Equity in Education: The Relevance of Home Language, Home Culture, and School Belonging in Reading Achievement Evidence from the Norwegian PIRLS 2016

Keywords: PIRLS 2016, reading research, home language, reading literacy, Cultural Reproduction Theory, literacy theory

Synopsis

Under the United Nations’ Incheon Declaration for Education 2030, Norway has committed itself to working toward Sustainable Development Goal number 4: ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong opportunities for all (United Nations, 2015). The findings of the present thesis add to our current knowledge of progress toward equity in education with regard to reading literacy. In addition, this thesis highlights the need to draw a more nuanced picture of the diverse student group to be found in 21st century classrooms; this may have implications for national education policy.

The Norwegian classrooms of the early 21st century are characterized by linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity. It is vital to know how such diversity affects equity in education with regard to reading literacy, so that we will be able to assess progress in students’ reading achievement, find research-based solutions to promote equity in education, and close achievement gaps. The purpose of the work underpinning the present thesis was to gain increased knowledge about equity in education as reflected in scores on The Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) intended to measure reading comprehension in ten-year-olds. The notion of educational equity in this thesis is grounded in the framework set out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the Programme for International Study Assessment (PISA) (OECD, 2018) and by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the Handbook of Measuring Equity in Education (UNESCO UIS, 2018). Thus, this thesis considers the notion that associations between the cultural aspect of students’ socioeconomic background, students’ home language and students’ reading achievement represent to some degree inequity in the education system.

The main theoretical perspectives applied were taken from Cultural Reproduction Theory and Literacy Theory. The data used derive from the Norwegian PIRLS 2016 assessment, which has a crosssectional design. The sample consisted of 4,232 fifth-graders (mean age 10.8 years) from 150 schools and 215 classrooms. The work conducted, was spread across four papers. Three aims were developed to guide the work: (1) to investigate the associations between students’ home language, the cultural aspect of their family’s SES, and their reading achievement; (2) to investigate the direct and indirect associations between students’ home language, parents’ education, students’ sense of school belonging and reading achievement, and; (3) to investigate the direct and indirect associations between students’ home language, parents’ education, parents’ academic expectations, parents’ help with homework and reading achievement.

This thesis contributes to the existing body of reading literacy research in three ways. First, while quite substantial research on equity in education has been carried out in relation to older students in Norway, very few studies have investigated equity with regard to reading literacy in primary school. Findings from all four studies provide evidence that, even as early as in the fifth grade, students’ reading achievement is associated to some extent with the cultural aspect of their SES and with how often they speak Norwegian at home, both as between students within schools and as between schools. This finding indicates the presence of inequity in students’ outcome due to differences in SES and language backgrounds. However, the surprising thing about this finding is not that it corroborates the existence of these relationships (as this is in line with a massive body of research across countries and education systems), but rather in the small measurement sizes of these associations. In particular, the association between how often the students speak Norwegian at home and their levels of reading achievement was surprisingly weak.

Second, while papers 1 and 2 revolve around achievement differences in reading using the SES–achievement and language minority–achievement relationships as indicators of educational equity, Papers 3 and 4 investigated factors that may influence these relationships. This is important because, in order to promote educational equity, these relationships must be weakened. In Paper 3, students’ sense of school belonging was treated as a mediator variable through which the influence of students’ home language and parents’ education on reading achievement was considered to pass. Results revealed that the present data could not substantiate the assumption that students’ sense of school belonging—a priority field in Norwegian education policy—can compensate effectively for possible achievement gaps in reading.

Third, while most of the extant research has been concerned with establishing that parental involvement has an impact on academic outcomes in general, and on reading achievement in particular, less effort has been devoted to establishing this relationship in the context of educational equity. Paper 4 links these associations to educational equity by testing the optimism hypothesis which assumes that in some immigrant families—and more frequently than in Norwegian native families—there exists an “extra educational drive”. More specifically, immigrant parents have stronger educational aspirations for their children compared to non-immigrant parents and are often eager to help their children succeed academically by involving themselves in their children’s schoolwork. In Paper 4, two types of parental involvement were investigated: parental academic expectations and parents’ help with homework. The rationale behind studying this connection was that if some ethnic groups manage particularly well in the education system because of strong parental educational aspirations, it is reasonable to assume that this link may result in important implications on how to strengthen educational equity and reduce achievement gaps in reading.

The results revealed significant and positive direct and indirect associations from parents’ education and students’ home language via parents’ academic expectations to reading achievement. By contrast, parents’ help with homework was negatively associated both with parents’ level of education and with students’ reading achievement, although no statistically significant relationship was found between parents’ help with homework and students’ home language. Thus, the data provided evidence that only partly supports the optimism hypothesis and suggest some degree of educational inequity with regard to reading literacy.

Author Biography

Olaug Strand

Associate Professor
University of Stavanger
Norwegian Centre for Reading Education and Reading Research
olaug.strand@uis.no

Cover for Equity in Education: The Relevance of Home Language, Home Culture, and School Belonging in Reading Achievement Evidence from the Norwegian PIRLS 2016
Published
October 12, 2021