Despite ever-increasing investment in education, Australia’s literacy rates are not improving and are falling behind those of other nations. Why is this so?
The gradual decline in literacy standards in Australian schools has garnered much attention in recent years. Despite standardised testing in the form of NAPLAN as well as ever-increasing sums of money being spent on education overall, results are not improving and are, in some cases, declining. As the new schooling year begins, the topic is once again in vogue, and for a good reason. The recent Gonski education reforms, promising billions of extra dollars to Australian schools over several years, seeks to remedy these issues by giving schools more resources to tackle the decline in standards across the board. But is funding alone enough to alleviate the malaise within Australian literacy education?
The performance of Australian students in NAPLAN testing has not improved in the last decade. In the writing component of the test, for instance, students’ performance has declined since the beginning of the decade, while results in the reading and numeracy components have remained stagnant. According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Survey (PIRLS), Australia’s scores at the year 4 level lagged behind that of many other countries. This is in spite of Australian teachers being highly credentialled and spending a higher proportion of teaching time teaching reading skills in comparison to a majority of other nations. While slowly progressing, improving to a score of 544 in 2016, up from 527 in 2011, there is much progress still to be made.
What is driving this decline in results, then? The way in which children are taught to read in Australian primary schools is key to understanding this lacklustre rate of functional literacy. At present, the predominant method of teaching children to read is through a system known as ‘balanced literacy’. Balanced literacy purports to utilise the best of the ‘whole language’ and phonics-based approaches to reading. It typically emphasises five elements: reading aloud, guided reading shared reading, independent study and the study of words. ‘Whole language‘ approaches, defined simply, are approaches which teach ‘words, letters, sounds and skills within a meaningful context’. A balanced approach traditionally includes phonics instruction within it. Phonics instruction is when children are taught the sounds made by an individual letter or letter group and are then explicitly taught how to combine those sounds to make words.
Balanced literacy, argue experts, does not take into account the way in which children learn to read. Learning to read, unlike learning to speak, is not an innate skill that can be picked up by children. It has to be taught explicitly, to be able to make the connection between the printed word and speech. Mark Seidenberg, an education researcher in the United States, notes that current teaching methodologies fail to make this connection. Instead of reading approaches based on scientific evidence, reading instruction is ideologically based, favouring methods which are ineffective and leave many children with an inadequate ability to read.
One of the solutions being put forth to ease this crisis is reintroducing phonics training for young students. A committee established by the Federal Government has recently proposed a phonics check for Year One students. The proposal has proved a contentious one among educators, with the education union and some experts claiming that the decision ‘undercuts the judgment of teachers’. There are also fears that students at Year One would be too young to cope with the test.
However, the proposed phonics test also has a broad base of support among teachers, researchers and activists. The phonics check has gained bipartisan support in the state of South Australia, with both the Liberal and Labor parties indicating their support for the test. Education researchers, such as Jennifer Buckingham of the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) argues that the case for a phonics check is strong, based from results in England since they implemented the check back in 2012. Struggling readers were able to be identified and given the required targeted attention at an early age, improving their literacy skills in later years. A petition by the ‘Say Yes to the Phonics Check’ Facebook page has also garnered several thousand signatures of support, as well as widespread backing among educators on social media.
In spite of this, the phonics test has not been implemented as of yet. Furthermore, the ‘balanced literacy’ approach to teaching reading is still predominant in Australian schools. The above issues with literacy instruction in Australian schools has flow-on effects in the lives of Australian adults. Many children, not having been taught to read effectively in the crucial formative years of education, struggle with reading through the senior years of their education and through to adulthood. A less noted issue of Australia’s education system is the astronomically high rates of functional illiteracy among the adult population. As of 2016, nearly half of Australia’s population was only capable of reading at a standard in which basic decoding of the English language is possible. A third of the adult population were considered functionally illiterate to the degree that would adversely affect their employment prospects and ability to function in daily life.
The effects of this issue are manifold and devastating to the individuals and the broader Australian community in different ways. Firstly, as previously mentioned, the lack of basic literacy skills has a significant impact on an individual’s ability to earn a decent living and adversely affects the economy more broadly. In a global economy that is transitioning more towards being knowledge and service-based, being functionally literate is vital for an individual to be able to participate meaningfully. It is no coincidence that Tasmania, the state with the highest rate of functional illiteracy among adults, also has the highest rate of unemployment. As of 2013, half of all Tasmanian adults were considered to be functionally illiterate.
Apart from the effects on the economy and on individuals’ employment prospects, the emotional toll of low levels of literacy are also devastating. Functionally illiterate adults typically self-report as having low self-esteem and self confidence. Many adults with low literacy levels avoid going out in public as a way of avoiding their issues becoming public. This cycle is often self-perpetuating, being passed down through the generations. Over time, lower standards and expectations become entrenched and progressively more difficult to break.
A nation as affluent as Australia should not have such a high proportion of its population not being able to read proficiently. The issue, as well as being a problem of resources, is partly due to the methods of teaching reading. The methods which Australia has persisted with for many years clearly are not working, if recent NAPLAN results and other data are anything to go by. A change of course is needed, one which is based around proven, scientifically and evidence-backed forms of reading instruction. Direct phonics instruction is a crucial component of this.