Canada's elementary-school students are among the world's stronger readers, thanks in part to the influence of Canadian parents who enjoy and encourage reading themselves, according to a new international survey.
Canadian students ranked in the top dozen out of 45 countries, but can't quite be called world-beaters: They still trail such recognized education leaders as Hong Kong, Finland and Singapore. Curiously, Canada was also edged out by the United States, even though Canadian high-school students score far higher than their American counterparts in other reading studies.
Nine Canadian provinces took part in the third Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which looks at reading achievement by Grade 4 students every five years. By most measures, Canada's students came in well ahead of the global average: 13 per cent reached the highest level of reading, compared with an international average of 8 per cent, and the country has few low achievers. Still, girls continue to outperform boys in nearly all aspects.
The study chooses Grade 4 as a transition point in students' growth, when they've learned to read and now use reading to learn. And it distinguishes between types of reading – Canada and the United States do better at "literary reading," which usually means novels and short stories, while students in Hong Kong and Taiwan excel at putting informational texts to use.
"Of course we're pleased, but it also shows us that we're looking forward to improvements in the next five years," said Ramona Jennex, chair of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, and also Nova Scotia's Minister of Education. "Being able to tell parents how important it is that they read with their children before they come to school, and how important preschool is in making sure children are successful, that's one area of the report that I like. This is information that's interesting to everybody."
Some key factors can help and hinder children's early affinity for reading.
PARENTS ARE INFLUENTIAL
Many Canadian parents appear to be doing their part, registering the sixth highest level of involvement with their children in a range of literacy activities. About 70 per cent often read and talk about books before their kids start school, according to PIRLS, and the children of parents who read before the beginning of school scored substantially higher than those who rarely read with their parents.
But it is less clear that parents are making their kids enthusiastic about reading, says Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. Students who "somewhat like reading" outnumber those who "like reading" most – in the case of boys, by two to one.
"There is that huge impact at home," Ms. Kidder said. "It's not teaching kids to read, that's not the parents' job. It really is more important that it's a joyful experience."
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY, MOSTLY
One of the most encouraging findings is that in Canada socioeconomic status has less of an impact on reading success than almost anywhere else. This may be partly because Canadian students from all economic backgrounds are far more likely to have important resources at home, such as a collection of children's books, their own room and an Internet connection.
But there are limits to Canadian equity, and other studies show stubborn achievement gaps for groups such as aboriginals and newcomers from some countries. And teachers told PIRLS they feel that some students – particularly in Alberta and British Columbia – lack basic nutrition or sleep.
IS HOMEWORK HELPING?
In most countries, PIRLS shows Grade 4 students achieve more in reading the more time they spend on homework, up to an hour a day. Above 60 minutes, they do worse. The average Canadian student in Grade 4 spent between 16 and 30 minutes a day on homework.
But Canada is one of a few countries bucking the trend: Canadian students doing less than 15 minutes of homework a day – or none at all – scored higher than kids in countries doing more.
"We feel instinctively they must be working harder if they have homework, but when you look at the research, there's not a lot of evidence that in elementary school there's a direct correlation between homework and achievement," Ms. Kidder said.
BULLYING: IT HASN'T GOTTEN BETTER YET
The impact of bullying on a student's reading cannot be underestimated. In Canada, students who are bullied at least weekly suffer from roughly the same gap in achievement as those whose parents didn't read with them often enough.
And despite greater awareness and the spread of anti-bullying campaigns, 56 per cent of Canada's Grade 4 students report being bullied weekly or monthly, which is above the international average of 53 per cent and surprised Stu Auty, president of the Canadian Safe School Network.
"We are becoming a very aware society," he said. "I would have thought that, if anything, the programs that are out there are having more of an impact."