Coordinate Support for Foreign Students Across Iceland

Reykjavík school

Iceland’s new Directorate of Education and School Services will consolidate the reception of children of foreign origin into Iceland’s school systems on a national level, RÚV reports. Its director says there is no need to reinvent the wheel at each school when it comes to supporting foreign students. The Directorate will also implement Icelandic and maths competency testing to replace current standardised tests.

New database and student assessments

The Directorate is a new institution that began operations on April 1. It aims to promote excellent education for all children in Iceland through strong support and targeted services for preschools, primary schools, and secondary schools across the country.

Some of the Directorate’s first projects include creating a database of all students in the country’s primary schools to keep track of which schools students have attended and which services they have used. The Directorate will also institute a new assessment to better evaluate children’s reading comprehension and maths skills, replacing current standardised tests. “This way we get a better picture of how the children are doing, both their status and their progress,” stated Þórdís Jóna Sigurðardóttir, the new institution’s director.

Built on previous success

Þórdís stated that the Directorate will also introduce a project called Menntun, móttaka, menning (Education, Reception, Culture), or MEMM, which will coordinate the reception and education of children of foreign origin on a national level. “It is based on a project that the City of Reykjavík has run called Miðja máls og læsis [The Centre for Language and Literacy],” Þórdís explains. That project is now under the umbrella of the Directorate of Education and School Services and will coordinate the reception of foreign students across the entire country.

Þórdís says it is important to build on what has been done well in the system in order to welcome children from different backgrounds as well as possible. “Whether they are refugee children or children who are moving to the country for other reasons. That it’s not being thought up individually in each and every school or by each and every teacher, but that they can turn to professionals.” The program will provide support both to municipalities and to individual schools.

PISA: Icelandic Students Lagging Behind Nordic Peers


The 2022 PISA results show a decline in literacy and other skills among Nordic countries, particularly in Iceland. Professor Emeritus Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson has suggested that the growing influence of English in Iceland’s linguistic environment may be a key factor affecting reading comprehension.

Declining literacy across the Nordic countries

The results of the OECD’s 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were published yesterday. The assessment measures the proficiency of 15-year-old students in reading comprehension, science literacy, and mathematics literacy.

As noted in a press release on the government’s website yesterday, the results indicate a decline in student performance in participating countries compared to previous assessments. This decline is observed across all of the Nordic countries, with a more significant decrease having occurred among Icelandic participants.

Iceland ranks below the average of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in all three categories, and a lower percentage of Icelandic students possess basic and exceptional skills compared to the Nordic and the OECD average.

Signs of increasing inequality

Among other notable findings in the assessment is that students with parents in lower socio-economic positions fare worse in the survey across participating countries. As noted on the government’s website, there are — similar to other Nordic countries — signs of increasing inequality in educational achievement in Iceland over time, especially in reading comprehension.

A lower percentage of Icelandic boys achieve basic competency in science literacy (61%) compared to girls (68%), with the most significant gender gap in basic competency in reading comprehension (53% for boys versus 68% for girls).

“It is clear from the PISA 2022 results that authorities, municipalities, institutions, and organisations need to unite in understanding the reasons behind the negative trends in reading comprehension and literacy revealed in the survey and respond accordingly,” the government website notes.

It all comes down to reading comprehension

Having published an article entitled “The Bleak PISA Findings” (Kolsvört PISA-skýrsla), Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor Emeritus of Icelandic and Linguistics at the University of Iceland, discussed the PISA results on the evening news yesterday.

“I think it all comes down to reading comprehension, although there are three aspects to the test: reading, science, and mathematics, both the mathematics and science portions of the assessment are based on reading comprehension. These are text-based tasks,” Eiríkur remarked.

“Reading comprehension is deteriorating, and that’s linked to the status of the Icelandic language in society. We are faced with a drastically changed linguistic environment where English has become a much larger part of teenagers’ linguistic surroundings than it used to be.”

Eiríkur also noted, as he had done in his article, that the Icelandic translation of the PISA tests had not always been adequate. Referring to a 2020 research paper by Auður Pálsdóttir and Sigríður Ólafsdóttir — which demonstrated significant discrepancies in word frequency categories between the original texts and their translations (meaning the Icelandic words in the tests are often rarer than their English counterparts) — Eirikur suggested that the Icelandic translation of the assessment may simply be too heavy when compared to the assessment in other languages.

Eiríkur noted, however, that he had not examined the texts of the latest PISA survey.

Alarming trends

Eiríkur observed that these two considerations were not the only causes for concern. The latest assessment, as previously noted, indicated that children from poorer social and economic backgrounds performed worse in the assessment. Eiríkur characterised this trend as being particularly “alarming.”

“It’s a major concern. It means that these teenagers are highly likely to drop out of school and then be trapped in low-wage jobs that require little education when they enter the job market,” Eiríkur stated.

When asked what he would do if he were in the shoes of the Minister of Education, Eiríkur replied: “I don’t think it would be enough to just be the Minister of Education because this isn’t just about the school system. It’s about the entire society; we need to change the status of the Icelandic language. Parents and homes play a significant role, and society as a whole needs to prioritise Icelandic much more.”

Pandemic effects

As noted on the government’s website, the pandemic had various impacts on school operations, teachers, and students in the OECD countries. Two-thirds of the countries participating in PISA 2022 closed schools for three months or longer. The overall performance trend of countries from 2018 to 2022 suggests the pandemic’s impact, particularly in mathematical literacy and reading comprehension.

A Third of Icelanders Read Daily

icelandic books

A new report from the Icelandic Literature Center has shed new and interesting light on the reading habits of Icelanders. The annual study has been carried out since 2017.

On average, Icelanders listen to 2.4 books per month, with 32% of the nation reading at least once a day.

Read more: Rising Prices of Christmas Books

However, Icelandic readership is undergoing a notable shift, with both the groups of those who never read and those who “binge read” growing.

The study also reported a marked difference between the genders, with women reading significantly more than men. The gender gap also correlates with a gap in education, with the college-educated generally reading more than those with a secondary level of education.

Older people were found to read on average more than younger people, with the youngest group polled, those between 18 and 24, reading the least out of all groups.

In a comparison between the capital region and Iceland’s countryside, no significant difference was recorded.

Some 65% of Icelanders read either exclusively or mostly in Icelandic. This represents a slight change from last year, when the figure sat at 58%. 18% of those polled read equally in Icelandic and another language, with another 14% of residents reading more often in another language than Icelandic. Finally, 3% of those polled read exclusively in another language. The language difference also breaks down along age, with those 34 and younger generally reading in other languages more often than the older groups polled.

Read more: Audiobooks Account for a Third of Books Read in Iceland

Usage of public library resources was also recorded, with women again using the library more often than men. Among the top users of public libraries were households with two or more children.

The report, which can be read in full here, was authored in cooperation with the Reykjavík City Library, Association of Icelandic Publishers, Hagþenkir, the National and University Library of Iceland, Reykjavík UNSECO City of Literature, and the Writers’ Union of Iceland.

Author Visits Promote Literary Engagement Among Students

A new program launched by the Icelandic Literature Center will send prominent authors to visit upper secondary schools to meet students and discuss their books with them. Per a press release issued by the Center, these author visits are intended to encourage students to read as well as increase their understanding of what a writer actually does.

Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð, Menntaskólinn við Sund, Tækniskólinn, and Kvennaskólinn í Reykjavík are the four upper secondary schools that will be taking part in the initiative this spring. Each school chose one author to visit their campus, namely: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Kristín Helga Gunnarsdóttir, Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir, and Sigríður Hagalín. Each author will hold a reading during their visit and then take part in a discussion with students. In preparation, students will read at least one pre-selected book by their guest so as to be able to ask questions and offer their own reflections on the text.

The initiative is a collaboration between the Icelandic Literature Center and both the Icelandic Writer’s Union and the Society of Icelandic Principals and is supported by a grant from the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture.

If all goes well, four new schools will be chosen to take part in the author visit program for the coming fall semester and potentially even more schools in semesters after that.


PISA Test Measures Drop in Reading Comprehension


Icelandic students’ reading skills have worsened, according to the most recent findings of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). When compared to students in other countries, Icelandic 15-year-olds scored slightly above average in mathematics skills, below average in science, and in the bottom 25% of countries in the study’s reading portion.

A worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA measures 15-year-old school students’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. The test has been administered every three years since 2000 with the aim to provide comparable data that OECD countries can use to improve their educational policies and outcomes. A total of 79 countries took part in the test this year, and the response rate in Iceland was 87%.

Icelandic students did worse on the latest PISA study than their peers in the Nordic countries. According to the study’s results, a third of Icelandic boys did not exhibit basic reading skills. The results also show that students in rural areas do worse than those in the Reykjavík capital area. Icelandic students’ math skills have, however, shown a marked improvement since the last PISA test was administered.

Education Minister responds

Minister of Education Lilja Alfreðsdóttir presented an action plan this morning to counteract students’ declining reading skills. They include reviewing teaching material, increasing teaching hours spent on the Icelandic language, and creating a council of specialists in literacy, mathematics, and sciences directly under the minister. “We need to take extensive measures to improve literacy and improve pupils’ vocabulary and comprehension, but it is imperative that this work is done in good collaboration with the school community, municipalities, and households in the country,” Lilja stated.

PISA controversy

Lilja’s predecessor Illugi Gunnarsson was cautiously sceptical about Iceland’s PISA results back in 2016, stating that PISA does not measure “whether our kids are creative, whether they are resourceful, social, and so on. In other words: PISA does not measure the entire school system.”

The study has received criticism as well, with Forbes reporting that in some countries, only top-performing students take part, slanting the results. In 2014, a group of over 80 educators wrote an open letter to the study’s director Dr. Andreas Schleicher, expressing concern about the negative consequences of the PISA rankings, particularly that they had led countries to make short-term overhauls that were not necessarily in the best interest of students in a “race to the top” of the list.