International Comparisons of Achievement

Two large-scale international studies have become established to compare countries' performance in the core subjects of literacy, mathematics and science.

TIMSS: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

TIMSS is an international study involving 50 countries that assesses math and science achievement at four year intervals. It has been running since 1995. Students are assessed in the 4th and 8th years of school, and in their final year. The next assessment round will be in 2007.

The study uses four benchmarks (advanced, high, intermediate, low) to gather a more complete picture of trends within a country. Thus we can not only approve high performing countries like Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Hong Kong, for having about 1/3 or more of their 8th grade students reach the advanced benchmark in mathematics, and about 2/3 to 3/4 reaching the high benchmark, but we can also note, for example, that although the Netherlands doesn't have high numbers reaching the advanced level (some 10% of 8th graders and 5% of 4th graders), it does at least do an excellent job of educating all its students, since 97% of its 8th graders and 99% of its 4th graders reach the low benchmark. It also enables us to spot trends across time — for example, in general, countries have improved their levels at the lower end, but not at the high end.


Grade 8 Advanced Benchmark

Students can organize information, make generalizations, solve non-routine problems, and draw and justify conclusions from data. They can compute percent change and apply their knowledge of numeric and algebraic concepts and relationships to solve problems. Students can solve simultaneous linear equations and model simple situations algebraically. They can apply their knowledge of measurement and geometry in complex problem situations. They can interpret data from a variety of tables and graphs, including interpolation and extrapolation.

Grade 8 High Benchmark

Students can apply their understanding and knowledge in a wide variety of relatively complex situations. They can order, relate, and compute with fractions and decimals to solve word problems, operate with negative integers, and solve multi-step word problems involving proportions with whole numbers. Students can solve simple algebraic problems including evaluating expressions, solving simultaneous linear equations, and using a formula to determine the value of a variable. Students can find areas and volumes of simple geometric shapes and use knowledge of geometric properties to solve problems. They can solve probability problems and interpret data in a variety of graphs and tables.

Grade 8 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic mathematical knowledge in straightforward situations. They can add, subtract, or multiply to solve one-step word problems involving whole numbers and decimals. They can identify representations of common fractions and relative sizes of fractions. They understand simple algebraic relationships and solve linear equations with one variable. They demonstrate understanding of properties of triangles and basic geometric concepts including symmetry and rotation. They recognize basic notions of probability. They can read and interpret graphs, tables, maps, and scales.

Grade 8 Low Benchmark

Students have some basic mathematical knowledge. The few items at this level provide some evidence that students can do basic computations with whole numbers without a calculator. They can select the two-place decimal closest to a whole number. They can multiply two-place decimal numbers by three-place decimal numbers with calculators available. They recognize some basic terminology and read information from a line on a graph.

Grade 4 Advanced Benchmark

Students can apply their understanding and knowledge in a wide variety of relatively complex situations. They demonstrate a developing understanding of fractions and decimals and the relationship between them. They can select appropriate information to solve multi-step word problems involving proportions. They can formulate or select a rule for a relationship. They show understanding of area and can use measurement concepts to solve a variety of problems. They show some understanding of rotation. They can organize, interpret, and represent data to solve problems.

Grade 4 High Benchmark

Student can apply their knowledge and understanding to solve problems. Student can solve multistep word problems involving addition, multiplication, and division. They can use their understanding of place value and simple fractions to solve problems. They can identify a number sentence that represents situations. Students show understanding of three-dimensional objects, how shapes can make other shapes, and simple transformation in a plane. They demonstrate a variety of measurement skills and can interpret and use data in tables and graphs to solve problems.

Grade 4 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic mathematical knowledge in straightforward situations. They can read, interpret, and use different representations of numbers. They can perform operations with three and four-digit numbers and decimals. They can extend simple patterns. They are familiar with a range of two-dimensional shapes and read and interpret different representations of the same data.

Grade 4 Low Benchmark

Students have some basic mathematical knowledge. Students demonstrate an understanding of whole numbers and can do simple computations with them. They demonstrate familiarity with the basic properties of triangles and rectangles. They can read information from simple bar graphs.


2003 Performance

In 2003, the international averages were:

Benchmark Grade 4 Grade 8
advanced 9% 7%
high 33% 23%
intermediate 63% 49%
low 82% 74%

There is quite a wide variation around these means. For example, Singapore is head and shoulders above everyone, scoring 44% advanced, 77% high, 93% intermediate, 99% low at grade 8, and 38% advanced, 73% high, 91% intermediate, 97% low at grade 4. The only countries that come close are also Asian: Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (for Grade 8; grade 4 figures weren't available). The highest of the remaining countries at grade 8 was Hungary at 11% advanced, 41% high, 75% intermediate, 95% low, and at grade 4 England at 14% advanced, 43% high, 75% intermediate, 93% low -- a substantial difference in results! But still a vast improvement over those at the bottom of the table. Here's 2 tables roughly grouping countries, using the top performing country in each group as a benchmark:

Grade 8 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 44% 77% 93% 99%
Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Japan        
above average countries (Hungary) 11% 41% 75% 95%
Hungary, Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Slovak Republic, Australia, United States        
slightly below average countries (Malaysia) 6% 30% 66% 93%
Malaysia, Russian Federation, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, England, New Zealand, Scotland        
below average countries (Romania) 4% 21% 52% 79%
Romania, Serbia, Sweden, Slovenia, Italy, Bulgaria, Armenia        
really below average countries (Cyprus) 1% 13% 45% 77%
Cyprus, Moldova, Macedonia, Jordan, Indonesia, Egypt, Norway, Lebanon, Palestinian National Authority, Iran, Chile, Philippines, Bahrain, South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Botswana, Saudi Arabia, Ghana        

note that the range at the bottom end is still very large; although most of the countries in the last category at least got over 50% to the low benchmark, 8 did not -- the worst only got 9% through.

Grade 4 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 38% 73% 91% 97%
Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Chinese Taipei        
above average countries (England) 14% 43% 75% 93%
England, Russian Federation, Belgium, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary        
slightly below average countries (Cyprus) 6% 30% 66% 93%
Cyprus, United States, Moldova, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand        
below average countries (Scotland) 4% 21% 52% 79%
Scotland, Slovenia, Armenia, Norway        
really below average countries (Philippines) 1% 13% 45% 77%
Philippines, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco        

note that there are substantially fewer countries' results available at grade 4

You can find out more about international comparisons of achievements in mathematics, science and reading at the official website for TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) & PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study):

The full 2003 Mathematics Report can be downloaded at:


Grade 8 Advanced Benchmark

Students demonstrate a grasp of some complex and abstract science concepts. They can apply knowledge of the solar system and of Earth features, processes, and conditions, and apply understanding of the complexity of living organisms and how they relate to their environment.

They show understanding of electricity, thermal expansion, and sound, as well as the structure of matter and physical and chemical properties and changes. They show understanding of environmental and resource issues. Students understand some fundamentals of scientific investigation and can apply basic physical principles to solve some quantitative problems. They can provide written explanations to communicate scientific knowledge.

Grade 8 High Benchmark

Students demonstrate conceptual understanding of some science cycles, systems, and principles. They have some understanding of Earth’s processes and the solar system, biological systems, populations, reproduction and heredity, and structure and function of organisms. They show some understanding of physical and chemical changes, and the structure of matter. They solve some basic physics problems related to light, heat, electricity, and magnetism, and they demonstrate basic knowledge of major environmental issues. They demonstrate some scientific inquiry skills. They can combine information to draw conclusions; interpret information in diagrams, graphs and tables to solve problems; and provide short explanations conveying scientific knowledge and cause/effect relationships.

Grade 8 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can recognize and communicate basic scientific knowledge across a range of topics. They recognize some characteristics of the solar system, water cycle, animals, and human health. They are acquainted with some aspects of energy, force and motion, light reflection, and sound. Students demonstrate elementary knowledge of human impact on and changes in the environment. They can apply and briefly communicate knowledge, extract tabular information, extrapolate from data presented in a simple linear graph, and interpret pictorial diagrams.

Grade 8 Low Benchmark

Students recognize some basic facts from the life and physical sciences. They have some knowledge of the human body and heredity, and demonstrate familiarity with some everyday physical phenomena. Students can interpret some pictorial diagrams and apply knowledge of simple physical concepts to practical situations.

Grade 4 Advanced Benchmark

Students can apply knowledge and understanding in beginning scientific inquiry. Students demonstrate some understanding of Earth’s features and processes and the solar system. They can communicate their understanding of structure, function, and life processes in organisms and classify organisms according to major physical and behavioral features. They demonstrate some understanding of physical phenomena and properties of common materials. Students demonstrate beginning scientific inquiry knowledge and skills.

Grade 4 High Benchmark

Students can apply knowledge and understanding to explain everyday phenomena. Students demonstrate some knowledge of Earth structure and processes and the solar system and some understanding of plant structure, life processes, and human biology. They demonstrate some knowledge of physical states, common physical phenomena, and chemical changes. They provide brief descriptions and explanations of some everyday phenomena and compare, contrast, and draw conclusions.

Grade 4 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic knowledge and understanding to practical situations in the sciences. Students demonstrate knowledge of some basic facts about Earth’s features and processes and the solar system. They recognize some basic information about human biology and health and show some understanding of development and life cycles of organisms. They know some basic facts about familiar physical phenomena, states, and changes. They apply factual knowledge to practical situations, interpret pictorial diagrams, and combine information to draw conclusions.

Grade 4 Low Benchmark

Students have some elementary knowledge of the earth, life, and physical sciences. Students recognize simple facts presented in everyday language and context about Earth’s physical features, the seasons, the solar system, human biology, and the development and characteristics of animals and plants. They recognize facts about a range of familiar physical phenomena — rainbows, magnets, electricity, boiling, floating, and dissolving. They interpret labeled pictures and simple pictorial diagrams and provide short written responses to questions requiring factual information.


2003 Performance

In 2003, the international averages were:

Benchmark Grade 4 Grade 8
advanced 7% 6%
high 30% 25%
intermediate 63% 54%
low 82% 78%

There is, again, wide variation around these means. Singapore is again head and shoulders above everyone. The only countries that come close are also Asian: Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (for Grade 8; grade 4 figures weren't available). The highest of the remaining countries at grade 8 was Hungary at 11% advanced, 41% high, 75% intermediate, 95% low, and at grade 4 England at 14% advanced, 43% high, 75% intermediate, 93% low — a substantial difference in results! But still a vast improvement over those at the bottom of the table. Here's 2 tables roughly grouping countries, using the top performing country in each group as a benchmark:

Grade 8 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 33% 66% 85% 95%
Singapore, Chinese Taipei        
above average countries (Republic of Korea) 17% 57% 88% 98%
Republic of Korea, Japan, Hungary, England, Hong Kong, Estonia        
slightly above average countries (United States) 11% 41% 75% 93%
United States, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, Slovak Republic, Netherlands, Lithuania, Slovenia, Russian Federation, Scotland        
slightly below average countries (Israel) 5% 24% 57% 85%
Israel, Latvia, Malaysia, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium, Jordan, Norway        
below average countries (Serbia) 2% 16% 48% 79%
Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova, Armenia, Palestinian National Authority, Egypt, Iran        
really below average countries (Chile) 1% 5% 24% 56%
Chile, South Africa, Cyprus, Bahrain, Indonesia, Lebanon, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Botswana, Ghana        

again the range at the bottom end is still very large; although many of the countries in the last category at least got over 50% to the low benchmark, 7 did not -- the worst only got 13% through.

Grade 4 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 25% 61% 86% 95%
Singapore, England, Chinese Taipei, United States, Japan        
above average countries (Russian Federation) 11% 39% 74% 93%
Russian Federation, Hungary, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Latvia, Hong Kong        
slightly below average countries (Scotland) 5% 27% 66% 90%
Scotland, Moldova, Netherlands, Lithuania, Slovenia, Belgium        
really below average countries (Cyprus) 2% 17% 55% 86%
Cyprus, Norway, Armenia        
really below average countries (Philippines) 2% 6% 19% 34%
Philippines, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco        

note that there are substantially fewer countries' results available at grade 4

You can find out more about international comparisons of achievements in mathematics, science and reading at the official website for TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) & PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study):

The full 2003 Science Report can be downloaded at:


PIRLS is an international study of reading literacy involving 35 countries. It began in 2001, and is intended to take place every five years. It assesses performance at year 4 (around 10 years of age), although in a few cases the students are in their 3rd or 5th year of formal schooling. The PIRLS 2001 assessment was based on eight different texts of 400 to 700 words in length – four literary and four informational. Test items were designed to measure four major processes of reading comprehension:

  • Focus on and Retrieve Explicitly Stated Information.
    The student needed to recognize the relevance of the information or ideas presented in the text in relation to the information sought, but looking for specific information or ideas typically involved locating a sentence or phrase (approximately 20% of the assessment).
  • Make Straightforward Inferences.
    Based mostly on information contained in the texts, usually these types of questions required students to connect two ideas presented in adjacent sentences and fill in a “gap” in meaning. Skilled readers often make these kinds of inferences automatically, recognizing the relationship even though it is not stated in the text (approximately 40%).
  • Interpret and Integrate Ideas and Information.
    For these questions, students needed to process the text beyond the phrase or sentence level. Sometimes they were asked to make connections that were not only implicit, but needed to draw on their own knowledge and experiences (approximately 25%).
  • Examine and Evaluate Content, Language, and Textual Elements.
    These questions required students to draw on their knowledge of text genre and structure, as well as their understanding of language conventions and devices (approximately 15%).

23 of the 35 countries had average reading scores significantly above the international average of 500; the range was large, with the highest scoring country (Sweden) scoring 561, compared to the lowest scoring 327 (Belize). I've grouped them into five categories according to performance. As with the TIMSS results, the highest performing country in the group is the one whose average score is given:

  average range1
highest performing countries (Sweden) 561  
Sweden, Netherlands, England, Bulgaria, Latvia, Canada, Lithuania, Hungary, United States, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic   542-561
above average countries (New Zealand) 529  
New Zealand, Scotland, Singapore, Russian Federation, Hong Kong, France, Greece   524-529
average countries (Slovak Republic) 518  
Slovak Republic, Iceland, Romania, Israel, Slovenia, Norway   499-518
below average countries (Cyprus) 494  
Cyprus, Moldova, Turkey, Macedonia   442-494
really below average countries (Colombia) 422  
Colombia, Argentina, Iran, Kuwait, Morocco, Belize   327-422

1. the difference between the country with the lowest average and the one with the highest average

It should be noted that the range of difference between the highest 5% and lowest 5% of students in most countries was 200 to 300 points -- similar to the range in average performance across countries.

In all countries, girls had significantly higher achievement than boys. Italy had the smallest difference, with an 8-point difference compared an 11-point or greater difference for all other countries. The international average was 20 points. Countries with a difference of 25 points or more included Moldova, New Zealand, Iran, Belize and Kuwait.

For more details on countries' performance, see

Although the PIRLS, like the TIMSS, used benchmarks, the performance on the benchmarks as a whole for each country doesn't seem to be available. However, you can read about benchmark items and countries' achievements on particular ones at

The full 2001 Literacy Report can be downloaded at:

International Curricula

A number of countries have national curricula: France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom. Most States in the U.S. follow common guidelines for a core curriculum, although there is no national curriculum as such.

Around the world, there is general agreement that primary/elementary schools must cover the national language, mathematics, science, history, geography, and social studies/civics. Most countries agree that the arts, physical education, health, ethics, life skills should also be covered.

The most obvious source of variation between countries at the elementary/primary level lies in the teaching of languages other than the national language. (In those cases where there is more than one national language, it is generally the case that the student has the option of selecting their native language). Despite the fact that it is generally recognized that languages are best learned young, and that there is no evidence that learning a second language impairs understanding of the child's native language, few countries require their young children to learn a second language, or even offer them the chance to do so.

Below are details of some national curricula:

England France Iceland Japan New Zealand Spain


Compulsory education is divided into four key stages:

  • Key stage 1 covers ages 5-7 (primary school)
  • Key stage 2 covers ages 7+-11 (primary school)
  • Key stage 3 covers ages 11-14 (lower secondary)
  • Key stage 4 covers ages 14-16 (lower secondary)

Students take national tests called SATs or Key Stage tests at the end of the first 3 key stages (at 7, 11 and 14).

At primary level (Key Stages 1 and 2), students study:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Design and technology
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • History
  • Geography
  • Art and design
  • Music
  • Physical education
  • Religious education

Schools are advised to teach personal, social and health education, citizenship and at least one modern foreign language, but these are not compulsory. In the first phase of the lower secondary level (Key Stage 3), students study:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science
  • Design and technology
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • History
  • Geography
  • Modern foreign languages
  • Art and design
  • Music
  • Citizenship
  • Physical education
  • Religious education, Personal, social and health education (PSHE), Careers education (compulsory, but not part of the National Curriculum)

Opportunity for optional subjects begins at Key Stage 4. The compulsory subjects are:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • Physical education
  • Citizenship
  • Religious education, careers education and sex education (compulsory, but not part of the National Curriculum)

You can read more about the English National Curriculum at:


In France, primary schools cover the first 5 years of formal education. Primary education is divided into three "cours":

  • cours préparatoire (CP)
  • cours élementaire 1 and 2 (CEl/CE2)
  • cours moyen 1 and 2 (CM1/CM2)

The first two occur in the first three years; the cours moyen cover the last two years.

Secondary schooling is divided into two successive stages, known as cycles. Collège goes from form 6 (sixième) to form 3 (troisième), covering ages 11-15. This last year at collège is the first point at which students have a choice regarding some of the subjects they wish to study. After collège, students move onto a general, technical or vocational lycée.

The 1990 primary level curriculum alloted French and social studies between 10 and 13 hours weekly; mathematics, science, and technology 6 to 10 hours; and physical and artistic education 6 to 8 hours. At collège, the national curriculum prescribes French, mathematics, a foreign language, history/geography/economics, civics, biology, plastic arts, music, technology, and physical education; physics and chemistry are added in the last two years. There is a choice between Latin, Greek, a second foreign language and extra classes in the first foreign language. In the final two years, there is a choice between different branches of technology.

Although students attend differently oriented lycée, the core subjects remain the same for all students (French, mathematics, a foreign language, history/geography/economics, civics, biology, physics, chemistry, technology, and physical education).


Compulsory school is divided into ten grades. Usually, schools either include all ten grades, or they cover grades one to seven or grades eight to ten. All compulsory schools are co-educational. Grades 1-4 (6 to 9 years) have 30 lessons a week, Grades 5-7 (10-12 years) have 35 lessons, and Grades 8-10 (13-15) have 37 lessons.

The National Curriculum specifies that over the course of these ten years, school time should be divided among the subjects in the following approximate ratios:

  • Icelandic 19%
  • Mathematics 17%
  • Natural sciences 9%
  • Social and religious studies 10%
  • Physical education 10%
  • Arts and crafts 11%
  • Modern languages 11%
  • Home economics 4%
  • ICT 6%
  • Life skills 2%

The first five are subjects which all pupils study from grade 1 through grade 9. Instruction in other subjects starts later. Both Danish and English become compulsory at later levels. In the 10th and final grade all pupils study Icelandic, mathematics, English, Danish, natural sciences, social studies, life skills and physical education, while other subjects and electives vary.

Upper secondary schools (not compulsory) come in four types:

  • grammar schools that offer four-year academic programmes of study;
  • industrial-vocational schools, which offer theoretical and practical programmes of study in skilled and some non-skilled trades;
  • comprehensive schools that provide academic programmes comparable to those of the grammar schools and vocational programmes similar to those offered by the industrial-vocational schools, as well as other specialised vocational training programmes;
  • specialised vocational schools which offer programmes of study in preparation for specialised employment.

For a friendly overview of the educational system:

For a more detailed discussion of the Icelandic system:


The Japanese education system consists of three years of pre-compulsory education (Kindergarten) (3- to 6-year-olds), six years of primary (elementary) education (6-12 years), three years of lower secondary (junior high school) education (aged 12-15) and three years of upper secondary education (senior high school) (15- to 18-year-olds). Some schools are being introduced combining lower and upper secondary education within one institution.

For elementary and secondary schools, the Ministry specifies how many hours (an "hour" is a class period of 45 minutes) per week must be spent on each subject at each year level. This is the prescription for elementary schools:

      1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year 6th year


    306 315 280 280 210 210
    Social studies     105 105 105 105


    136 175 175 175 175 175
    Science     105 105 105 105

    Life Environment studies

    102 105        


    68 70 70 70 70 70

    Drawing & Handicrafts

    68 70 70 70 70 70
    Homemaking         70 70

    Physical education

    102 105 105 105 105 105

    Moral education

    34 35 35 35 35 35
    Class/school activities 34 35 35 70 70 70


    850 910 980 1015 1015 1015

Here is the prescription for lower secondary schools (note that an "hour" is now defined as a period of 50 minutes):

  1st year 2nd year 3rd year


175 140 140
Social studies 140 140 70-105


105 140 140
Science 105 105 105-140


70 35-70 35

Fine Arts

70 35-70 35

Health & Physical education

105 105 105-140
Industrial Arts & Homemaking 70 70 70-105
Moral education 35 35 35
Class/school activities 35-70 35-70 35-70
Elective subjects 105-140 105-210 140-280


1050 1050 1050

For more details on the Japanese educational system, go to:

New Zealand

The New Zealand school system is divided into primary and secondary. Primary schooling covers the years from 5 to 12 (the compulsory starting age is 6, but it is the custom for children to begin at 5); secondary from 13-18. There are also schools known as intermediates, which cover Year 7 and 8 students (11-12 years). Some primary schools finish at Year 6, and their students go on to an intermediate; other primaries go up to Year 8, but their students may choose to go to an intermediate.

The New Zealand curriculum for primary and secondary school students includes seven essential learning areas: Language and Languages, Mathematics, Science, Technology, Social Sciences, The Arts, Health and Physical Well-being. The New Zealand Curriculum Framework also includes eight groups of essential skills to be developed by all students across the whole curriculum: communication, numeracy, information, problem-solving, self-management, social, physical, and work and study.

You can find a detailed description of the New Zealand curriculum at:


Three major sections comprise the compulsory Spanish curriculum - Infant education (0 to 6 years), Primary education (6 to 12 years), and Secondary education (12 to 16 years). Fifty-five percent of the curriculum is compulsory, and the remaining forty-five percent is the responsibility of the Spanish territories.

Primary Education (6-12 years) is organized into three two-year cycles (6-8, 8-10,10-12). The curriculum stipulates six compulsory areas of knowledge:

  • Spanish Language and Literature, and where appropriate, the Language and Literature in the respective Autonomous Community;
  • Mathematics;
  • Natural, Social and Cultural Environment (science, geography, history);
  • Artistic Education (art, music, drama);
  • Physical Education;
  • Foreign Languages (compulsory from age 8 -- the start of the second primary cycle).

The number of school hours per cycle is also stipulated:

  1st cycle 2nd & 3rd cycles
Spanish Language & Literature 350 275
Mathematics 175 170
Knowledge of the Environment 175 170
Artistic Education 140 105
Physical Education 140 105
Foreign language   170
Religion/Social-cultural activities 105 105


1085 1100

Lower secondary education (12-16 years) is organised into 2 two-year cycles.Each subject area is assigned a minimum number of class hours, which together must not account for over 55% of the school schedule in Autonomous Communities with a co-official language other than Spanish, or more than 65% in other areas.

  1st cycle 2nd cycle
Spanish Language & Literature 245 240
Foreign languages 210 240
Mathematics 175 160
Natural Science 140 90
Social Studies, Geography, History 140 160
Physical Education 70 70
Plastic & Visual Education 35 35
Music 35 35
Technology 125 70
Religion/Study Hall 105 105


1280 1205

You can read more about the Spanish educational system at

More links

If you're looking for official US information, here's a list of weblinks to the national and State Departments of Education: List of US Education Depts

To find your national or State curriculum, or investigate others, go to EDinformatics

More details comparing different countries' educational systems including curriculum information can be found at: [note this a pdf file]

International Comparisons

Compulsory Education: When it starts and how long it lasts

Around the world, for the most part, compulsory schooling starts at 6, although some start at 7, and a very few at 5 or even younger. There is less consensus about how long compulsory education should last, but 9 years is the most common length, with 10 years running a close second.

Although most countries are at least consistent within their own borders, a few countries have no national policy, but instead operate at a state/provincial level. Thus, in the United States, commencement age ranges from 5-7, depending on state, and length of compulsory education varies from 9 years to 13. Similarly, in Canada, commencement age is either 6 or 7, and students are required to attend school for 10 to 13 years. Australia and Germany likewise show variability between states/Länder, but not to the same extent.

International Comparisons

  Commencement of compulsory schooling No. of years compulsory education
Australia 6 9-101
Austria 6 9
Belgium 6 12
Canada 6/71 10-131
Czech Republic 6 9
Denmark 7 9
Finland 7 9
France 6 10
Germany 6 9-10 full-time + 3 part-time1
Greece 6 9
Hungary 6 12
Iceland 6 10
Ireland 6 9
Italy 6 9
Japan 6 9
Korea 6 9
Luxembourg 6 10
Netherlands 5 12 + 1 part-time
New Zealand 62 10
Norway 6 10
Poland 7 12
Portugal 6 8
Singapore 6/7 104
Spain 6 10
Sweden 7 9
Switzerland 6 9
United Kingdom 53; 4 in Nth Ireland 11
United States 5/6/71 (most commonly 6) 9-131
  1. varies between states/provinces
  2. 6 is compulsory, but 5 is universal
  3. 5 is compulsory, but many children start at 4
  4. 6 years are compulsory; an extra 4 is universal but not compulsory

United States: Variation between States


Compulsory Education






6-16 (or completion of grade 10)











District of Columbia










































New Hampshire


New Jersey


New Mexico


New York


North Carolina


North Dakota










Rhode Island


South Carolina


South Dakota









6-16 (or completion of grade 10)





West Virginia





7-16 (or completion of grade 10)

[information taken from]

Canada: Variation between Provinces/Territories


Compulsory Education



British Columbia








Northwest Territories




New Brunswick


Nova Scotia


Prince Edward Island






[information taken from ]

School structure: Segregating by ability

This refers to the custom in some countries of having completely separate schools for students of different academic ability (generally an "academic" school versus a "vocational" or "technical" school), rather than to the practice of streaming within schools.

No country that I know of segregates children at primary level, but a number choose to do so at secondary level. Germany and Hungary do so at a younger age than most, although England, the Netherlands and Switzerland also offer the option of attending a school that caters only for academic or non-academic students (as opposed to enforced segregation). The practice of separate schools is a little more common at upper secondary level: France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Switzerland join the ranks of those enforcing a choice, and Spain provides the option. Australia, Canada, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States don't have the practice of having separate schools for those of different ability, although Canada did to some extent, and some of these schools still exist.

School structure: Progression between classes

There is no strong majority in favor of either allowing students to automatically move on to the next class or requiring them to reach a certain standard. Australia, England, Ireland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Wales automatically move their students on, Canada does at the primary level and sometimes does at the secondary level, and Italy generally does at the primary level but mostly doesn't at the secondary level. France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Switzerland require their students to reach a certain standard. And Sweden and the United States sometimes do and sometimes don't.

Textbook selection

There's an interesting range among countries as regards school textbooks. In some cases, it's entirely up to the teacher. In other cases, school boards or other official bodies determine what will be used. Some Governments supply a list of "approved" textbooks, from which texts must be chosen.

Teachers have free choice in Australia, Canada, England & Wales, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and some American States. Recommended lists are provided in Canada, Hungary, Spain, and Switzerland. An official list of approved texts is provided in France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and in about half of American States.


More details comparing different countries' educational systems can be found at: [note this a pdf file]

Sleep and cognition in children

A U.S. survey provides evidence that both children and adolescents tend to be getting less sleep than needed.

Depression, lower self-esteem, and lower grades, have all been found to be correlated with sleep deprivation in middle-school children.

Sleep disturbance in infants and young children has also been found to be associated with lower cognitive performance.

We all know that lack of sleep makes us more prone to attentional failures, more likely to make mistakes, makes new information harder to learn, old information harder to retrieve ... We all know that, right? And yet, so many of us still go to bed too late to get the sleep we need to function well. Of course, some of us go to sleep early enough, we just can’t get to sleep fast enough, or are prone to waking in the night. (Personally, I can count the times I’ve slept through the night without waking in the last fifteen years on my fingers).

I talk about the effect of sleep on memory elsewhere; I want to talk here about a sleep problem that we don’t tend to think about so much — the sleep deficit children are running.

A survey commissioned by the National Sleep Foundation found that 3-to-6-year-olds in the U.S. get about 10.4 hours sleep nightly, while experts recommend 11 to 13 hours. 1st graders to 5th graders who should be getting 10 to 11 hours are averaging just 9.5 hours.

And a study of middle-school children (11 to 14 year olds) found a direct correlation between sleep deprivation and depression, lower self-esteem, and lower grades. "The fewer hours of sleep that children got, the more depressed they were, the higher number of depressive symptoms [they had], and the lower their self-esteem and the lower their grades."

The second largest growth spurt occurs during these years (usually 10-14 for girls; 11-16 for boys), so this is a time when a lot of sleep is needed. But it’s also a time when children become more capable and more independent; when they’re likely to start taking on a lot more activities, work harder and longer, and are monitored less by their parents and caregivers. So ... it’s not surprising, when we stop and think about it, that a lot of these children are starting to pick up the bad habits of their parents — not getting enough sleep.

Which also points, in part, to the solution: if you’re a parent, remember that your children are, as always, modeling themselves on you. And sleep habits usually reflect a household pattern. If you’re a teacher, remember you need to educate the family, not just the child.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have identified adolescents and young adults (ages 12 to 25 years) as a population at high risk for problem sleepiness based on "evidence that the prevalence of problem sleepiness is high and increasing with particularly serious consequences."

Sleep disturbance in infants and young children has also been found to be associated with lower cognitive performance. Previous studies have looked at the severe end of the spectrum of sleep disorders — obstructive sleep apnea. More alarmingly, a new study of 205 5-year-old children found even mild sleep-disordered breathing symptoms (frequent snoring, loud or noisy breathing during sleep) were associated with poorer executive function and memory skills and lower general intelligence.

Before you panic, please note that some 30% of the participants had SBD symptoms, so it’s hardly uncommon (although there may have been a bias towards children with these symptoms; it does seem surprisingly high). You might also like to note that I personally had a blocked nose my entire childhood (always breathed through my mouth, and yes, of course I snored) and it didn’t stop me being top of the class, so ...

Nor is the research yet developed enough to know precisely what the connection is between SBD and cognitive impairment. However, it does seem that, if something can be done about the problem, it is probably worth doing (in my case, taking me off dairy would probably have fixed the problem! but of course noone had any idea of such factors back then).

Here’s a few links that may be of interest to parents and teachers:

ScienCentral article on the middle-school study:

The NSF Sleep poll 

a look at the school start times debate (I find this fairly amazing actually, because here in New Zealand, our children usually start school around 9am; the thought of kids starting school at 7.30 sends me into a spin!)

The National Sleep Foundation also has a site for children who want to learn about sleep and healthy sleep habits: For children from 7 up; with educational games and activities, as well as a downloadable copy of NSF’s new Sleep Diary designed especially for children.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 newsletter.

Research from the National Reading Panel

A meta-analysis of the research on phonemic awareness training showed quite clearly the benefits of this technique, as a component of a successful reading program.

Similarly, the detailed analysis of many studies involving phonics instruction revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read.

However, systematic phonics instruction requires phonemic awareness training to be effective, and, like phonemic awareness, must be only one component of a reading program — it is not sufficient in itself.

A review of the research also found that guided repeated oral reading procedures had a significant and positive impact on word recognition, fluency, and comprehension across a range of grade levels.

There is still insufficient research evidence obtained from studies of high methodological quality to support the idea that having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback improves reading achievement, including fluency.

The available data do suggest that independent silent reading is not an effective practice when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills, particularly with students who have not yet developed critical alphabetic and word reading skills.

The research done in vocabulary instruction and text comprehension was insufficient to enable the Panel to carry out the type of meta-analysis done for phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. The Panel did however make various recommendations regarding specific strategies on the basis of their analysis of the research.


In 1997, the U.S. Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. For over two years, the National Reading Panel reviewed research-based knowledge on reading instruction and held open panel meetings in Washington, DC, and regional meetings across the United States. On April 13, 2000, the NRP concluded its work and submitted "The Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read."

Below are edited excerpts from the report, regarding their findings on a variety of reading instruction strategies.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemes are the smallest units composing spoken language. For example, the words “go” and “she” each consist of two sounds or phonemes. Instruction in phonemic awareness (PA) involves teaching children to focus on and manipulate phonemes in spoken syllables and words. PA instruction should not be confused with phonics instruction (see below), or with auditory discrimination, which refers to the ability to recognize whether two spoken words are the same or different.

An extensive and rigorous analysis of studies involving PA training found that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels and that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to PA.

The evidence seems very clear that PA training caused improvement in students’ phonemic awareness, reading, and spelling. PA instruction also helped normally achieving children learn to spell, but was not effective for improving spelling in disabled readers.

The characteristics of PA training found to be most effective in enhancing PA, reading, and spelling skills included:

  • explicitly and systematically teaching children to manipulate phonemes with letters,
  • focusing the instruction on one or two types of phoneme manipulations rather than multiple types,
  • teaching children in small groups.

It is important to note that PA instruction is a component of a successful reading program, not a complete reading program.

It is also important to note that there are many ways to teach PA effectively, and that the motivation of both students and their teachers is a critical ingredient of success.

Phonics instruction

Phonics instruction is a way of teaching reading that stresses the acquisition of letter-sound correspondences and their use in reading and spelling. The primary focus of phonics instruction is to help beginning readers understand how letters are linked to sounds (phonemes) to form letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns and to help them learn how to apply this knowledge in their reading. Phonics instruction may be provided systematically or incidentally. A variety of systematic approaches are listed below. In incidental phonics instruction, the teacher simply highlights particular elements opportunistically when they appear in text.

The detailed analysis of studies involving phonics instruction revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read.

The ability to read and spell words was enhanced in kindergartners who received systematic beginning phonics instruction. First graders who were taught phonics systematically were better able to decode and spell, and they showed significant improvement in their ability to comprehend text. Older children receiving phonics instruction were better able to decode and spell words and to read text orally, but their comprehension of text was not significantly improved.

Systematic synthetic phonics instruction also had a positive and significant effect on disabled readers’ reading skills. Additionally, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving low socioeconomic status children’s alphabetic knowledge and word reading skills than instructional approaches that were less focused on these initial reading skills.

Across all grade levels, systematic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell. The impact was strongest for kindergartners and decreased in later grades. For poor readers, the impact of phonics instruction on spelling was small.

Although conventional wisdom has suggested that kindergarten students might not be ready for phonics instruction, this assumption was not supported by the data. The effects of systematic early phonics instruction were significant and substantial in kindergarten and the 1st grade, indicating that systematic phonics programs should be implemented at those age and grade levels.

While the findings provide converging evidence that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is a valuable and essential part of a successful classroom reading program, there is a need to be cautious in giving a blanket endorsement of all kinds of phonics instruction. In particular, to be able to make use of letter-sound information, children need phonemic awareness. Programs that focus too much on the teaching of letter-sound relations and not enough on putting them to use are unlikely to be very effective. Systematic phonics instruction is only one component—albeit a necessary component—of a total reading program; systematic phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading instruction in phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension strategies to create a complete reading program. Unfortunately, there is as yet insufficient research to tell us exactly how phonics instruction can be most effectively incorporated into a successful reading program.

Phonics Instructional Approaches

Analogy Phonics —Teaching students unfamiliar words by analogy to known words (e.g., recognizing that the rime segment of an unfamiliar word is identical to that of a familiar word, and then blending the known rime with the new word onset, such as reading brick by recognizing that -ick is contained in the known word kick, or reading stump by analogy to jump).

Analytic Phonics—Teaching students to analyze letter-sound relations in previously learned words to avoid pronouncing sounds in isolation.

Embedded Phonics—Teaching students phonics skills by embedding phonics instruction in text reading, a more implicit approach that relies to some extent on incidental learning.

Phonics through Spelling—Teaching students to segment words into phonemes and to select letters for those phonemes (i.e., teaching students to spell words phonemically).

Synthetic Phonics —Teaching students explicitly to convert letters into sounds (phonemes) and then blend the sounds to form recognizable words.


Fluency is one of several critical factors necessary for reading comprehension. Despite its importance as a component of skilled reading, fluency is often neglected in the classroom. Reading practice is generally recognized as an important contributor to fluency. Two instructional approaches, each of which has several variations, have typically been used to teach reading fluency:

  • guided repeated oral reading - encourages students to read passages orally with systematic and explicit guidance and feedback from the teacher
  • independent silent reading - encourages students to read silently on their own, inside and outside the classroom, with minimal guidance or feedback

On the basis of a detailed analysis of the available research that met NRP methodological criteria, the Panel concluded that guided repeated oral reading procedures that included guidance from teachers, peers, or parents had a significant and positive impact on word recognition, fluency, and comprehension across a range of grade levels. These studies were conducted in a variety of classrooms in both regular and special education settings with teachers using widely available instructional materials.

These results apply to all students—good readers as well as those experiencing reading difficulties. Nevertheless, there were important gaps in the research. In particular, the Panel could find no multiyear studies providing information on the relationship between guided oral reading and the emergence of fluency.

Independent Silent Reading

There has been widespread agreement that encouraging students to engage in wide, independent, silent reading increases reading achievement. Literally hundreds of correlational studies find that the best readers read the most and that poor readers read the least. These correlational studies suggest that the more that children read, the better their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. However, these findings are correlational in nature, and correlation does not imply causation.

Unfortunately only 14 of the studies that examined the effect of independent silent reading on reading achievement could meet the NRP research review methodology criteria, and these studies varied widely in their methodological quality and the reading outcome variables measured. Thus, a meta-analysis could not be conducted. Rather, the 14 studies were examined individually and in detail to identify converging trends and findings in the data.

With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency.

In other words, even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence obtained from studies of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills.

The available data do suggest that independent silent reading is not an effective practice when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills, particularly with students who have not yet developed critical alphabetic and word reading skills.


Vocabulary Instruction

The importance of vocabulary knowledge has long been recognized in the development of reading skills. For various reasons, a formal meta-analysis could not be conducted. Instead the vocabulary instruction database was reviewed for trends across studies. Fifty studies dating from 1979 to the present were reviewed in detail. There were 21 different methods represented in these studies.

The studies reviewed suggest that vocabulary instruction does lead to gains in comprehension, but that methods must be appropriate to the age and ability of the reader.

The following approaches appeared to be helpful:

  • learning words before reading a text
  • techniques such as task restructuring and repeated exposure (including having the student encounter words in various contexts)
  • substituting easy words for more difficult words can assist low-achieving students.
  • use of computers in vocabulary instruction was found to be more effective than some traditional methods in a few studies
  • vocabulary also can be learned incidentally in the context of storybook reading or in listening to others

The Panel concluded that:

  • vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly
  • repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important
  • learning in rich contexts, incidental learning, and use of computer technology all enhance the acquisition of vocabulary
  • direct instruction should include task restructuring as necessary and should actively engage the student
  • dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning.

They also concluded that, while much is known about the importance of vocabulary to success in reading, there is little research on the best methods or combinations of methods of vocabulary instruction and the measurement of vocabulary growth and its relation to instruction methods.

Text Comprehension Instruction

Comprehension is defined as “intentional thinking during which meaning is constructed through interactions between text and reader” (Harris & Hodges, 1995). Thus, readers derive meaning from text when they engage in intentional, problem solving thinking processes. The data suggest that text comprehension is enhanced when readers actively relate the ideas represented in print to their own knowledge and experiences and construct mental representations in memory.

In its review, the Panel identified 16 categories of text comprehension instruction of which 7 appear to have a solid scientific basis for concluding that these types of instruction improve comprehension in non-impaired readers. Some of these types of instruction are helpful when used alone, but many are more effective when used as part of a multiple-strategy method. The types of instruction are:

  • Comprehension monitoring, where readers learn how to be aware of their understanding of the material;
  • Cooperative learning, where students learn reading strategies together;
  • Use of graphic and semantic organizers (including story maps), where readers make graphic representations of the material to assist comprehension;
  • Question answering, where readers answer questions posed by the teacher and receive immediate feedback;
  • Question generation, where readers ask themselves questions about various aspects of the story;
  • Story structure, where students are taught to use the structure of the story as a means of helping them recall story content in order to answer questions about what they have read; and
  • Summarization, where readers are taught to integrate ideas and generalize from the text information.

In general, the evidence suggests that teaching a combination of reading comprehension techniques is the most effective. When students use them appropriately, they assist in recall, question answering, question generation, and summarization of texts. When used in combination, these techniques can improve results in standardized comprehension tests.

Nevertheless, some questions remain unanswered. More information is needed on ways to teach teachers how to use such proven comprehension strategies. The literature also suggests that teaching comprehension in the context of specific academic areas—for example, social studies—can be effective. If this is true of other subject areas, then it might be efficient to teach comprehension as a skill in content areas.

Questions remain as to which strategies are most effective for which age groups. More research is necessary to determine whether the techniques apply to all types of text genres, including narrative and expository texts, and whether the level of difficulty of the texts has an impact on the effectiveness of the strategies. Finally, it is critically important to know what teacher characteristics influence successful instruction of reading comprehension.


National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Retrieved September 2, 2004 from


Poor readers may be divided into two groups: those whose problems stem primarily from an innate disruption in their neural systems, and those whose problems stem from deprivation.

In both cases, early intervention is very important.

In both cases, training specifically aimed at activating or strengthening specific neural circuitry is required.

Although individuals will have different impairments requiring instructional programs focusing on different skill components, an effective reading program will need to involve phonemic awareness training.

Encouragingly, there are now a number of training programs that have had positive results with retraining the brains of dyslexics.

Reading problems are more common in boys, and it appears that the genders develop different neural connections at different times. It may be that current reading programs favor the pattern of development in girls (I'm speculating here).

Types of reading disability

A longitudinal study that used imaging to compare brain activation patterns has identified two types of reading disability:

  • a primarily inherent type with higher cognitive ability (poor readers who compensate for disability), and
  • a more environmentally influenced type with lower cognitive skills and attendance at more disadvantaged schools (persistently poor readers).

It seems, compensated poor readers are able to overcome some of the disability, improving their ability to read words accurately and to understand what they read, while persistently poor readers continue to experience difficulties.Brain activation patterns showed a disruption in the neural systems for reading in compensated readers (specifically, a relative underactivation in posterior neural systems for reading located in left parietotemporal and occipitotemporal regions), while persistently poor readers had the neural circuitry for reading real words, but it had not been properly activated.These results point to the importance of providing early interventions aimed at stimulating both the ability to sound out words and to understand word meanings for children at risk for reading difficulties associated with disadvantage.

The importance of childhood environment is also emphasized by a study of older adults that found that the larger a person's head in adulthood, the less likely their cognitive abilities are to decline in later years. Head size in adulthood is determined in infancy: during the first year of life, babies' brains double in size, and by the time they are six, their brain weight has tripled. These, it appears, are the crucial years for laying down brain cells and neural connections — pointing to the importance of providing both proper nourishment and intellectual stimulation in these early years.

Impaired reading skills are found in some 20% of children - in boys, more than girls. Dyslexia - a disability which is found across all socioeconomic classes and all ethnicities - may be thought of as the low end of a continuum of reading ability. Training that helps dyslexics can also help those whose problems with reading are of lesser magnitude.

Gender differences

It has been suggested that the reason reading disabilities are more common among boys is that teachers simply tend to recognize the problem in boys more often, but it does now seem clear that boys really do have more reading difficulties than girls. Analysis of four large-scale studies of reading in children, involving some 9,800 children, found about 20% of the boys had reading disabilities compared with about 11% of the girls.

An EEG study of gender differences in the emerging connectivity of neural networks associated with phonological processing, verbal fluency, higher-level thinking and word retrieval (skills needed for beginning reading) in preschoolers confirms different patterns of growth in building connections between boys and girls. These differences point to the different advantages each gender brings to learning to read, and suggests the need for different emphases in teaching boys and girls to read. Boys favor vocabulary sub-skills needed for comprehension while girls favor fluency and phonic sub-skills needed for the mechanics of reading.

Reading programs

No educational system in the world has mastered the problem of literacy; every existing system produces an unacceptably high level of failures. So, we cannot point to a particular program of instruction and say, this is the answer. Indeed, I am certain that such an aim would be foredoomed to failure - given the differences between individuals, how can anyone believe that there is some magic bullet that will work on everyone?

Having said that, we have a far greater idea now of the requirements of an effective literacy program. One of the reasons for that is the work of the National Reading Panel in the United States, which spent some three years analyzing a huge number of studies into various aspects of reading instruction. I have summarized their findings here.

Direct instruction in specific components of reading skills is clearly only part, albeit a major part, of improving literacy. There is also the role of providing a stimulating environment, most particularly in the very early years. Little is known about the precise nature of the stimulation that would be most productive for providing the foundation for later literacy, but we may speculate that, apart form the obvious (being read to, etc), music may also be beneficial. Although I am not aware of any studies specifically looking at the possible benefits of music training for developing reading skills in children, recent research does provide evidence that giving children music instruction benefits their verbal memory.


Dyslexics who are identified at a very early age (1st grade or earlier) have significantly fewer problems in learning to read than those who are not diagnosed until later. About 74%of the children with dyslexia who are poor readers in 3rd grade remain poor readers in the 9th grade, and often can’t read well as adults either. The earlier dyslexia is recognized and proper instruction given the better. Dyslexia tends to run in families.

Other research also points to the importance of early intervention.The brains of children with learning problems not only appear to develop more slowly than those of their unaffected counterparts but also actually may stop developing around the time of puberty's onset. In the study, children with impairments started out about three years behind, but their rate of improvement was very similar to that of the children without impairments — until around 10 years, when further development in the children with learning problems stopped.

What causes dyslexia?

We always want simple answers, but, as so often, it seems likely that there is no single, simple answer to the problem of dyslexia. Imaging studies have revealed that different phonological skills relate to activity in different parts of the brain when children read.There are probably several neurobiological profiles that correspond to different subtypes of dyslexia, each associated with varying deficits in different phonological skills.

For example, a key predictor of reading problems is lack of a skill called "rapid naming" - basically, being able to quickly retrieve the names of very familiar letters and numbers. It's been suggested that inability to rapidly name, and inability to differentiate between sounds, may be separate causes of dyslexia.

Interestingly, confirming a very old theory of dyslexia, it seems that normally developing readers learn to suppress the visual images reported by the right hemisphere of the brain - these images potentially interfere with input from the left. Dyslexic readers also appear to process auditory and visual sensory cues differently than do normal readers. During an auditory matching task, dyslexic readers showed increased activity in the visual pathway of the brain, while that same region deactivated in normal readers.

The tendency for dyslexia to run in families points to a genetic aspect. It has been found that brain images of people with a family history of dyslexia show significant reduction of gray matter in centers associated with language processing.

How to help dyslexics

A number of educational tools have been developed to teach people with dyslexia to read. Remembering that dyslexia is a label for a variety of different skill deficits, it is not surprising that an effective training program is not the same for everyone. The dyslexic person’s individual strengths and weaknesses must be assessed to find the program that will help best.

What is exciting is the converging evidence in recent years that it is indeed possible to re-train dyslexic brains. Clearly, the earlier the better, but one encouraging recent study found clear evidence for the benefits of a comprehensive reading program for dyslexic children aged 11-12 years. The study mapped the brain activation patterns of dyslexic children and good readers of the same age during two types of reading tests: phoneme mapping (which tests the ability to make correct associations between letters or letter combinations and sounds in nonsense words - e.g., if oa in ploat stands for the same sound as ow in crow) and morpheme mapping (having to decide if one word comes from another word - e.g., builder and build (yes); corner and corn (no)).

Both groups of children were found to use the same specific parts of their brains to perform the reading tasks, however, the activation of these regions was much weaker in the dyslexic children. The children with dyslexia then received a three-week training program based on principles outlined by the National Reading Panel Research findings of the NRP). After this program the levels of brain activation were found to be essentially the same in the two groups.The improvement in activation in the dyslexics was mirrored in improved reading scores.

Another recent study used an interactive computer game called MovingToRead (MTR) to significantly improve reading skills in poor second-grade readers within three months by practicing left-right movement discrimination for 5 to 10 minutes once or twice a week. It has been suggested that immature motion pathways — the circuit of neurons that helps readers determine the location of letters of a word and words on a page — may be related to reading problems in children. The therapy appears to be most effective with second-graders (age 7).

Other studies, such as Fast ForWord, and the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing program (LiPS), also appear to have had good results. The point is not so much that any one specific program is the answer. Remember that different dyslexics will have different impairments, and accordingly, different programs will be effective for different individuals. Having said that, there are some common aspects to these programs. In particular, any such program should emphasize phoneme awareness.

Homework: is it worth it?

Overall, homework does appear to result in higher levels of achievement for older students (at the secondary level).

For these students, more time spent on homework is associated with higher levels of achievement, although there is probably a level beyond which more is counterproductive (perhaps at three hours a day).

For students aged 11-13, homework appears to be of benefit, but not to the same degree as for older students.

For these students, spending more than an hour or two on homework does not result in greater benefit.

There is little evidence of benefit for students younger than 11, although it can be plausibly argued that small amounts of homework can have an indirect benefit for promoting good study habits and attitudes to learning.

The Suggested Benefits of Homework

The most obvious presumed benefit of homework is, of course, that it will improve students' understanding and retention of the material covered. However, partly because this (most measurable) benefit has not been consistently demonstrated, it has also been assumed that homework has less direct benefits:

  • improving study skills, especially time management
  • teaching students that learning can take place outside the classroom
  • involving parents
  • promoting responsibility and self-discipline

The Possible Negative Effects of Homework

Probably the most obvious negative effect is the stress homework can produce in both student and parent. Homework can be a major battleground between parent and child, and in such cases, it's hard to argue that it's worth it. There are other potential problems with homework:

  • homework demands can limit the time available to spend on other beneficial activities, such as sport and community involvement
  • too much homework can lead to students losing interest in the subject, or even in learning
  • parents can confuse students by using teaching methods different from those of their teachers
  • homework can widen social inequalities
  • homework may encourage cheating

What Research Tells Us

Because homework has been a difficult variable to study directly, uncontaminated by other variables, research has produced mixed and inconclusive results. However, it does seem that the weight of the evidence is in favor of homework. According to Cooper's much-cited review of homework studies, there have been 20 studies since 1962 that compared the achievement of students who receive homework with students given no homework. Of these, 14 showed a benefit from doing homework, and six didn't.

The clearest point is the striking influence of age. There seems, from these studies, to be a clear and significant benefit to doing homework for high school students. Students 11 to 13 years of age also showed a clear benefit, but it was much smaller. Students below this age showed no benefit.

Perhaps this explains why high school tutors are so popular! The findings do seem to provide some support for their usefulness, since one-to-one tutoring may be thought of as individualized and tailored homework - the best sort of homework.

In 50 studies, time students reported spending on homework was correlated with their achievement. 43 of the 50 studies showed that students who did more homework achieved more; only 7 studies showed the opposite. The effect was greatest for the high school students and, again, didn't really exist for the elementary school students.For the students in the middle age range (11-13 years), more time spent on homework was associated with higher levels of achievement only up to one to two hours; more than this didn't lead to any more improvement.

TIMSS, however, found little correlation between amount of homework and levels of achievement in mathematics. While they did find that, on average, students who reported spending less than an hour a day on homework had lower average science achievement than classmates who reported more out-of-school study time, spending a lot of time studying was not necessarily associated with higher achievement. Students who reported spending between one and three hours a day on out-of-school study had average achievement that was as high as or higher than that of students who reported doing more than three hours a day.

Two British studies found that while homework in secondary schools produced better exam results, the influence was relatively small. Students who spent seven hours a week or more on a subject achieved about a third of an A level grade better than students of the same gender and ability who spent less than two hours a week.

How much homework is 'right'?

A survey conducted by the United States Bureau of the Census (1984) found that public elementary school students reported spending an average of 4.9 hours and private school elementary students 5.5 hours a week on homework. Public high school students reported doing 6.5 hours and private school students 14.2 hours. Recent research studies by the Brown Center on Education Policy concluded that the majority of U.S. students (83% of nine-year-olds; 66% of thirteen-year-olds; 65% of seventeen-year-olds) spend less than an hour a day on homework, and this has held true for most of the past 50 years. In the last 20 years, homework has increased only in the lower grade levels, where it least matters (and indeed, may be counterproductive).

In America, NEA and the National PTA recommendations are in line with those suggested by Harris Cooper: 10 to 20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (giving 2 hours for 12th grade).

In Britain, the Government has laid down guidelines, recommending that children as young as five should do up to an hour a week of homework on reading, spelling and numbers, rising to 1.5 hours per week for 8-9 year olds, and 30 minutes a day for 10-11 year olds. The primary motivation for the Government policy on this seems to be a hope that this will reduce the time children spend watching TV, and, presumably, instill good study habits.

TIMSS found that students on average across all the TIMSS 1999 countries spent one hour per day doing science homework, and 2.8 hours a day on all homework (the United States was below this level). On average across all countries, 36% of students reported spending one hour or more per day doing science homework.

There is some evidence that the relationship between time on homework and academic achievement may be curvilinear: pupils doing either very little or a great deal of homework tend to perform less well at school than those doing 'moderate' amounts. Presumably the association between lots of homework and poorer performance occurs because hard work is not the only factor to consider in performance -- ability and strategic skills count for a great deal, and it is likely that many very hard-working students work so long because they lack the skills to work more effectively.

What makes homework effective?

By which I mean, what factors distinguish "good", i.e. useful, homework, from less productive (and even counterproductive) homework. This is the $64,000 question, and, unfortunately, research can tell us very little about it.

Cooper did conclude that there is considerable evidence that homework results in better achievement if material is distributed across several assignments rather than concentrated only on material covered in class that day.

There is no evidence that parental involvement helps, although it may well be that parental involvement can help, if done appropriately. Unfortunately, parental involvement can often be inappropriate.

Can students really watch TV or listen to music while doing homework?

A burning question for many parents!

A British study found that watching TV while doing homework was associated with poorer quality of work and more time spent. However, simply listening to the soundtrack did not affect the quality of the work or time spent. It's assumed that it's the constant task-switching caused by looking back and forth between the screen and the work that causes the negative effect. From this, it would also seem that listening to the radio should not be a problem. It's worth noting that we become less able to multi-task as we age, and that parents' objections to their children's study environment probably reflect their awareness that they themselves would find it difficult to concentrate in such circumstances.


You can read the TIMSS report at:

You can read an article on the motivational benefits of homework at:

And there are more articles about homework, with more details of Cooper's review at:

And a British review of homework research is available at:


April 2012: my update to this article.

Some Surprising Findings About Learning in the Classroom

The quality of the teacher doesn't affect how much students learn (that doesn't mean it doesn't affect other factors — e.g., interest and motivation).

Low ability students learn just as much as high ability students when exposed to the same experiences.

More able students learn more because they seek out other learning opportunities.

Tests, more than measuring a student’s learning, reflect the student’s motivation.

I want to talk to you this month about an educational project that’s been running for some years here in New Zealand. The Project on Learning spent three years (1998-2000) studying, in excruciating detail, the classroom experiences of 9-11 year olds. The study used miniature videocameras, individually worn microphones, as well as trained observers, to record every detail of the experiences of individual students during the course of particular science, maths, or social studies units. The students selected were a randomly chosen set of four, two girls, two boys, two above average ability, two below average ability. 16 different classrooms were involved in the study.

On the basis of this data, the researchers came to a number of startling conclusions. Here are some of them (as reported by Emeritus Professor Graham Nuthall on national radio):

* that students learn no more from experienced teachers than they learn from beginning teachers

* that students learn no more from award-winning teachers than teachers considered average

* that students already know 40-50% of what teachers are trying to teach them

* that there are enormous individual differences in what students learned from the same classroom experiences — indeed, hardly any two students learned the same things

* that low ability students learn just as much as high ability students when exposed to the same experiences

This is amazing stuff!

We do have to be careful what lesson we draw from this. For example, I don’t think we should draw the conclusion that it doesn’t matter whether a teacher is any good or not. For a start, the study didn’t use bad teachers (personally, I had one university lecturer who actually put my knowledge of the subject into deficit — I started out knowing something about the subject (calculus), and by the time I’d spent several months listening to him, I was hopelessly confused). Secondly, there are lots of other aspects to the classroom experience than simply what the student learns from a particular study unit.

Nevertheless, the idea that a student learns as much from an okay teacher as from a great one, is startling. Here’s a quote from Professor Nuttall: “Teachers like the rest of us are concerned for student learning and assume that learning will flow naturally from interesting and engaging classroom activities. But it does not.” !

It’s not so surprising that different students learn different things from the same experiences — we all knew that — but we perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the degree to which that is true. But of course the most surprising thing is that low ability students learn just as much as high ability students when exposed to the same experiences. That, is no doubt the finding that most people will find hardest to believe. Clearly the more able students are learning more than the less able, so how does that work?

According to the researchers, “a significant proportion of the critical learning experiences for the more able students were those that they created for themselves, with their peers, or on their own. The least able students relied much more on the teacher for creating effective learning opportunities.”

This does in fact fit in with my own experiences: marveling at my son’s knowledge of various subjects, on a number of occasions I have questioned him about the origins of such knowledge. Invariably, it turns out that his knowledge came from books he had read at home, rather than anything he was taught at school. (And please believe I am not knocking my son’s schools or his teachers; I have been reasonably happy, most of the time, with these).

In this interview, Professor Nuthall mentioned another finding that has come out of the research — that tests, more than measuring a student’s learning, reflect the student’s motivation. “When a student is highly motivated to do the best they can on a test, then that test will measure what they know or can do. When that motivation is not there (as it is not for most students most of the time) then the test only measures what they can be bothered to do.”


Professor Nuthall’s research studies were cited in the 3rd edition of the Handbook of Research on Teaching (the “bible” for teaching research) as one of the five or six most significant research projects in the world. The research team of Professor Nuthall and Dr Adrienne Alton-Lee (who invented the techniques used in the Project on Learning) was cited in the most recent edition as one of the leading research teams in the history of research on teaching.

[see below for some of the academic publications that report the findings of the Project on Learning (plus an early article on the techniques used in the Project)]

The wider picture

An OECD report on learning cites that, for more than a century, one in six have reported that they hate/hated school, and a similar number failed to achieve sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to be securely employable. The report asks the question: “Maybe traditional education as we know it inevitably offends one in six pupils?”

In a recent special report on education put out by CNN, it is claimed that, in the U.S., charter schools (publicly financed schools that operate largely independent of government regulation) now count nearly 700,000 students. And, most tellingly, recent figures put the number of children taught at home at more than a million, a 29% jump from 1999. (To put this in context, there are apparently some 54 million students in the U.S.). [CNN report]

One could argue that the rise in people seeking alternatives to a traditional education is a direct response to the (many) failings of public education, but this is assuredly a simplistic answer. Public education has always had major problems. At different times and places, these problems have been different, but a mass education system will never be suitable for every child. Nor can it ever, by its nature (basically a factory system, designed to instil required skills in as many children as possible), be the best for anyone.

Indeed, we are closer to a system that endeavors to approach students as individuals than we have ever been (we still have a long way to go, of course).

I believe the increased popularity of alternatives to public education reflects many factors, but most particularly, the simple awareness that there ARE alternatives, and the increased lack of faith in professionals and experts.

Impaired reading skills are found in some 20% of children. No educational system in the world has mastered the problem of literacy; every existing system produces an unacceptably high level of failures. So, we cannot point to a particular program of instruction and say, this is the answer. Indeed, I am certain that such an aim would be foredoomed to failure - given the differences between individuals, how can anyone believe that there is some magic bullet that will work on everyone?

Having said that, we have a far greater idea now of the requirements of an effective literacy program. [see Reading and Research from the National Reading Panel]

These articles originally appeared in the August and September 2004 newsletters.


Project on Learning references

  • Nuthall, G. A. & Alton-Lee, A. G. 1993. Predicting learning from student experience of teaching: A theory of student knowledge acquisition in classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 30 (4), 799-840.
  • Nuthall, G. A. 1999. Learning how to learn: the evolution of students’ minds through the social processes and culture of the classroom. International Journal of Educational Research, 31 (3), 139 – 256.
  • Nuthall, G. A. 1999. The way students learn: Acquiring knowledge from an integrated science and social studies unit. Elementary School Journal, 99, 303-341.
  • Nuthall, G. A. 2000. How children remember what they learn in school. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
  • Nuthall, G. A. 2001. Understanding how classroom experiences shape students’ minds. Unterrichtswissenschaft: Zeitschrift für Lernforschung, 29 (3), 224-267.

Class Size: Does it Matter?

Research into class size has been mixed partly because few studies have directly manipulated class size and successfully removed any other factors that could influence learning, and partly because of there has been no consistency in what constitutes a "small" or "reduced" class size.

Evidence points to a class size of 15 students or less being necessary to show clear benefits.

Small class size is more important in the early years.

Small class size may have greater benefit for disadvantaged students.

While parents and teachers have always strongly supported small class sizes, their belief has not always been supported by evidence. Part of the problem lies in that word “small” — what constitutes a small class? Different interventions have looked at reducing class sizes from 40 to 30, or 30 to 25. It may well be that such reductions are not sufficient to show clear benefits.

The STAR Project

The project everyone talks about, the STAR project (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), looked at class sizes well below these. The longitudinal study was undertaken in the American state of Tennessee and involved over 7000 students from 79 schools. For three years, from kindergarten through grade 3, students were placed either in small classes of 13-17 students; regular classes of 22-25 students; or regular classes with a teacher aide. Those in smaller classes performed significantly better on tests than those placed in regular classes. The largest gains occurred in inner-city schools.

Excitingly, the advantage was not only maintained in subsequent years but actually increased: in grade 4, students who had been in smaller classes were 6-9 months ahead of regular class students in reading, math, and science; by grade 8, they were a year ahead. Later, almost 44% of small class size students took college entrance exams, compared to 40% of regular class size students — the difference was greatest for African-Americans; 40.2% compared to 31.7%. 72% of small class students graduated from high school on schedule, compared to 65-6% of regular class students. They were also more likely to complete high school, to graduate with honors, to complete advanced math and English classes.

The SAGE Project

More recently, in Wisconsin, the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program has reduced the student-teacher ratioto 15:1 in K-3 classrooms in 30 schools, comparing their performance to 14-17 matched schools. The benefits seen were again particularly great for African-American students, who reduced the achievement gap with white students by 19% — in comparison schools, the achievement gap widened by 58%. Interestingly, the results of having 2 teachers in a class of 30 were the same as having 2 classes of 15.

Why have different studies found different results?

Let’s look a little further at why there has been confusion about what educational research has told us about class size, given that this is one of the most studied issues in education. Howard Blake in 1954 reviewed pre-1950 studies. He found 85 that were based on original research, and of these 35 found benefits of small classes, 18 found benefits to large classes, and 32 found no difference. But Blake analyzed the studies further, looking for scientific acceptability. He found only 22 studies that reached this standard (a not surprising result for educational research in this time period). Of the 22, 16 favored small classes, 3 favored large classes, and 3 were inconclusive.

A meta-analysis of 77 studies in 1978 (Glass, Cohen & Smith) concluded that the greatest benefits occurred when class sizes were reduced to 15 students or less. A follow-up study suggested that the benefits were greatest for those below the age of 12 (Smith et al, 1979).

Unfortunately, educational experiments such as STAR — where students are randomly assigned to different treatments — are rare. More usual are attempts at indirectly investigating class size by comparing different situations. This, obviously, has many problems. You can get a feeling for these by reading a British analysis at: Apart from anything else, it shows you how one type of statistical analysis in studies of this nature can come up with no clear benefits of class size, while another type shows a very clear benefit.

It also seems that the principal benefit of reduced class size lies in its effect on the teacher; clearly some teachers will be more affected by this than others.

It is also worth noting the considerable international variation in class size -- a variation showing no correlation with performance -- indicating that class size cannot be considered out of the context of teaching method. The TIMSS international study, for example, found that although the average eighth-grade mathematics class was 31 students, there was considerable variation even among the higher-performing countries –- from 42 students in Korea to 19 in Belgium.


Many policy-makers argue that, while class size may be of value, the benefit doesn’t warrant the huge amount it would cost, given that there are other ways to spend the money — more and better trained teachers, for example. And, certainly, there would seem little benefit to reducing class size if you can’t put qualified teachers in the classes. Class size isn’t a factor that can be considered in a vacuum. But it does seem clear that:

  • class size can be an important factor in learning outcomes,
  • it is more important in the early years,
  • it is more important for disadvantaged students,
  • benefits may not be seen unless the class size is reduced to around 15.


For more about the results from Project STAR, see

There’s a nice summary article on the persistent myths of the issue at

The National Education Association (U.S.) has information about class size at:

There's an interesting 1989 paper by University of California academics at: file)

TIMSS has an interesting international comparison of class size and math achievement at:

Adolescent Development

The conventional view of brain development has been that most of this takes place in utero and in the first three years, with the further development continuing until the brain is fully mature at around 10-12 years of age. The turbulence of adolescent behavior has been deemed to be mostly caused by hormonal changes. Piaget, who identified four stages of cognitive development, assessed that his highest stage — that of formal, abstract reasoning — occurred around 13-14 years (although not everyone reaches this level, which requires appropriate education).

Recent studies, however, are painting a different picture. Evidence is converging that the brain continues to grow and develop throughout the teen years, and possibly even into the early twenties. Indeed, early adolescence appears to be a time of significant growth and development.

The vulnerability of the adolescent brain to drugs and alcohol is well-established. The picture that is now emerging is that adolescence is a time of heightened vulnerability partly because different systems are maturing according to different timetables — adolescence is a time when brain systems are out-of-sync, as it were. Adolescence is increasingly seen as a critical period for a reorganization of regulatory systems. This reorganization is both hazardous and an opportunity.

Adolescence, then, is rightly seen as a time when we take our first steps on the path we will take through adulthood. But this cliché has a deeper meaning than we ever suspected. For one thing, an important part of brain development during adolescence concerns the pruning of unused neurons and connections, resulting in a strengthening of those connections that are most used. In other words, it’s a time to lose the things we don’t care about, and strengthen those we do.

Much of this process seems to occur in the frontal cortex, where our “higher” faculties, such as decision-making, goal-setting, and executive control, reside. Maturation of the brain seems to occur roughly from the back to the front: the cerebellum (involved in motor skills) is the first to mature, and the prefrontal cortex the last (possibly not until the mid-twenties).

Poor decision-making, reckless behavior, rule breaking, the tendency toward emotional outbursts, fewer organizational abilities, and lack of ability to process abstract concepts have all been associated with problems in pruning. The ability to multi-task continues to develop until ages 16-17. The delay in maturation of the prefrontal cortex has also been implicated in difficulties in reading emotional cues, which in turn has implications for teens’ ability to communicate with others.

In other words, we as adults may often expect too much from teenagers. We need to keep these cognitive limitations in mind, particularly when teens are confronting with demanding situations. Truly it has been said, the teenage brain is a work in progress, not a finished product.

  • Herrmann, J.W. 2005.The Teen Brain as a Work in Progress: Implications for Pediatric Nurses. Pediatric Nursing, 31 (2), 144-148.
  • Luciana, M., Conklin, H.M., Hooper, C.J. & Yarger, R.S. 2005. The development of nonverbal working memory and executive control processes in adolescents. Child Development, 76(3),
  • Steinberg, L. 2005. Cognitive and affective development in adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9 (2), 69-74.
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