Education at a Glance 2011: Highlights
Previous page 41/46 Next page
branch 5. Special section: introducing pisa
  branch How well do OECD students perform in reading?
  • On average across OECD countries, just over four in five students (81%) attain the essential reading skills needed to participate effectively and productively in society.
  • The partner economy Shanghai-China shows the highest average reading performance in 2009, followed by the OECD countries Korea and Finland.
  • Girls have significantly higher average reading scores than boys in every OECD country.


This spread examines the reading literacy of 15-year-old students and draws on data from the 2009 PISA tests, in which reading was the major focus. A key priority for all countries is to ensure that as many students as possible attain at least Level 2, which corresponds to the essential skills needed to participate effectively and productively in society. Students who fail to reach this level struggle to perform many everyday tasks, and are unlikely to become lifelong learners or do well in the labour market. For countries to gain a competitive advantage in the knowledge economy, efforts should be focused on educating their students to handle complex reading tasks at Levels 5 and 6.


An average of just over four in five students (81%) in OECD countries reach a reading proficiency of at least Level 2, however, nearly all students (99%) can read at a basic level. In OECD countries Finland and Korea, and the partner economies Hong Kong-China and Shanghai-China, over 90% of students attain Level 2 or above.

At the other end of the performance scale, an average of 8% of students in OECD countries can complete complex reading tasks at Level 5 or 6. These top performers form a pool of talent that will help countries to compete in the global knowledge economy. In New Zealand and Shanghai-China, 16% to 19% of students are top performers, at least twice the OECD average. Among top-performing students, only a few can complete the most difficult tasks and attain Level 6, the highest proficiency level introduced in PISA 2009. On average, 1% of students in OECD countries reaches this level; while in Australia, New Zealand and Shanghai-China, the corresponding figure is 2% to 3%.

The OECD countries Finland and Korea and the partner economies Hong Kong-China and Shanghai-China show average reading scores well above any other participants in PISA 2009. Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand also score well above the OECD average, by nearly one-third of a proficiency level. Another seven OECD countries - Belgium, Estonia, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Switzerland - also perform significantly above the OECD average.

Overall, there is a wide range in country scores, indicating large differences in how well students in different countries can read. On average, students in Shanghai-China are proficient to near the bottom of Level 4. At this level, students can identify, interpret and reflect on information in relatively complex written material. In the lowest-performing OECD country, Mexico, students are, on average, proficient to the bottom of Level 2.

Girls outperform boys in reading in every PISA country. In OECD countries, the average gender gap is over half a proficiency level. Wide gender gaps are seen in the Nordic countries, including the highest-scoring OECD country, Finland, and a few other high-performing countries, such as New Zealand. In Finland, boys score one-fifth of a proficiency level above the OECD average whereas girls score close to one proficiency level higher. In some countries, the great majority of underperformers are boys. On average in OECD countries, only one in eight girls, but one in four boys, fails to reach Level 2.


In the 2009 PISA survey, reading tasks are ranked by difficulty and are associated with each of the seven proficiency levels from 1b (easiest) to 6 (hardest). A student reaches a given proficiency level if the test results show that he or she has at least a 50% chance of performing a task at that level. Students are classified at the highest level at which they are proficient. In reading, one proficiency level is equal to 73 score points.

Information on data for Israel: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888932315602.

Going further

For additional material, notes and a full explanation of sourcing and methodologies, see PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science (Volume I).

Areas covered include:

  • Distribution of student reading performance on the PISA scale.
  • Mean score, variation and gender difference in student reading performance.

Further reading from the OECD

PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science (Volume I) (2009).

PISA 2009 Assessment Framework (2009).

Indicator in PDF Acrobat PDF page

S.1 Average student performance in reading, 2009
Average student performance in reading, 2009

Visit the OECD web site