There is no shortage of debate about the purpose or design of Australian school education. But one thing parents and politicians of all stripes can agree on is that every child who goes to school should learn to read well.

The sobering results from the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) survey on the reading performance of year 4 students, released on Tuesday, show that Australia has some work to do to make this a reality.

The latest survey found that 20 per cent of Australian students are not proficient readers. Students in disadvantaged schools are particularly struggling, with about 30 per cent falling short of reading proficiency, compared to only 13 per cent of students attending more advantaged schools. Thirty-nine per cent of Indigenous students were not proficient readers.

However, real improvement is possible.

Thanks to decades of reading research, we know more than ever about how to ensure almost all children achieve reading proficiency. We know that children need to master the foundational mechanics of reading in the early years of school so that they can understand how letters relate to sounds and can say the words they see on the page.

Research shows that well-structured, systematic phonics teaching, which follows a careful sequence of learning and provides lots of opportunities for repeated practice, gives the best chance for all students to clear this hurdle.

We also know that children and young people must develop a rich bank of vocabulary and background knowledge so that they can understand what they read, particularly as they move through the primary years and into secondary school. Otherwise, they will struggle to grasp the meaning of text – the ultimate purpose of reading – even if they can say the words out loud.

And we know that it is critical that teachers keep a watchful eye on the rate of progress children make, and provide more intensive support when needed. Without a failsafe mechanism to identify children at risk, they often fall further behind their peers until they reach the point where the task of catching up can feel insurmountable for both teachers and students.

But just knowing is not enough. We need to ensure every teacher in every school can put this into practice in their classroom.

Primary school a priority

The first priority is the early years of primary school. Keeping classroom expectations high is critical. We want all students to learn to crack the code in these early years. Boosting the quality of whole-class teaching is the best way to get there: it has the biggest impact on the greatest number of students. It also means fewer students will need additional supports down the track.

But there is significant variation in how reading is taught in schools across the country. Australian governments and school system leaders have still not done enough to guarantee that all schools and teachers have a clear understanding of up-to-date reading research and know how to teach reading as effectively as possible.

Governments should provide clearer guidance on best practice, embed trained, literacy-focused instructional specialists in all schools, and establish literacy master teacher roles to support evidence-based reading instruction across schools. These senior teachers must have an up-to-date understanding of the best evidence of effective practice, and the coaching skills and a clear mandate to spread best practice among their colleagues.

Grattan Institute research also shows that most teachers do not have access to shared, comprehensive, and knowledge-rich curriculum materials. Such materials are essential to building students’ vocabulary and background knowledge systematically over time and across a wide range of subjects. Governments should provide funding where necessary to encourage trusted bodies to develop better curriculum materials, and establish a strong, independent quality-assurance body.

Finally, for those students who fall through the cracks or need additional support, small-group tuition can make a real difference. Extra “doses” of highly targeted teaching can be very effective. Small-group tutoring has been in place as an additional program in NSW and Victoria since 2021. Now is the time to learn the lessons from this phase of experimentation, refine small-group tuition models, and embed the most effective into the fabric of all Australian schools.

Teaching children to read is a core promise of our education system. Every time we fail to deliver on this promise, we close off a huge array of future opportunities for a young person. Australia can, and must, do better.

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Danielle Wood – CEO