Dissecting Malta’s literacy problem

In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) carried out among 10-year-old students in 2011, Malta ranked 35th of 45 participating countries.

In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) carried out among 10-year-old students in 2011, Malta was ranked 35th of 45 participating countries with a reading score of 477, which was lower than the international average (500).

The mean reading score of our students in the Maltese test (457) was lower than the corresponding mean reading score in the English test (477). In both Maltese and English tests, our students scored higher in tasks that required retrieving information and making straightforward inferences rather than in tasks that required interpreting, integrating and evaluating information.

In all countries, except in Colombia, girls scored higher than boys. In Malta, girls scored 18 scale points more than boys in the English test and 25 scale points more than boys in the Maltese test. Maltese female students scored higher than males in both reading purposes and comprehension processes.

On average in Malta, independent school pupils scored significantly higher in reading than Church school pupils, who in turn scored significantly higher than State school pupils.

88% of Maltese pupils spoke Maltese and 45% spoke English before they started attending school.

Malta has higher proportions than international averages of pupils having an internet connection and their own room (67%), more than 25 children's books at home (87%), pupils who could perform early literacy tasks very well (28%) or moderately well (50%), and parents who often carried out early literacy activities with their children (45%).

Malta has lower proportions than international averages of students having at least one parent with a professional occupation (18%) and parents having high educational expectations for their children.

Maltese Heads of School reported that:

- 47% of our students came from economically affluent homes and 10% from economically disadvantaged homes in contrast to the international averages (35% and 30%) respectively.

- 58% of our teachers (higher than the international average of 50%) spent between six to 15 hours on professional reading development in the last two years from the study. Conversely, 23% never engaged in any professional reading development and 19% spent more than 16 hours on professional reading development (both are lower than the international means 25% and 24%).

- 69% of our schools had more than 500 book titles whereas 14% of our schools do not have a library.

13% of Maltese Heads of School put very high emphasis to academic success which is above the international average (9%).

 The proportion of Maltese Heads of School spending a lot of time addressing bad behaviour by pupils and disruption (39%) is lower than the international average (44%).

39% of our school Heads spent a lot of time advising teachers when they encounter queries and problems with their teaching, and 44% spent a lot of time initiating educational projects or improvement. Both are higher than the international average (35% and 41%).

Participation in professional development activities is given less importance by Maltese school leaders (26%) compared to the international average (38%).

13% of our Heads of School emphasise early reading skills and strategies at or before Year 3. This is lower than the international average (28%).

The proportions of our students who like reading (34%), who are motivated to read (82%) and who are confident in reading (39%) are higher than the international averages (28%, 74%, 36% respectively).

The language instructional time throughout a whole school year in Malta as reported by teachers (181 hours) is 51 hours less than the international average (232 hours). The time spent reading as part of language instruction throughout a whole year in Malta (37 hours) is the lowest of all countries and is 34 hours less than the international average (71 hours). The time spent reading across the curriculum, including time spent on reading instruction throughout a whole year in Malta (104 hours) is 42 hours less than the international average (146 hours).

The comprehension skills which are less emphasised by our teachers than the international average are: (i) making generalisations and drawing inferences based on what pupils read; (ii) describing the style or structure of the text they have read; (iii) determining the author's perspective or intention.

Similar to international averages, Maltese teachers make more use of a variety of children's books as supplement (72%) rather than as a basis for instruction (24%) and use workbooks and worksheets more as a supplement (50%) than as a basis for instruction (45%).

Similar to international trends, 86% of Maltese teachers use textbooks as a basis for instruction rather than as a supplement, and (59%) make more use of reading series as a basis for instruction rather than as a supplement (34%).

The Research and Development Department at the Ministry of Education and Employment, in collaboration with the Directorate for Quality and Standards in Education, the Directorate for Educational Services, the State Colleges, and the independent and Church School authorities, designed and is currently implementing an initial dissemination programme (March-May 2013) among all stakeholders within the field of education. The Department is releasing an information flyer about Malta's achievements in PIRLS 2011.

The programme includes full day seminars for the Directors within the Directorates, the College Principals, all State, Church and independent primary school head teachers and their assistant heads. The seminars provide an opportunity for the dissemination of the local results, include practical workshops for all the participants to familiarise with the PIRLS passages and literacy skills being investigated at international level, and include a session for reflection and the sharing of good practices being generated at the school, college and national level. In the coming days, the Department is meeting the Malta Union of Teachers to disseminate and discuss the Malta results. Discussions are underway among the local authorities to come up with a plan that includes training and development for the teachers and support for the parents.

Evarist Bartolo is the Minister for Education

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Emmanuel Mallia
One of the issues blamed for illiteracy is the always shrinking number of hours spent by students in class. No wonder. Maltese teachers are the only local workers who are not obliged to work a 40 hour week !