The roadmap for system-wide reform is laid out in a new report by The Grattan Institute, in which Dr Jordana Hunter, Anika Stobart and Amy Haywood call out the nation’s monumental ‘reading problem’ and put forward a six-pronged attack to banish the whole-language approach so that every student – regardless of their postcode – receives high quality structured literacy instruction in the classroom. 

One third of all students are below the basic level of reading proficiency, Haywood, Grattan’s education deputy program director, tells EducationHQ

The state of affairs only worsens for disadvantaged students, with two in three unable to read proficiently. 

Meanwhile, half of all students from regional and remote areas are failing to meet the reading benchmark. 

“We don’t think that we should accept [these statistics], we actually think that [it] has too much of a cost to individual students, but also for Australia as a whole, and that we’re failing those students. 

“And the sad thing is, that it’s actually a preventable tragedy, because we do know what strong and effective reading instruction looks like – we just need to make sure that we’re getting it happening in every classroom…” Haywood says.

The report emphasises that structured literacy is the best approach and draws on decades of research evidence, including cognitive science, by explicitly and systematically teaching students the critical sub-skills needed for reading, including solid phonics knowledge. 

A former secondary English teacher, Haywood has seen first-hand the battle struggling readers face as they move through the system. 

 This, she says, only fuels her quest for a commitment to change. 

“If you’ve worked in a high school, it means that you can see particularly the compounding impacts for disadvantaged students,” Haywood says. 

“When you get to senior level subjects, and I taught a lot of VCE English, the vocabulary demands and the background knowledge demands for students are a lot higher.

“It’s similar in other subjects, too. If you think about biology, theres a lot of specific vocabulary, and it can be overwhelming if there are too many words that students don’t recognise – it actually really reduces their ability to comprehend the material that they’re covering in classes…”

The report estimates that for those students suffering the burden of poor reading skills, the cost to Australia is about $40 billion over their lifetimes. 

Aside from the economic impact, Haywood says the personal cost endured by poor readers can be devastating.

“They are actually more likely to drop out of school, end up in the justice system, earn less or be unemployed,” she flags. 

Former secondary teacher Amy Haywood says she and her co-authors are “part of a chorus of voices” advocating for structured literacy to be a mainstay in all Australian classrooms. 

Policymakers and system leaders must pledge that at least 90 per cent of students will become proficient readers – the level at which they can access curriculum content, Haywood urges. 

This is by no means an overly ambitious target either, she adds. 

“There’s rigorous evidence that if you give students strong whole class instruction and then catch up support when they need it, actually you can get higher than 90 per cent, some studies have found it’s 98 per cent.”

Australia ought to follow the lead of countries like Singapore and Ireland that have made bold policy changes to help schools teach reading in line with the evidence, the report says. 

The strategy puts forward six steps to be adopted by governments and school sector leaders:

  1. Commit publicly to ensuring that at least 90 per cent of students learn to read proficiently at school in the long-term. 
  2. Give all teachers specific, practical guidelines on the best way to teach reading and the best catch-up interventions.
  3. Ensure schools have well-sequenced and knowledge-rich curriculum materials, plus effective assessment tools for all year levels. 
  4. Require schools to do universal screening of reading skills and embed a ‘response to intervention model’ to help struggling students catch-up. 
  5. Ensure teachers are equipped to teach using structured literacy through training, new quality-assured micro-credentials, and by creating specialist literacy roles in school to model best practice.
  6. Bolster system monitoring and accountability by mandating a nationally consistent Year 1 Phonics Screening Check for all students, and strengthen school and principal reviews.

Haywood says there is currently too much autonomy given to schools in choosing how reading is taught, which is resulting in huge differences in instruction across the country. 

A national report released last year found while New South Wales and South Australia are forging system-wide changes to lift literacy standards in schools, Victoria and the ACT are failing to recognise there is a dire problem with reading outcomes and seem uncommitted to moving away from balanced literacy and ‘whole language’ approaches. 

Compounding the problem is inadequate preservice preparation, inconsistent messaging from states about what evidence-based instruction entails, poorly organised resources within schools, and a lack of teachers with structured literacy expertise to coach others, Haywood adds. 

In order to spread best practice at scale, the report proposes ‘demonstration schools’ be established across sectors, modelled on the UK’s ‘English Hubs’ program. 

Haywood believes lighthouse schools would work as an excellent model for teachers’ professional development across all jurisdictions. 

“They actually make something abstract – the best way to teach reading, how to implement a strong phonics programme, but then also with vocabulary and exposure to rich text, and also do a tutoring catch-up programme alongside – they actually make all those abstract recommendations real in a school.

“The implementation is actually the hardest, because it’s where the rubber meets the road...”

Haywood says she and her co-authors are “part of a chorus of voices” advocating for evidence-based instruction to be a mainstay in all classrooms. 

“What would it require to design a system that provides higher reliability of reading success for every student? 

“…we’re not saying that this will be solved tomorrow. 

“We do think it’s a long-term strategy, and will require ongoing investment from government, but we think it’s really worthwhile.” 

Hunter, education program director at Grattan Institute, believes “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,” she says.