Australia’s slow march to getting reading right - Grattan Institute

The tide is finally turning on how Australian children are taught to read. With the Queensland government’s reading commitment announced last month, most states now publicly support an evidence-based approach to teaching students how to read.

This is a welcome shift. But political announcements are only the first step. There is still a long way to go to lock in practice change in every classroom across the country.

According to 2023 NAPLAN results, about one in three Australian students are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The evidence about how best to teach reading is increasingly clear. The research shows that systematically teaching students to decode the letter-sound relationships in words – known as phonics – in the early years of primary school ensures all students have the best chance to learn to read.

But the work doesn’t stop there. Once students have mastered decoding, teachers should continue to focus on explicitly building students’ vocabulary, fluency, and background knowledge in all subject areas and right throughout the school years, so that students can comprehend what they read – the ultimate goal of reading.

Many schools across the country don’t teach this way. Decades of disagreement about how best to teach reading have contributed to too many students missing out.

There is now reason to hope for real change.

In October, the Queensland government committed to ensuring schools teach reading according to the evidence, starting with Prep to Year 2. Queensland will invest $35 million to provide schools with a suite of resources to support effective teaching, identify students at risk of falling behind, and boost professional learning.

Other state governments have already started down this road.

In 2018, South Australia introduced a literacy guarantee, which requires all government schools to use the phonics screening check in Year 1 – a seven-minute test that helps teachers identify students who are struggling to decode words. South Australia also employs about 30 literacy coaches to work with schools to build teachers’ expertise in reading instruction.

NSW has mandated the same screening check for government schools since 2021, and funds “decodable” books for all foundation students. It also discontinued funding for reading programs that were not effective, and updated the NSW syllabus this year to align with the evidence.

Tasmania and Western Australia are not far behind. This year, Tasmania committed to a minimum guarantee that, by 2026, every primary school will teach reading according to the evidence. Tasmania will also roll out the phonics screening check in government and non-government schools. Western Australia has provided schools with a list of recommended phonics programs and assessments.

Long way to go

Several Catholic dioceses have introduced big changes too, including Canberra-Goulburn, Tasmania, and Lismore.

The pressure is mounting on the remaining state governments and dioceses to publicly back the evidence on reading so schools are not left to work it out for themselves. Just last month, for example, the ACT government committed to launching an inquiry into literacy and numeracy instruction in its schools.

But Australia still has a long way to go. While many states have worked out the right destination, they still need to pin down a clear road map to get there.

Unless governments commit to a strong implementation plan, and buckle up for the long haul, there is a real risk that political announcements will remain just that.

Boosting professional development for classroom teachers, including a step change in the quality and frequency of instructional coaching, will be key.

While promised reforms through the teacher education expert panel review will better prepare the next generation of teachers, today’s children don’t have decades to wait for these benefits to flow through the system.

Schools need practical guidelines now on the best way to teach reading, higher-quality curriculum materials and assessment tools to put it into practice, and literacy specialists in every school to oversee the approach and provide on-the-ground support.

Governments also need to extend their focus beyond the first three years of school, to encourage schools to strengthen students’ vocabulary and background knowledge – which are key to comprehension – and embed robust intervention programs, such as small-group tutoring, to catch up struggling students in upper primary and high school.

Political commitments are valuable. Real change on the ground is even better. Making sure all children and young adults can read must be a top priority for all governments.

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