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Language skills at age 2 onwards can predict PISA performance

A study carried out at the University of Jyväskylä has found that performance in the reading comprehension task of the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), taken at age 15, can be reliably predicted well before the beginning of school.

Nearly two-thirds of the variance in PISA reading scores could be explained by language skills and pre-literacy skills measured from age 2 onwards.   

There were 158 children who participated in the study, and they were examined in two groups: those with family-risk for dyslexia (n = 88) and those without (n = 70). Language skills explained a good portion of the variance in PISA reading in both groups. Moreover, pre-literacy skills explained a significant portion of the variance in PISA reading through reading fluency in both groups, but to a lesser extent than language skills. Altogether, 68% of the variance in PISA reading was explained in the Family-risk group, and language skills at age 2 explained 34% of the variance in PISA reading 13 years later. In the No family-risk group, 44% of the variance in PISA reading could be explained, with language skills starting to be significant from 3.5 years onwards.

Direct and indirect effects of language skills

Language skills are known to be a cornerstone of reading comprehension. In this study, we found that language skills had both a direct path and an indirect path through the pre-literacy skills (phonological awareness, rapid naming, and letter knowledge) and school-age reading fluency to PISA reading.

“The size of our vocabulary and our previous knowledge affect how we understand the text we have read and what kind of associations are created in our minds. Therefore, the central role of language skills on PISA reading was of no surprise,” says university lecturer Kenneth Eklund. “However, the strength of the association was rather startling when considering the gap of more than ten years between the early assessment of language skills and the PISA reading test.

The possibility to identify children at risk for poor performance in PISA reading

Children with family-risk for dyslexia scored significantly poorer than did children with no family-risk in all measures of language and pre-literacy skills before school age, as well as in all measures of reading fluency in Grades 1–8, and in PISA reading in Grade 9. On the other hand, differences between individuals were especially large in the family-risk group, and thus, not all family-risk children will fall behind the typical development of cognition that starts in the early years of life. Our results suggest, however, that family-risk children who show poor cognitive skills in their early development are likely to show poor literacy skills in adolescence and should be relatively easy to identify.

“Special emphasis should be placed on enhancing their language and pre-literacy skills, as these play a crucial role in their later literacy development,” Eklund says.

For example, shared reading between a parent and a child is known to increase the child’s vocabulary and affect the development of pre-literacy skills.

This study was carried out in the Faculty of Education and Psychology at University of Jyväskylä by the following researchers:  Kenneth Eklund, Minna Torppa, Sari Sulkunen and Timo Ahonen together with Pekka Niemi from the University of Turku. Results have been published in the Journal of Individual Differences.

All of the participants were Finnish-speaking and recruited as part of Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Dyslexia (JLD), led by professor Heikki Lyytinen, in which children have been followed from birth to early adulthood.


Information cocerning the publication

Eklund, K., Torppa, M., Sulkunen, S., Niemi, P. & Ahonen, T. Early cognitive predictors of PISA reading in children with and without family risk for dyslexia. Journal of Individual Differences, 64, 94–103. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2018.04.012

More information:
Kenneth Eklund,, +35850-59 44 836