Reading comprehension: the most basic of all basic competencies of the 21st century

Reading comprehension: the most basic of all basic competencies of the 21st century

Horacio Álvarez 20 Diciembre 2013 Comentarios


The Latin American education systems failed again. In basic academic areas such as Reading Comprehension, Math, and Science we are at the bottom of all regions, according to the recently published 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.

Despite some progress, from a total of 65 countries from around the globe who took the test, the 8 Latin American countries who participated positioned themselves among the 15 worst-performing ones in Math (which formed the focus of this PISA round). In Reading Comprehension, the region is ranked among the 18 worst-performing nations, and in Sciene, among the 19 worst. In addition, the average scores by country are significantly below the OECD average. In Mathematics, of the 8 countries of the region, Chile, ranking 51, scored best. Colombia and Peru are among the three worst-performing countries, with rankings 62 and 65, respectively. In Reading Comprehension, Chile ranked 48th, while Argentina and Peru ranked 60th and 65th. In Science, Chile again stood out among the countries from the region, positioning itself in number 47; Colombia and Peru were ranked 60th and 65th.

This poor performance is unfortunately nothing new. Latin American countries have occupied the last places of country rankings in all tests they have participated in. Although substantial improvements have been observed in some countries, education quality continues to be alarmingly low. Regional tests, such as PERCE (1998) and SERCE (2006), have produced similarly poor performance results for the region’s education systems in both basic and primary education.

Even though these results prove that overall learning in Latin American countries is low, in the following posts of this blog, we will focus on the academic competency sine qua non: Reading Comprehension. And I mean sine qua non because if reading comprehension is not properly developed, only little can be done to improve student performance in other knowledge areas such as Math and the Sciences.

Our educational systems are indebted to students and their families in terms of the development of literacy competencies. After about nine years of school (PISA is taken by students in the 9th grade, between the ages of 15 and 16 years) between 32% (Costa Rica) and 60% (Peru) of the enrolled students only barely achieve basic literacy competencies and can, at best: locate one or more pieces of independent information explicitly written in a text; identify an author’s main argument in a text of a familiar topic; or make simple associations between information in the text and everyday knowledge.

These results could be even worse considering that: i) a significant number of students in the region 15 years of age have already left school, and probably have skills similar to or lower than the basic level; and ii) the percentages of reported achievements do not exclude all the answers that students could have answered correctly by random selection. The questions, of multiple choice type, could be answered correctly with the old trick (as we used back when I was at school) of “eenie meenie miney moe.”

Thus, low Math and Science performances are not only associated with the lack of skills in those particular subjects, but also with the fact that students do not possess fundamental reading comprehension skills necessary to understand what is asked from them to perform.

But, why is the average Latin American student’s level of reading comprehension so low? What are the fundamental elements required to achieve a good understanding of what you read? What are our schools doing to improve their students’ reading comprehension? Or, on the other hand, what are they not doing? What are we missing in our homes and in our communities to improve reading comprehension? What are other countries that are successful doing? What are the most effective interventions to become successful? And what are the least effective ones? What is the critical age to intervene? In the next blog posts, we will try to answer these questions and pose additional ones to generate ideas and come up with possible solutions to improve this core competency – primus inter pares – that is meant to be developed by our education systems, without which it is very difficult to acquire other skills necessary for a successful academic and professional career.

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