I’d like to start the posts of this blog highlighting the reasons why reading comprehension of written texts must be the centre of education in our country, within the classroom as well as outside them, especially the educational policies that should place it at the core of the curriculum, not only on the language subject, but in all the subjects of it.
As everybody suspects (or know, at this point in time), Chilean education is in the middle of a crisis; the results of our country in international standardized tests show alarming results at different levels of education and in different subjects being evaluated (language, maths and science). This fact alone points to the fact that what must be improved is reading comprehension of written texts. The math tests which have word problems to solve imply comprehension of the formulation of the problem (the wording), i.e., reading comprehensively. The science tests also have questions which must be read and understood by our students in order to answer successfully, i.e., they must read comprehensively. And of course, the same happens in the language tests; that’s right…reading comprehension.
Notwithstanding this suspicion – which is already a certainty – I would like to give some hard data to clarify the diagnosis we all know: that Chilean people do not read well, or better said, we do not read comprehensively, or worse yet, that we are “functional illiterates”.
To start with the facts, I will analyze the results of international tests and/or studies in which Chile has participated, taking into account that the country was accepted into the OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperation Development) only a couple of years ago.
In the first place, the results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) are really distressing. According to one of the chapters of the book “Ideas para una educación de calidad” (2002) of the Centro de estudios Libertad y Desarrollo, in 1998 the Third Adult Literacy Survey was carried out for adults between 16 and 65 years of age, and Chile participated together with other 19 countries.
The study focuses on reading in three areas (prose, documents, and quantitative data) and 5 levels (being 1 the poorest, and 5 the highest) which tell us about the reading comprehension level of the citizens. Those in levels 1 and 2 would be the ones that do not reach the minimum level to function in the information era.
According to the text “Chile tiene un muy bajo nivel lector: más del 80% de la población entre 16 y 65 años se ubica bajo el nivel mínimo de lectura”, which is equivalent to saying that 4 out of 5 of our citizens “no cuentan con las destrezas mínimas para afrontar situaciones cotidianas con relativa facilidad como, por ejemplo, determinar de la lectura de un manual de uso de una bicicleta, el ajuste de la altura del asiento” (2002: 89). At level 3, we can find 13% of our population, and only 2% has a reading comprehension level equivalent to level 5. Worrisome, especially if we consider that approximately 11% of our population has completed higher education (CASEN survey, 1998). The former means that Chile is in the last place of the chart with categorical weaknesses in the three areas.
The most worrying part, however, is when we analyze the study according to the occupational level of the participants. According to Libertad y Desarrollo, “menos del 10% de los profesionales y gerentes (managers) chilenos se ubican en los niveles lectores 4 y 5, y más del 50% están bajo el nivel mínimo” (2002: 91). These results are similar to those obtained by german workers, and are lower than workers in nordic countries! This is way too worrying, since managers are the professionals who take economic and administrative decisions which have an impact on the development of the country. If they do not have a good understanding of what they read, applying what they read will be wrong, to say the least.
Another international test is TIMMS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study), which measures the level of education in the areas considered as fundamental for the generation of human capital. This test is applied by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and Chile participated of their second evaluation together with 37 different nations. This assessment evaluated eight-grade students only.
The result of the test show that our country is in the 35th position of 38 countries in both areas (maths and science), only better than the Philippines, Morocco and South Africa; with an average of 392 in maths (the general average was a score of 487), and 420 in science (general average score of 488).
The analysis made suggests that these scores are the result of the Chilean curriculum at the moment of the test, the level of educational resources at home, the organization of teaching practices in the classroom, and the socioeconomic factors, among others. However, I am convinced that a key factor which was overlooked is the poor reading comprehension level of our eighth grade students, which does not allow them to understand the instructions and wording of the questions they face.
Another international test organized by OECD is PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Chile has already participated in three or four of them (PISA 2000, 2006 and 2009). The test is administered to about 4500 to 10000 15-year-old students of the participant countries. In 2000, Chile was in the 35 place (out of 41), with a score of 410 in reading, 384 in mathematics, and 415 in science. In 2006, 57 countries took the test and Chile scored 442 in reading (for the 38 place, average OECD score of 492), 441 in maths (for the 47 place, OECD average of 498), and 438 in science (for the 40 place, OECD average of 500). Finally, 65 nations participated in the PISA 2009. Chile got a score of 449 in reading (44 place, OECD average of 493), 421 in maths (49 place, OECD average of 496), and 447 in science (44 place, OECD average of 501).
When analyzing these results, it is clear that Chile is way below the average of the OECD countries, but what should be the biggest concern is what Andreas Schleicher – director of PISA – said, that even “las escuelas de sectores privilegiados, que tienen condiciones comparables con las del mundo desarrollado, estén muy por debajo del promedio OCDE” (nterview to El Mercurio, October 19, 2008). Even more so, for the 2000 PISA test, if we only took the results of the best 10% of students with the best results in that test, we also discover that they don’t even reach the OECD average score for that year, something which Guillermo Montt seems to reinforce in an interview to El Mercurio (December 12, 2010) when he says that “la brecha entre los escolares chilenos con mejores puntajes y los mejores estudiantes de la OCDE es de 56 puntos, o sea, mayor que la que existe entre el alumno promedio chileno y el promedio de la OCDE (44 puntos). Chile está cumpliendo con los niños que tienen más desventajas educativas, pero le está fallando a los que tienen mejores rendimientos”.
To finish this post about the international results in the IALS, TIMMS and PISA assessments, we can conclude that the country is in need of a change in the educational policies and the way we teach our students. This implies, necessarily, teaching reading comprehension of written texts. Our students will face standardized tests more often now that we are part of the OECD, and this implies reading different types of texts, not only literary ones.
The diagnosis is on the table, the answer to this problem is to make our students understand what they read. Thus, the importance of reading comprehension.
Prof. Orlando Nieto