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  • Writer's pictureJakob Nielsen

International Study to Measure Kids’ Online Reading Skills — in 5 years(!)

Summary: The latest international reading skills study of 4th graders in 65 countries found drops since 2016, which are blamed on Covid lockdowns and social media. Singapore and Hong Kong topped the rankings. The 2026 study will test online reading skills. This will have future UX implications as poorer readers grow up and join the workforce.

Results of the international PIRLS study (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) were just released. The researchers tested the reading skills of 367,575 students at the end of the 4th grade in 65 countries and territories. The chart below shows the average reading scores for students in 43 of these locations, so that you can relish your country’s performance (if you live in Singapore or Hong Kong) or deplore it (almost everywhere else).


For various technical reasons, such as administering the test a year too late when the kids were in the 5th grade, the remaining countries and territories can’t be fairly compared to those shown in the chart. Even so, I included the scores from the United States in the chart, even though the test was administered when the students were in the early 5th grade, as opposed to late in the 4th grade, as done elsewhere. A true score for the USA would probably be lower than that shown in the chart.


Reading skills had mostly dropped by fairly large numbers since the previous PIRLS study in 2016. Most commentators explain these drops by a combination of Covid lockdowns (causing many students to have a severely impeded education for periods of up to two years in some jurisdictions) and increased social media use reducing children’s ability to concentrate sufficiently to read longer prose segments like those used in the test. At least the first problem will hopefully not be repeated for future generations of students.


I produced a separate chart with the reading skills of the top 5% of the students. This is important because these students are the people likely to produce most of the scientific, technical, and engineering advances in the future.


2026 Study to Test Online Reading Skills

The 2021 study tested traditional reading on paper. The next PIRLS study, which is planned to happen in 2026, is expected to include a test of students reading online information in a hypertext environment, similar to websites and social media. (Sadly, if the 2021 study is any indication, we will have to wait until 2028 to find out what these new scores say.)


This is great news, if rather late, because we know from much research that people read digital text quite differently than they read print. See https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/ and https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-people-read-online/


UX Implications

Unless you design for children, there are not that many action items from this research. The main design lesson for mainstream web design may come into play in another 10 years or so, when we should expect the number of low-literacy users to increase, as this generation of poorer readers grown up. More on designing for low-literacy users.


If designing for children, you will have to immediately take your users’ lower reading skills into account. Also, any product intended for an international audience should consider the different reading skills in different countries.


Data

PIRLS reading skills scores for 2021 (blue bars) with the drop since 2016 shown as white boxes:

Belgium reported separate scores for Flemish-speaking and French-speaking students: I have replaced these two scores with a single weighted average. Some countries/territories either improved since 2016 (especially Hong Kong and Malta) or were not included in that study.


Scores for the top 5% of students in 2021:


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