Australia has a reading problem.
A third of our children can’t read proficiently.
In the typical Australian school classroom of 24 students, eight can’t read well. Australia is failing these children. And it’s a preventable tragedy – the reason most of those students can’t read well enough is that we aren’t teaching them well enough.
For those students in school today who are hardest hit by poor reading performance, the cost to Australia is $40 billion over their lifetimes.
Students who struggle with reading are more likely to fall behind their classmates, become disruptive, and drop out of school. They are more likely to end up unemployed or in poorly paid jobs.
A key cause of Australia’s reading problem is decades of disagreement about how to teach reading. But the evidence is now clear.
The ‘whole-language’ approach – which became popular in the 1970s and is based on the idea that learning to read is an easy, natural, unconscious process – does not work for all students. Its remnants should be banished from Australian schools.
Instead, all schools should use the ‘structured literacy’ approach right through school, which includes a focus on phonics in the early years.
Students should learn to sound out the letters of each word, and teachers should read aloud rich literature to their class. Once students have mastered decoding new words, they still need explicit teaching to build up their background knowledge and vocabulary, so they can comprehend what they read – the ultimate goal of reading.
If schools don’t take this approach, disadvantaged students will be left even further behind their advantaged peers, who tend to have richer learning opportunities outside of school.
All state and territory governments, and Catholic and independent school sector leaders, should commit to a six-step ‘Reading Guarantee’:
1. Pledge that at least 90 per cent of Australian students will become proficient readers.
2. Give principals and teachers specific guidelines on how to teach reading in line with the evidence on what works best.
3. Provide schools with the high-quality curriculum materials and assessments that teachers need to teach reading well.
4. Require schools to do universal screening of students’ reading skills and help struggling students to catch-up.
5. Ensure teachers have the knowledge and skills they need, through extra training, and by appointing Literacy Instructional Specialists in schools.
6. Mandate a nationally consistent Year 1 Phonics Screening Check, and regularly review schools’ and principals’ performance on teaching their students to read.
Australia needs a reading revolution. We need to transform the way we teach reading in school, so that every Australian child gets their best chance in life. This report shows how to do it.