The stage is set for a big change in how ACT public schools teach reading.

Later this month, it will be pens down for the government’s expert panel on literacy and numeracy in ACT public schools. Their report will then be on Education Minister Yvette Berry’s desk for consideration.

Here’s hoping they chart a new path forward on reading. No other area of education is more urgent.

Reading is a foundational skill that unlocks the broader curriculum and empowers young people to grasp opportunities for themselves and their communities.

Almost all students can learn to read if given the right instruction and support. But last year’s NAPLAN results show that in the ACT – the most advantaged jurisdiction in Australia on average – about one in four students cannot read proficiently.

Poor readers at school tend to remain poor readers throughout their lives. This has far-reaching consequences.

Grattan Institute research suggests that for those students in school today who are hardest hit by poor reading performance and leave school early, the cost to Australia is about $40 billion over their lifetimes.

Not only do students lose out on potential earnings, governments lose out on tax revenue, and spend more on welfare, justice, and public health. Reading failure is a preventable tragedy that the ACT does not need to accept. Evidence shows us how to fix this problem.

First, all children should be taught how to read through systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics; exposure to rich literature through read-alouds; and explicit teaching to build vocabulary, fluency, and background knowledge.

As students master the ability to decode new words in early primary school, they can switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. From here, students still need explicit teaching that deepens their knowledge and vocabulary all through school, so they can comprehend what they read – the ultimate goal of reading.

Second, schools should implement a response-to-intervention approach, which quickly catches any students who are falling behind and provides them with extra support to get back on track.

The question is, how do we get this happening in all ACT schools?

We can look overseas for pointers. Many international jurisdictions are stepping up to the reading challenge. Education systems in England, Ireland, some states in Canada, and even many states in the US, have introduced reforms over the past 10 years to close the gap between the research evidence and classroom practice. These examples show us that a system-wide approach is needed. Tinkering around the edges won’t get the shift required.

The ACT has considerable work to do to catch up to these jurisdictions that are closing the gap between the best evidence on effective reading instruction and practice in the classroom. But where there is clear political leadership, reform is possible.

We recommend a six-step Reading Guarantee strategy to ensure every child in the ACT is taught how to read well, regardless of where they go to school.

First, the ACT government should publicly commit to ensuring at least 90 per cent of ACT students learn to read proficiently at school (allowing for the fact that there will always be a small proportion of students who are unable to learn to read well because of factors outside a school’s control).

The ACT could reach this goal within 10 years. It would require, on average, about 10 extra year 3 students (for example) in each ACT primary school to be reading at a proficient level in a decade’s time.

Second, the ACT government should provide schools and teachers with specific, practical guidelines on how to best teach reading; practical tools such as validated reading programs and curriculum materials; and assessment schedules. This would ensure teachers aren’t left in the dark about what best practice reading instruction involves.

Third, the ACT government should put the right curriculum materials in the hands of teachers – by providing grants to enable schools to purchase materials that are quality-assured, and by phasing out materials that are not aligned with the evidence about the best ways to teach reading.

Fourth, the ACT government should require all primary schools to screen students’ reading skills at least twice a year from the Foundation year to year 2, and provide extra help to students struggling with reading, as well as in the transition to secondary school.

Fifth, to boost the professional expertise of teachers, the ACT government should require that at least 25 per cent of primary teachers’ professional development hours for accreditation purposes be focused on evidence-based reading instruction.

The ACT government should also fund well-paid, expert literacy instructional specialists in every primary and secondary school. These expert teachers should be responsible for overseeing the whole-school literacy program, designing catch-up support programs, and coaching teachers in the classroom.

Finally, the ACT government should mandate a nationally consistent year 1 Phonics Screening Check to assess students’ decoding skills. This would provide a nationwide “health check” on early reading performance and help target support to poorer performing schools. Change will take time to embed. But it will be worth the effort if it gives all ACT students the best chance of reading success. Over to you, Minister Berry.