The PIRLS 2011 International Results in Reading were recently announced, and Hong Kong placed first out of 49 countries in reading ability of fourth-graders. This was widely reported locally and internationally.
Local media focused on how well Hong Kong children are being educated, while international media reports made comparisons between the education system in their respective countries and those of Asian countries.
PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) has been tracking trends in fourth-grade reading ability for 15 years. It uses extensive measuring tools to assess a number of reading-related contexts, including home environment support, students' backgrounds and attitudes toward reading, the reading curriculum, and teachers' education and training.
I hate to rain on everyone's parade, but Hong Kong's first place in reading ability is just one outcome of this nearly 400-page report. Buried in the report are tables indicating that Hong Kong scored the lowest of all participants in three critical areas: motivation to read, confidence and interest in reading for pleasure, and parents' enjoyment of reading.
This report found that children had higher reading achievement by the fourth grade if they were able to read some sentences and write some words by the time they started primary school. Thus, Hong Kong's high scores can be attributed to the fact that virtually all Hong Kong children in the study attended one year or more of pre-primary education, and 68 per cent of them had three years or more.
This is high compared with the international average of 78 per cent having one year or more of preschool and 42 per cent having three years or more.
On the other hand, when Hong Kong fourth-graders were asked to rate statements such as "I like to read things that make me think", and "I like it when a book helps me imagine other worlds", this assessment of their motivation to read placed them at the very bottom of the table.
This report also differentiates between literary reading and informational reading. Informational reading is important for students to learn the material being taught, regardless of subject matter. For example, students who find reading difficult will also do poorly at problem-solving questions in maths class, and chain-reaction descriptions in science class.
It should come as no surprise that Hong Kong children are adept at informational reading, that is, the type that has been assigned by their teachers. However, it's safe to extrapolate from the report that these children have yet to discover the joy of reading.
According to the report, literary reading plays "an important role in self-realisation, helping children learn about themselves and their potential". But until parents and teachers appreciate the immense value of children's literature, children will only read when required. After all, young children rely on grown-ups to provide them with reading materials.
Great children's literature provides our children with comfort when they worry, gives them courage when they are scared, cultivates their connections with the rest of the world and supports their emotional growth.
When we choose a book to share with our children, we are conveying to them our own values and giving them a moral compass. Our selections say a lot about what we hold dear and what we dream for our children. We are so fortunate to have so many wonderful authors who are willing to help give voice to what we want to say. In many cases, regardless of the story, the message for our children simply boils down to, "I love you no matter what."
Although the heavy load of informational reading that local schoolchildren contend with on a daily basis may be deterring them from reading for pleasure, I hope schools will continue to promote literary reading. Nurturing life-long readers seems a worthier long-term goal than breeding strong test-takers.
Annie Ho is board chairperson of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong bringmeabook.org.hk  a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them