Australian literacy levels have been in freefall since the turn of the century, and this has resulted in underprepared school leavers and a decline in teacher expertise, according to an analysis by the Centre of Independent Studies.
In their latest paper, authors Deidre Clary and Fiona Mueller found that one in five Year 9 students failed to meet the national minimum writing standard in 2018 when analysing NAPLAN results.
By Year 9, boys are also, on average, up to two years behind girls when it comes to writing skills.
As a result, students are entering teaching degrees in university with a low level of writing proficiency and graduate with a lack of confidence in the area.
Clary and Mueller said that the loss of teacher competence in English has had “dire consequences” for students and will make the literacy issue harder to fix with each passing generation.
“It is possible that the loss of teacher expertise in English language usage may be insurmountable,” the report said.
Mueller said it was an issue that affected every Australian as it leads to bigger questions of citizenship, participation in democracy, and confidence that young Australians need for the future.
“I think that’s one of the key differences,” Mueller told The Epoch Times. “That if our students are not confident in this fundamental skill area, they are much less well prepared for the future than their counterparts in parts of Europe where we can see that they’ve never lost that really strong focus on sophisticated language acquisition.”
Mueller said it was well past the time for educators and policymakers to be really honest in their evaluation of what policies have and haven’t worked.
“I think if we don’t do that, we really risk repeating the mistakes of the past and not bringing improvements for Australian students,” she said.
Improving Writing and Literacy
Mueller said there were three key areas that could provide the fastest solution to the issue.
The 2021 review into the national curriculum offered the ideal opportunity to develop an intellectual framework that would prioritise English language and English literacy across all levels of schooling. However, it did not include this.
It was also important to ensure alignment between curriculum expectations and initial teacher education programs across universities, so aspiring teachers are clear on the expectations of their professional skills.
“Initial teacher education programs have largely dropped the ball on writing instruction,” the report said. “At least in terms of ensuring that all graduating teachers demonstrate sophisticated control of the rules and conventions of English.”
The third key area that would take longer was to undertake a forensic investigation into how the problems arose.
Other recommendations include replacing the NAPLAN writing test with an annual writing proficiency assessment and creating a high national standard for teacher education programs.
“Teacher education programs have to lift the expectations; many of them have no compulsory units in English language and literacy,” Mueller said. “The variation across the country is [also] a key problem.”
The steady decline of Australian literacy has been documented for years, but the paper also outlines how education policies on writing have evolved since the birth of the nation.
In 1901, the year Australia became a nation, the English language was rigidly organised, based on British pedagogy, and repetition and rote learning was the standard.
During the 1960s, a Karl Marx-influenced learning theory known as “critical pedagogy” by Paolo Freire that rejected traditional education models began to popularise. The report says it intended to liberate and empower students to “understand their own personal reality and become politically active in their fight against the ‘oppressor.’”
During this decade, rigorous teaching of phonics began to disappear as “liberated” teachers embraced new methodologies.
Then in the 1980s, Australian academics were also turning to “critical literacy,” which introduced the notion, as explained by Heather Coffey (pdf), that all written texts that conveyed meaning would help students to “better understand power, inequality, and injustice.”
By the 2000s, Australian education policies were filled with “fashionable fads,” resulting in unclear policy and confusing standards.
Present Day Consequences
The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) analysed Australia’s 2018 PISA results and said it painted a picture of the long-term decline in overall education, including students falling behind by almost a year in reading.
“We have observed continuing falls in our results since PISA began in 2000, and yet again the data tell us we have failed to lift our performance,” ACER Deputy CEO Sue Thomson said.
“In fact, based on international benchmarks, we have moved further away from [a world-class education system] over the last twenty years,” he said in March.
He described the analysis paper as another stark reminder about the marked fall in education standards despite huge funding increases.
“For too long, education faculties have promoted ideological fads at the expense of evidence-based teaching practices in reading and writing,” Tudge told The Australian. “We have to change this for the benefit of our children and nation.”