Why Australia needs a ‘Reading Guarantee’ - Podcast

Australia has a reading problem. A third of children can’t read proficiently. In the typical Australian school classroom of 24 students, eight can’t read well. This has huge flow on effects for their success in life and costs Australia billions of dollars. And the worst thing is, it’s preventable.

In this podcast, authors Jordana Hunter and Anika Stobart discuss their report, The Reading Guarantee: How to give every child the best chance for success, and offer a new plan of how to reform reading education in Australia.


Kat Clay: Australia has a reading problem. A third of children can’t read proficiently. In the typical Australian school classroom of 24 students, eight can’t read well. This has huge flow on effects for their success in life and costs Australia billions of dollars. And the worst thing is, it’s preventable. In our latest report, The Reading Guarantee, how to give every child the best chance for success, our experts tackle the problem of reading in schools and offer a new plan of how to reform reading education in Australia.

I’m Kat Clay, and today we’ll hear from two of the authors of the report, Jordana Hunter and Anika Stobart. So Anika, I’m going to kick off with you. The report covered some fairly serious issues with student literacy in Australia. What is the problem with Australia’s reading performance?

Anika Stobart: Our report shows that Australia actually has quite a shockingly high proportion of students who are not meeting grade level expectations in reading. So the 2023 NAPLAN results has a new proficiency benchmark, which is set at a reasonable baseline expectation of how well student should be reading given their grade level and 2023 results show that one in three children on average aren’t meeting this proficiency benchmark.

This is, reflected in other international reading assessments as well. Underperformance has persisted for some time. So over the past 10 years, NAPLAN results show some improvement in year three and year five reading performance, but this has not carried through to secondary school.

And in fact, secondary schools, students are declining in their reading performance. So according to the international assessment PISA,year 10 students between 2000 and 2018 declined by eight months of achievement. but the most recent report shows that this has held steady.

Kat Clay: So who’s most affected by this?

Anika Stobart: So we see that disadvantaged students in particular face big barriers to reading proficiency. The 2023 NAPLAN results showed that about half, so one in two students who are regional or rurally based aren’t meeting the proficiency benchmark. And it’s even higher for Indigenous students. But it’s important to note this is not something that just affects disadvantaged students.

We see that one in five advantaged students are also not meeting this proficiency benchmark.

Kat Clay: So it’s quite shocking that it affects so many children and yet isn’t really being addressed. I’m wondering what the flow on consequences of this are.

Anika Stobart: I think a lot of the consequences will be quite obvious to listeners. We all do some kind of reading every day in our lives. You know, reading is really a foundational skill that is a building block for learning and for life. So students that are not proficient will struggle to engage with class content and keep up with their peers, this really affects,The widening gaps we see in performance over time with poor readers,falling further and further behind over time.

And this can be quite distressing for students. You know, it can affect their wellbeing and even put a lot of stress on families. You know, students who are not proficient are more likely to drop out of school, end up in the justice system and earn less or be unemployed in the future. it also affects Australia as a whole.

Kat Clay: So we estimate that for those students in school today who are hardest hit by poor reading performance, the cost to Australia is about 40 billion dollars over their lifetimes. these students lose out on potential earnings, but we also, governments lose out on tax revenue, and we all spend more on welfare, justice, public health.Yeah. I found that really interesting in the report that I hadn’t quite connected the two things in my head, like poor reading performance at school and the flow on impacts to businesses later on in life. And that’s one of the really interesting aspects of this report. Jordana, you call for Australia here to commit to a reading guarantee.

And I want to know what you mean by that.

Jordana Hunter: That’s right, Kat. We are calling on all states and territories and sector leaders as well in the Catholic and independent sector to commit to a reading guarantee. And what we mean by that is really building that high reliability system so that parents and students themselves can have confidence,that they’ll have best practice teaching every day.

So best practice teaching will be common practice in all of our classrooms across the 10, 000 schools right across the country. And the reason we think we need to focus more on that high reliability system is that schools are complex places. We know students bring a lot of complexity,when they come to school each morning when that bell rings.

 There are teacher workforce shortages. There’s a lot going on inside schools. despite best intentions, it can be a struggle to make sure,all teachers every day have got the skills they need, the resources and supports they need to really, uh, deliver that effective reading program.

So what we want government to do is just think more about layering on those different systems and supports to just lift the odds of that high reliability teaching practice day in, day out.

Kat Clay: You’ve seen evidence of that happening overseas as well. I mean, you talk about in the report, the Mississippi Miracle, you know, there is a basis for that reading reform where it has worked internationally as well.

Jordana Hunter: So we have seen some countries really embrace the evidence around effective practice and lean a lot further into providing clear guidance to schools and really building up professional development so we can build the expertise of the profession. That was a core part of work done in Mississippi and the Mississippi story is quite remarkable.

Mississippi was one of the lowest performing states in all of the U. S. They struggle with really high levels of poverty and student disadvantage in that state but through a real commitment to,the research evidence about effective practice, a lot of investment in professional development for teachers and,closer monitoring of student outcomes, they’ve really managed to turn it around

They’re on par almost with the average across the United States now. So it is possible to do this work.

Anika Stobart: I’ll also just add to that, uh, Jordy that,Mississippi’s success was seen by the rest of the U. S. since their reforms were introduced in 2013, over 30 U. S. states have,emulated what Mississippi has done and introduced big reforms to improve reading performance in their states as well.

Kat Clay: So it’s really great to know that it has worked and it can work in other countries. it’s a good segue to talk about what is evidence based reading instruction in Australia because, you know, there’s been some heated debates about what is the best method here.

Hey, what have you uncovered?

Jordana Hunter: I think one of the key things,to understand is that English is an incredibly complex language. and learning to read in English takes a long time. It takes a lot longer to learn to read in English than it does in, say, Italian or Finnish.

Research evidence, I think, is increasingly clear that in those early years of school, there should be a strong, systematic focus on teaching students,phonemic awareness and phonics, which really boils down to students, understanding how letters and sounds relate to each other. We often call this decoding when it comes to reading written words.

And there needs to be lots of opportunities for students to work through a systematic sequence of letters and sounds and have lots of practice decoding those sounds so that they can lift those words off the page. But at the same time, we also know that students need to be able to comprehend the language that they’re reading.

Some of the best ways to do this particularly before students have learned how to read is for lots of opportunities for read aloud. So this is when the teacher takes, you know, great story, a ripping yarn, they sit with the students, on the mat perhaps, and they read that story to them.

And there’s an opportunity for students to experience that beautiful language,learn that great vocabulary. Understand more complex sentence structures, even before they’ve learned fully to decode those words for themselves and that work around vocabulary and also background knowledge that needs to continue right through school.

So, learning to read well is a process that starts sometimes before students even. commenced at school, but certainly continues right through to the end of school and indeed right through their lives.

Kat Clay: So this all sounds great on paper, Jordana, but I mean, how much is it actually happening in Australia? Maybe I’ll get you to talk to that, Anika?

Anika Stobart: There is some really excellent practice in Australia. So in our report, we profile two schools, Churchill Primary School, which is based regionally in Victoria, and Parafield Gardens High School,based in Adelaide. And these schools are doing some really great work, but, uh, we had a lot we could have chosen from. But while some schools are really taking great strides in implementing best practice, the issue really here is scale.

And we’ve also seen that a lot of schools,aren’t providing all the necessary catch up supports that struggling students need as well so they don’t fall behind. So for example, a 2023 Australian survey of secondary teachers, which was led by the Australian education research organization,showed that only half of teachers said they consistently supported students that were identified as struggling in reading.

So listeners might be wondering why is this the case? Why isn’t best practice everywhere? a key part of this is that there’s been a lot of disagreement over the past decades about how to teach. reading effectively, with some schools using evidence based approaches and others not.

But while the evidence has been clear for some time, governments haven’t always taken this evidence seriously and haven’t been clear enough with teachers or done enough to support teachers and school leaders to get it right in their classrooms every day.

Kat Clay: And I think, you know, it’s a problem you’ve identified in multiple reports. And something we’re going to get into, very shortly because know, at Grattan, we’re not just about talking about the problems.

We’re about posing solutions and you’ve gone away and you’ve come up with a six step plan and there’s a lot in this. So we’re kind of going to break it down and talk through it a little bit one by one. Anika, I was wondering if you could kick us off with those first steps of the plan.

Anika Stobart: That’s right Kat, we have a big agenda for governments and sector leaders to improve reading performance and we think it’s worth a lot of investment and focus from governments given how fundamental reading is. So the first step in our six step plan is getting governments to commit to at least 90 percent of Australian students becoming proficient readers according to our plan.

So we know from the evidence that nearly every child can learn to read well if they’ve given high quality instruction and the right amount of support, therefore, our long term goal really should be to ensure that at least we should be hitting this 90 percent target, but given where we’re at in Australia, we recommend an interim target of improving the proportion of students that are proficient by 15 percentage points over 10 years. This is a long term project. We can’t solve it overnight. And so for Australia, it means that we would be moving from 68 percent of students being proficient to 83 percent of students being proficient in 10 years time. That might sound like a lot, but we think this is an achievable target.

It means only six more year, three students per school,would need to be proficient in 10 years time.

Kat Clay: You’ve outlined all the numbers there, but when you think about six more year three students becoming proficient, that’s going to have such a huge flow on effect.

Anika Stobart: I would also say like targets,don’t obviously work in a vacuum, you know, you need to have a whole bunch of policy levers that underpin that, They really help with focusing government efforts and ensure that there’s a continued commitment to this goal over time.

And we see that it’s also an effective mechanism in other jurisdictions like Ireland and Ontario and Canada have had impressive results improving reading and numeracy performance against targets that they’ve set.

Jordana Hunter: 15 percentage points won’t get all states and territories all the way there to that 90 percent proficiency goal. and there are some jurisdictions that clearly have a lot more work to do than others. I’m thinking in particular Northern Territory, Tasmania, South Australia. They’ve got quite a long way to go.

For our jurisdictions like Victoria and ACT, they’re actually quite close to hitting that already. So if they put in a really strong effort over the next 10 years,to strive to reach that 15 percentage point uplift, they get awfully close to 90%. And that would be incredibly, uh, exciting, I think, for, for those jurisdictions.

And we would really encourage them to set themselves that goal and see if they can get there in 10 years time.

Kat Clay: So one of your recommendations is to give teachers school specific guidelines on effective reading instruction. could you elaborate a bit on that for me, Anika

Anika Stobart: So the guidance available to teachers today can be wrong. It can be vague or inconsistent. And we think there’s a real opportunity for governments to provide clearer guidelines to teachers and school leaders about, you know what the evidence says and what effective practice looks like.

Part of this, we think,governments can provide, practical tools as well to implement best practice in the classroom. What we’re calling essentially like a one stop shop for, you know, a harried or inexperienced school leader,giving them what they need, if they want to pick it up.

So this includes things like, you know, recommended reading programs, high quality curriculum materials, what assessment tools they could use, what an assessment schedule could look like and things like that. Just so that teachers and school leaders don’t have to find these things for themselves from scratch when there’s a lot of good guidance already out there.

Kat Clay: One of the parts of the plan that you’ve outlined is actually more assessments. Jordana, can you take us through that recommendation?

Jordana Hunter: And look, before your listeners roll their eyes and say, oh my gosh, are we really recommending our students get more assessments? I want to reassure you we’re talking about a very narrow set of additional assessments, and it’s really about making sure,in the first instance that teachers have got the information they need to make sure they can target their teaching as effectively as possible to,how students are tracking,in developing those critical reading skills.

So a small amount of assessment is a really important part of teaching effectively. So one of the big shifts we’re calling for, is a shift away from what’s sometimes called a wait to fail approach, which is this idea that, we teach our students the curriculum,we assess them at the end of the year.

and if they haven’t made learning progress,that we want them to make at the end of the year. Then we provide them with some additional support. Our recommendation is that we actually do that monitoring assessment more frequently. So ideally, all primary schools would be conducting universal screening of reading at least twice a year from that foundation year through to the end of year two, where we’re hoping that students will have mastered, the decoding elements of learning to read and moved on to reading to learn.

We also think that it’s important to be assessing students at the end of year six,through that transition period into secondary. Because we do hear that a lot of secondary schools are struggling with the fact that a large proportion of their incoming year seven students are not where they need to be with their reading, and it can take quite a while to work out which students need additional support.

So if that assessment can be done earlier, perhaps at the end of grade six before they transition into year seven, the secondary schools can hit the ground running in terms of making sure they’ve got the supports in place for those students that need it.

Unfortunately, we know some schools, are doing types of formative assessment, but the assessment tools they’re using are not as evidence based as they could be. We also hear that teachers are being overburdened with too many types of assessments. So, they’re using some assessments. That are really robust and evidence based and some assessments that aren’t and that’s where we produce this problem where we’ve got teachers struggling under the weight of assessment requirements and the poor old students are having to do far too many assessments, because some of the data that’s being collected is not actually that helpful.

So some clearer guidance. about the best assessment schedules to be using, to maximize that, evidence for teachers without overburdening teachers or overburdening students, we think is really important. The other thing that we think is really important in this space is to introduce a nationally consistent year one phonic screening check.

We see this really as a health check, a system health check,that would allow, Governments to understand how their system as a whole is tracking towards improving the uptake of those decoding skills in that critical early phase of a student’s education. So, ideally, students would sit that year 1 phonics check around term 3 of year 1.

We’re recommending a goal of 90 percent of students are proficient in that year 1 phonics check. for those students who don’t make that threshold level in year one, they have an opportunity to re sit that test in year two. And really what that would do is give governments a bit more confidence that those students who need a little bit longer and need a little bit more support to master decoding, getting that support in school.

Getting to the level we need them to be at by the end of grade 2. currently, some states and territories do have, uh, or are working towards having a mandatory year 1 phonics check, but it is not consistent across the country, and it is not in place in all states and territories. So we think that is a really,important next step,more at that system health check level,and that would just give us the confidence that things are on track, and it would also give governments the opportunity to know a little bit more about the schools in their jurisdictions that need some additional support to build capacity,and get students to where they need to be.

Kat Clay: So what does this mean for teachers? You’ve just mentioned, you know, they’ve got quite high workloads. Do they have training capacity to do this? Or are we asking them to do more with the little time that they have?

Jordana Hunter: Grattan has had a long standing interest in supporting teachers to develop professional expertise and making sure that professional expertise is where we need it to be in schools. The most important factor in schools affecting student outcomes is quality teaching.

We know that,and teachers really are the engine room of learning in the classroom and making sure that teachers have got the expertise they need is the linchpin that the success or failure of the strategy will hinge on that. There’s definitely some teachers out there that are doing exceptional work, and we think we need to do a better job of leveraging those.

So, one of our key recommendations is that all schools, primary or secondary, would have a literacy instructional specialist in their school. And that is someone who has deep expertise,in literacy instruction and also those important catch up,supports that we provide for students. They’d be better remunerated to recognize,the value of their expertise.

And they’d be,supported with time release to work shoulder to shoulder with other teachers in their school to make sure best practice is common practice. We also think there should be opportunities for all primary school teachers to be trained,in evidence based practice and build up their expertise, as well as,teachers in secondary school to develop,further expertise, particularly in that catch up support for our struggling teenagers.

One of the most effective forms of professional development, is the opportunity for teachers to visit another school that is doing exceptionally well and bringing all those different pieces of the puzzle together in a really comprehensive way.

So we think there’s a role for demonstration schools where those schools are really funded to open up their classrooms, invite other schools and teachers in to come and see what they’re doing, help them troubleshoot so that they can implement a better practice in their own school and showcase the great work that is happening around the country.

Kat Clay: Finally, these recommendations are very comprehensive. Jordana, where do you recommend governments start?

Jordana Hunter: Yeah, look, we are calling for a significant,change, a really significant step up. There is a lot in our report,for governments to,chew over. I think the first thing is just that piece around raising expectations,reading levels in the country are not where they need to be. And this is a preventable failure. We can do a lot more to get to that 90 percent reading proficiency. So I think the first step is just committing to lifting reading performance by 15 percentage points in 10 years. Those clear targets will help focus the mind. The second piece is around the workforce professional development piece.

We know there are some significant workforce shortages and building that strong cohort of expert literacy instructional specialists will take time. So investing in that workforce, building that pipeline, I think is critical, a critical place for jurisdictions to get started. The last thing I would say is that budgets are tight.

Even if there is some more money on the table through the National School Reform Agreement negotiations, there will always be pressure on those dollars going into schools. But our view is that there is actually quite a bit of money invested in leadership roles and invested in professional development already.

So there are opportunities to just look at those existing programs and those existing roles and make sure they’re working as effectively as possible. It might be as little as redesigning some of the existing professional development to bring it in line with the evidence base and making sure those leaders who are already in instructional leadership roles are equipped with the best curriculum resources, the best assessment tools and the best training to make the most of those roles that already exist.

Kat Clay: Thank you so much, Jordana and Anika. If you’d like to read their wonderful report, you can find it for free on our website at grattan.edu.au. If you’d like to talk to us more on social media, find us at Grattan Institute. And also if you’d like to support our work, support this podcast, please donate at grattan.edu.au/donate. Take care and thanks so much for listening.

Kat Clay

Head of Digital Communications
Kat Clay is the Head of Digital Communications at Grattan Institute. She has more than a decade of experience in digital content and creative services across the non-profit and government sectors.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.