The latest report from Julie Sonneman and Peter Goss at the Grattan Institute was published on Monday. The Grattan report didn’t get a lot of media attention because the more obviously newsworthy part of the report – estimates of learning losses — was gazumped by a CIS report a few weeks ago.

Estimates of learning losses necessarily make a lot of assumptions that make it hard to know how accurate they are but it is fair to say that many children will have made less progress in their literacy learning in the past few months than they usually would have in school, and in some cases will have lost progress they had made since the beginning of the school year. This is not reason to panic, but it is reason to have a comprehensive plan to help these children catch up.

The Grattan report has a characteristically measured set of proposals for schools to regain some of the academic ground lost during the Covid crisis. The fact that Sonneman and Goss understand that children’s literacy learning will recover only by providing high quality literacy instruction is a welcome antidote to some of the other ideas floating around.

In this post, I am going to concentrate on a couple of their practical policy recommendations to accelerate literacy progress. The recommendations are on the right track but could be even better.

  1. On the basis of their analysis showing that disadvantaged students have suffered larger learning losses than others, the report recommends that funding be targeted to the 25% most disadvantaged students. While the report presents good reasons to believe that disadvantaged students will have had larger learning losses on average, it would be better to target resources to the students who have the greatest educational need as determined by screening assessments. There will be a big overlap between disadvantage and educational need, of course, but the resources would be more accurately targeted.
  2. In order to evaluate students’ learning needs, the report recommends that ACARA should be given $20 million to develop a suite of assessments. This is unnecessary and unwise for two reasons. First, there is already a range of free and low cost, validated literacy screening assessments with Australian norms available to schools, including the MOTif assessments developed by Macquarie University and the WARL and WARP reading fluency assessments developed by MultiLit. It would be more efficient to point teachers towards the good screening tests already available. A group of well-informed teachers has put together a useful list. Second, ACARA is already involved in a well-funded multi-agency project to develop online formative assessment tools for schools. The literacy and numeracy assessments are in the first tranche of assessment tools under development. These things can’t be done both properly and hastily.
  3. The list of effective small group literacy programs in the report is incomplete and includes at least one program that does not meet the recommendations. Reading Recovery cannot be delivered by anyone other than a Reading Recovery accredited teacher and is not a small group tutoring program. More importantly, there is an extensive evidence base showing that it is not effective. On the other hand, the list in the report does not include Australian interventions programs like MiniLit and MacqLit, which are designed to be delivered in small groups by a trained instructor who does not have to be a teacher, and which have been shown to be effective in published efficacy trials. Yes, these programs are published by my employer, but more importantly they meet the criteria and have an objectively strong evidence base in Australian schools and are readily available.

The disruptions to education in response to the Covid pandemic have not so much created a new problem as exacerbated an existing one. Persistent low levels of literacy among students indicate that too many schools do not use standardised screening assessments to monitor student progress or provide evidence-based reading interventions to struggling readers. Now is a very good time to start.