What Can a Nation Do When Over a Million Students Cannot Read Proficiently?

The steady decline in reading proficiency has reached another milestone in Australia.
What Can a Nation Do When Over a Million Students Cannot Read Proficiently?
Children's books sitting in the Mary Wilson Branch of Orange County Library in Seal Beach, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2023. (Sophie Li/The Epoch Times)
Gabriël Moens

The perennial discussion about the reading ability of Australia’s primary and high school children reached yet another milestone with the publication of a report by the Grattan Institute.

The report, The Reading Guarantee: How to give every child the best chance of success, reveals that Australia is experiencing a reading crisis.

“Australia has an unacceptably high number of children and adolescents who fail to reach minimal proficiency standards in reading,” the report said, noting that “about one in three Australian students are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading.”

It surmises that Australia “has too many ‘instructional casualties’–students who should read proficiently, but haven’t been taught well.”

Thus, a third of primary and high school children—approximately 1.2 million students—cannot read proficiently at the level expected of them at their age, and when they fall behind, there are inadequate resources to help them become confident readers.

The importance of reading to the country is recognised: “Failure to achieve proficiency has real personal costs for children and young people, as well as detrimental effect on schools, the economy and for society as a whole. We calculate that for those students in school today who are hardest hit by poor reading performance, the cost to Australia is about $40 billion over their lifetimes.”

Of course, the problem highlighted by Grattan is not new. But it confirms that the problem remains unsolved and the number of children who suffer from a reading disability, steadily increases.

There are many reasons for this.

The report identifies the usual suspects: differences in the way reading is taught in classrooms, poor school resources, and lack of knowledge and skills on the part of teachers to teach reading skills.

Hard to Focus in the Digital Age

One of the problems not discussed in any detail is the ready availability, and allure, of mobile computer devices, including tablets and smartphones.

Most Australian children have smartphones and tablets by the age of 11 or earlier,  even if they cannot read.

The pressure on parents to supply these gadgets to their children is unrelenting because peer pressure makes withholding these devices a non-option.

Video and games do not require the application of reading skills, and discourage children from reading because moving pictures requires no intellectual effort and is more fun.

But this passivity means children are not stimulated to read.

The click-and-view mentality, associated with the use of digital devices certainly does not sharpen the critical abilities of children, who are merely receptacles of visual stimuli.

The situation has surely become worse during the pandemic, when learning did not even involve physical attendance at school.

Often, students are caught in a vicious circle because an inability to read also necessarily results in deficient writing.

Moreover, if the parents of these children cannot read and write properly (a situation that has reached epidemic proportions among the adult population), they are unable to impart that joyous skill to their children.

In such a case, it is easier to outsource it to schools where teaching standards are also under the microscope.

What Reading Used to Mean

I recall that after the Second World War, in many European countries, children would come home from school with a short story of about 30 pages which they were expected to read and discuss in class a few days later.

Children read captivating stories about the great historical figures of Western civilisation and their courageous, patriotic, and intrepid contribution to the moulding of their country.

These young readers would immerse themselves in the story and anticipate the heroics of the protagonists, leading to the inevitable climax. It was thrilling, suspenseful and exciting.

But nowadays, children do not read a whole story or book anymore. Teachers might select a few paragraphs of a book which are then commented upon.

Thus, children do not delve into the mysteries of the story; they fail to appreciate the character-building of the protagonists and are deprived of experiencing the thrill of the story’s denouement.

“Classics” fare even worse. If they have not been cancelled in favour of mediocre DEI-compliant works, they are merely mentioned, usually in a negative way, but never read. Hence, children may lack imagination, a trait that is progressively being wiped out in schools.

It is time to be reminded of Garrison Keillor’s iconic quote: “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States.
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