small impact on outcome when compared to socioeconomic status and disability differences, but that Canadians have scored very well on tests like the PIRLS.

“We’re a high performing country, one of the highest performing countries, with one of the smallest variances in socioeconomic status,” said Levin. “The takeaway for Canadians should be we have a very, very good public education system that we can be very proud of.”

PIRLS is conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and aims to show how well students can read compared to those in other provinces and countries, as well as the effects of different policies and practices used around the world.

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