In addition to the personal benefits that arises from sharing a story with a child, making a choice from a menu of options, or being challenged from the ideas written in a newspaper – literacy supports health, employment and well-being outcomes over the life-course.
In 2019, one in five Tasmanian grade seven students started the year at or below the National Minimum Standard (NMS) for reading. The minimum standard represents a very low level of reading skill, so the 1,437 Tasmanians who started grade 7 in 2019, is actually a very conservative estimate of the true number of grade 7 Tasmanian students who struggle with reading. Those who are not reading proficiently by this age are highly likely to struggle with the demands of the wider curriculum and are more likely to not complete school.
This poor level of reading skill was identified in both the Year 3 and Year 5 NAPLAN assessments for this grade 7 cohort. Evidence suggests that what is being done is not yet improving results. Most students who were at or below the NMS in grade 3 and grade 5, still were by the time they started high school. Furthermore, the proportion of grade seven students who were at or above the NMS has been declining since 2014, despite a gain in the average mean score.
In addition to the personal benefits that accrue from literacy there are broader economic and societal gains. It is estimated that for every cohort that doesn’t complete school, costs the Australian economy $12 billion over their lifetime.
In Tasmania, over half (57%) of those of working age (15 to 64 years) have not completed year 12. Of those who have completed year 12, three quarters (75.2%) are employed, as are 68.1% of those who completed year 10. Only 38% of those who completed year 9 or below are employed.
When being literate is vital to secure individual, social and economic outcomes for Tasmania, why is it not a public policy and industry priority of the highest order?
The Business Council of Australia’s recent publication, “The Modern Worker: a guide to what employers want”, explicitly outlines employer expectations for the first day of work. Literacy and numeracy capabilities are a pre-requisite. The BCA encapsulates literacy as the ability to read and write an email using sentences, understanding vocabulary and the meaning of words in a sentence and paragraph, being able to follow instructions in manuals and interpret, assess and evaluate information from the perspective of the job as well as oral communication skills; being able to hold professional conversations with colleagues, clients or customers. These are literacy skills many of us take for granted, but, in Tasmania, almost half the working age population is not functionally literate.
Literacy skills need to be supported from birth and then throughout the lifecourse. There are ways to do this.
Sharing books, stories, songs and rhymes every day from birth fosters emergent literacy development and supports attachment. Reading and talking to young children builds language skills and sparks imagination. Reading, looking at books, or sharing stories is also a special time to snuggle up and connect. The Channel Basics, using an evidence-based model, is working with children, families and communities to foster early childhood development outcomes.
Fivefromfive, AUSPELD and Learning Difficulties Australia recently launched a plan to have all students reading by the end of primary school; the Primary Reading Pledge. In the plan they provide a framework to ensure that the number of children who finish primary school in Australia unable to read is reduced to near zero.
The #primaryreadingpledge calls on all Australian Education Ministers to ensure that schools and systems are able to provide children the high quality evidence-based reading instruction they need (and deserve). The pledge argues that NAPLAN is an indicator that should be acted upon if students are identified in grade 3 as not meeting the NMS. Through direct and explicit intervention - reading instruction based on the cognitive processes of learning to read - all children should be supported so they do not start grade 7 below the NMS.
Recognising the importance of reengaging adults with opportunities to gain literacy skills is vital and achievable. 26TEN has made positive inroads and the work of former Tasmanian of the Year Rosalie Martin is also to be applauded in leading the charge for the #100percentliteracy goal in Tasmania.
A continued policy focus on core educational skills – such as literacy – is vital for Tasmania’s prosperity. There is much more to be done to ensure that literacy is at the core of policy, planning and program activity now and into the future across government, industry and the community.
Dr Lisa Denny is an independent Workforce Demographer and Dr Becky Shelley is the Deputy Director at the Peter Underwood Centre for Educational Attainment at the University of Tasmania.
This article was published as a Talking Point in the Mercury on Tuesday 8 September 2020.