Reading ability in Welsh and English

The results of the first National Reading and Numeracy Tests were published last week and, even though these first results don't say too much because there is nothing to compare them with, there are still a few interesting things to be gleaned from them. The results can be downloaded from here.

With regard to reading, two main points have already been made in the media reports on the BBC, Wales Online and Golwg360. The first is that girls generally tend to do better than boys; and the second is that there is a marked dip in achievement between the last year of primary school (Year 6) and the first year of secondary school (Year 7).

However one of the things not picked up in the mainstream media is the difference between reading ability in Welsh and reading ability in English, with reading ability in Welsh being markedly higher. I've put together this graphic to illustrate the extent of the difference, click it to open a larger version.


In Year Groups 2 and 3 pupils took either the Welsh or the English reading test, according to the language in which they were being taught (some of the pupils being taught in Welsh in Year Group 3 were also tested in English, but those scores haven't been included). In the older Year Groups, all pupils took the English reading test, but only those being taught in Welsh took the Welsh reading test.

The scores for reading in Welsh are shown in red, with scores for reading in English shown in blue. Scores of between 85 and 115 are considered average and are centred on the axis, scores of less than 85 (shown darker on the left) are more than one standard deviation below the mean, and scores of above 115 (shown lighter on the right) are more than one standard deviation above the mean. Each bar is the same length (excluding only the very small percentages who were disapplied or absent) therefore the more the bar is shifted to the right of the axis, the better the overall score.

The Welsh bar is shifted more to the right in every year group tested, and in each of them a greater proportion of children achieved scores in the higher band in Welsh than in English. At the other end of the scale, there was only one instance (Year 8) where there was a larger percentage in the Welsh lower band than the English lower band. In total, the Welsh reading scores were 5.4% higher than the English reading scores.


As to the reason for this, I think it probably reflects the fact that Welsh is a much easier language to read than English, mainly because Welsh spelling is much more consistent than English spelling. As we'd expect, the difference is particularly evident in the early years. Nineteen times out of twenty (at a guess) a child will be able to understand a Welsh word they are unfamiliar with by pronouncing it as it is spelt, but English has so many irregular spellings that you can never be sure how to pronounce a word from the spelling alone. You need to work out what the word means from its context before knowing how to pronounce it correctly. This inherent advantage is reflected in the very low percentages of children that score below 85 in Welsh in Year 2 (0.8%) and Year 3 (2.7%). After that, English reading ability narrows the gap, but Welsh still remains comfortably ahead.

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