Australia needs a reading revolution - Grattan Institute

When you send your child to school, you expect they will learn how to read confidently and effectively. Yet this is not happening for one in three children in WA.

If children don’t learn how to read properly in early primary school, they risk falling further behind all through school.

By Year 9, about one-third of WA students are still not meeting grade-level expectations in reading, according to the 2023 NAPLAN results.

These students not only struggle to keep up with their classmates, they are also more likely to become disruptive in class, and drop out of school into unemployment or low-paid jobs.

This is not just happening to a mere handful of students. In the typical Australian classroom of about 24 students, eight are unable to read at the expected grade level. And it’s not just disadvantaged students or those who don’t speak English at home – wealthy students with English speaking parents are struggling too.

Almost all students can learn to read if they are given the right support.

A key cause of Australia’s reading problem is decades of disagreement about the best way to teach reading.

But while the evidence on how to teach reading effectively is now clear, many schools in WA still need more support to put the evidence into practice.

What the evidence shows is: 

Children shouldn’t be taught to read by guessing words in a book based on pictures. Strong readers don’t guess, they sound out unfamiliar words.

Students shouldn’t have to spend time in class “independently reading” when they can’t read yet.

If your child is struggling with reading, it shouldn’t depend on how deep your pockets are to pay for tutoring to ensure they stay on track with their learning. Decades of research have shown what is best for all students:

Children should be taught systematically how letters relate to sounds, so they can sound out the unfamiliar words they see. They can then practise these skills using ‘decodable’ texts.

Teachers should read books aloud with the whole class, to make sure all students get to experience exciting stories and develop new vocabulary, even if they can’t yet read confidently on their own.

Students should be taught new words explicitly, right through school.

By the end of school, they should have a rich vocabulary and background knowledge so they can understand more complex texts in subjects such as biology and history.

Catch-up support, such as small-group tutoring or one-on-one help, should be available to all children if they are falling behind.

Whether your child gets taught this way shouldn’t be a lucky dip. It should be guaranteed, no matter what your postcode or school uniform.

While the WA Government has taken some first steps to close the evidence-to-practice gap, it will take much more hard work and sustained effort to ensure every child gets the chance to succeed in reading.

It won’t be easy.

Getting this right in every one of the 1,100 government, Catholic, and independent schools state-wide will require many teachers to stop using familiar but less-effective practices, and adopt new, more effective, ones.

But it is possible. Countries such as England and Ireland, as well as many states in America, show us what can happen when governments make a long-term commitment to reading success.

New Grattan Institute research shows state and territory governments how to do it. By following the Grattan six-step reading guarantee strategy, governments can transform the way reading is taught at school and ensure at least 90 per cent of students become proficient in reading.

The WA Government will need to provide teachers with specific guidelines on how to teach reading in line with the evidence on what works best, alongside high-quality curriculum materials to teach reading well.

It will need to develop the skills of our teachers through extra training, and by ensuring every school has a literacy instructional specialist to help teachers improve. 

And the Government will need to better monitor reading performance, so it can give more support to poor-performing schools.

Australia needs a reading revolution. Parents should demand that reading is taught well in every classroom, in every school, every day.