Classic garden with modern skyscapers in background
Photo Credit: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center

In this series, we feature participating countries and their achievement and involvement in TIMSS and PIRLS. Hong Kong is participating in TIMSS 2015 and PIRLS 2016. Above: The Pavilion of Absolute Perfection at Nan Lian Garden in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong SAR has been a success story in reading achievement and PIRLS. After participating in PIRLS 2001 with modest results, Hong Kong implemented reforms and shot to the top in PIRLS 2006, and stayed at the top in PIRLS 2011.

Dr. Shek Kam Tse, a Professor at the University of Hong Kong and Director of its Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research, is the PIRLS Coordinator for Hong Kong SAR. He reflected on the region’s rise in reading achievement, shared thoughts on PIRLS 2016, and touched on the ongoing debate over the sequence of learning languages there — Cantonese, Putonghua, and English.

“In 2001, we learned a big lesson,” Tse recalled. “We ranked 14th, with 36 countries at the time. More than 20 newspapers reported the PIRLS results, and they criticized the government for not doing enough.”

View a slideshow from the 6th PIRLS NRC meeting »

With pressure from legislators and the community at large, members of the government and the university’s PIRLS team gave instructional talks to parents on improving students' reading. Authorities said parents didn’t do enough to help children read and that schools needed improvement in teaching reading, and called for an official reading policy. For three years starting in 2002, about 30 seminars for parents were held, with attendance usually topping 1,000, according to Tse. Such efforts were promoted through television, newspapers, and radio.

The government increased funding dramatically for purchasing books, Tse continued, and built more libraries. At many schools, for at least a half-hour daily the entire school would stop and focus on reading newspapers and books.

Professor Shek Kam Tse

Dr. Shek Kam Tse

The curriculum also changed. “Before that, Chinese language teachers believed in dictation and copying and rote learning,” which does not lead to comprehension, Tse said. Instruction shifted to motivating students to read for pleasure, teaching them reading strategies, and transitioning to longer, more substantive reading passages.

Tse said the initiatives paid off in PIRLS 2006, when Hong Kong SAR’s international ranking rose from number 14 to 2, and in PIRLS 2011, from number 2 to 1. In spite of this, opposition remains.

“There’s some teachers, some scholars, who object to this,” he said. “They want to go back to rote learning, classical literature. Quite a number of people still want this.”

Another issue of debate is the sequence of learning languages. PIRLS is assessed in written Chinese, which is understood across all dialects, but the spoken language of instruction can vary. Prior to 1997, when Hong Kong was a British colony, English was the dominant language and the one favored by most parents, Tse said. After 1997, Putonghua, translated as “the common tongue” and also known as Mandarin, became dominant, and the rationale was that learning Putonghua enabled students to do business in China one day.

“But Cantonese, our local language, is it not useful?” Tse asked. “People downplay this. We found the local language is important. Reading must start with the home language.”

Tse recalled that parents would leave the teaching of Putonghua to schools, especially if the parents lacked proficiency in Putonghua, but this led to lack of instruction and reinforcement at home. Tse asserted that home support is crucial to academic achievement from ages 0 to 9.

“People believe in immersion, but we found that’s not the case” for successful learning, Tse said. If a child’s home language is Cantonese but the child learns Putonghua in school, there is no comprehension, he said. But if the child starts with Cantonese, then there is comprehension.

He expanded on other contextual factors in learning, saying socioeconomic status has not been found to impact academic performance in Hong Kong because all schools get the same low subsidy, and that girls outperform boys in reading. Female students subsequently had a larger presence in fields like engineering and medical studies, and there were concerns that male students would be left behind.

Efforts among fathers to promote reading with boys and finding books that appeal to boys followed PIRLS 2001, and the gender gap narrowed in PIRLS 2006. However, Tse said it widened in PIRLS 2011 because the issue was overlooked after Hong Kong SAR’s success in PIRLS 2006.

For PIRLS 2016, Tse is eager to see if evidence matches theory and practice, particularly regarding what the best sequence of learning the languages is, and the best language for medium of instruction. Approximately 4,000 students and 139 schools will participate in PIRLS 2016 this spring.

“Large-scale research is very important to inform practice and policy, because otherwise it’s only belief,” he said. “Traditional research is only a small scale, the sample is very limited, maybe there’s cultural bias. But with PIRLS, we see all over the world.”