Low literacy rates weigh heavily on the disadvantaged

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Published in The Australian Financial Review, 16 September 2019

By Jennifer Buckingham

Adult, skilled readers often underestimate the complexity of learning to read. A few children seem to acquire reading spontaneously and with apparent ease, but most need to be taught how to do it. Without proficient reading skills, children struggle to spell and write. Literacy also affects numeracy, because if children cannot read the question they will not be able to formulate an answer. Ability to read underpins success across the entire school curriculum.

Billions of dollars and thousands of hours are devoted to teaching and assessing literacy. According to the most recent OECD Education At A Glance report, Australian students have the second highest amount of time in the primary school classroom among OECD countries (1000 hours compared to the OECD average of 799 hours), and a high proportion of that time (30%) is spent on literacy.

Yet a large number of children in NSW begin secondary school with levels of literacy that are too low for them to succeed at this level of education. Figures from the 2018 NAPLAN national report show that 5.9% of students in Year 7 did not achieve the national minimum standard. A further 12.1% only achieved the minimum standard. Together, these percentages represent more than 57,000 students beginning their secondary education as struggling readers. These children are concentrated in schools with high levels of socioeconomic and geographic disadvantage and low literacy is associated with a range of outcomes that impact on quality of life, including early school leaving, unemployment, and juvenile crime.

The best way to prevent this critical problem is to provide reading instruction and intervention based on rigorous scientific research on how reading develops and the teaching methods that are most effective. There is consistent and robust evidence derived from a number of research disciplines showing that the effective instruction involves five key components – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension – each taught in a systematic, explicit, and integrated way. This means that reading instruction is carefully planned and implemented so that every child is catered for and no child falls through the cracks.

Phonics instruction gives children the ability to decode words by teaching them the relationship between the letters in printed words and the sounds in spoken words. It is an essential aspect of reading and has been identified as a common weakness in classroom teaching and assessment. The federal government has acknowledged this and is working on a phonics assessment for schools. The South Australian government introduced a Year 1 phonics check in 2018 which has demonstrated that this is an area of teaching that needs to improve if literacy levels are to rise. The NSW government will be trialling the Year 1 phonics check in 2020.

The need for improved reading instruction in primary school been recognised more broadly and there are indicators of progress, especially where there has been systemic promotion and uptake of evidence-based reading instruction over a number of years. The latest NAPLAN results show that mean scores in Year 3 reading have improved in a number of jurisdictions, including NSW, Western Australia and the Northern Territory since NAPLAN began. These jurisdictions stand out because their participation rates have remained stable or even increased, unlike Victoria where participation in NAPLAN has decreased.

The proportion of children who did not achieve the level deemed to the National Minimum Standard (NMS) has decreased, which is cause for muted celebration. The NMS is widely considered to be a very low threshold. International assessments such as the Program in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) set a higher bar, and Australia has the second highest proportion of children among English-speaking countries who fail to reach it. New Zealand has the highest. Again, Australia’s performance on this assessment improved over the last two cycles of PIRLS but there are still far too many children whose literacy levels are below proficient.

A small but important proportion of struggling readers have learning difficulties or disabilities that impede their reading development, but who will nonetheless learn to read with sufficient support. However, most children with poor literacy are ‘instructional casualties’ – children who would have learned to read if they had been provided with high quality classroom teaching. Many of these children receive help from specialist reading services outside of school but most, often as a result of their socioeconomic circumstances, do not.

The obvious question is why this situation persists. It’s not lack of teaching time or resources in our school systems. The key reason is that teaching degrees have largely not prepared teachers to use evidence-based reading instruction. Numerous reviews and studies have shown this to be the case. Australian research has repeatedly shown weak knowledge of the features of language and literacy and low confidence to teach reading among graduate and early career teachers. A recent review of the published content outlines of initial teacher education (ITE) undergraduate degrees found that only 4% had a specific focus on early reading and a minority of courses mentioned the five key elements of reading instruction.

In some states and territories, this knowledge deficit is being addressed through the provision of professional learning both at the system and school level, but it is reasonable to expect that in a four year teaching degree, graduate primary teachers will be adequately prepared to do their most important job – teaching children to read.

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