Our 15 year olds are continuing to fall behind in literacy, according to latest figures from the national testing scheme NAPLAN.
So far, the solutions devised by our politicians have been useless.
First the Labor government decided that naming and shaming schools on the public website MySchools might do the trick.
This has the same logic as saying to a child who is struggling with reading - we’ll publicly label you with a low reading level and see if that makes you pull up your socks and start reading. And no educator would be silly enough to do that…
Then the Liberal government decided that phonics was the answer.
If only 15 year olds knew their sounds, that would solve their struggle with comprehending inferential meaning in complex texts. Surely only a politician could see the logic in that…
Both solutions fail to understand the problem.
Language impoverished children
The problem is our education system is producing language impoverished children.
Students reach the middle years of high school with poor vocabularies and unable to work with language in sophisticated ways. In short, they write like they speak.
Show me a failing high school student and I’ll show you a student who hasn’t understood the difference between spoken and written language.
Writing is not just “speaking” written down - unless you are direct messaging someone on Facebook or Twitter!
So how do we improve the reading and writing skills of our 15 year olds?
First, improve their literary diet in primary school.
Second, keep nourishing them all through high school.
Read real books
We are paying the price for the banal levelled reading programs we feed our children in primary school.
We teach children to read on a diet of white bread decodable texts.
These easy and predictable texts with their controlled grammar and vocabulary essentially starve our children of the skills they need to do the authentic reading required of real life, and expected of them once they get into high school. And so they reach high school malnourished, unable to deal with the literate language they encounter.
This affects their writing too, because reading is the key to good writing.
If we want students to write a considered and convincing argument, then they must be reading exemplary arguments.
If we want them to write an evocative and engaging narrative then they must be reading great narratives. The narratives and persuasive texts of the reading schemes that dominate classrooms are neither great nor exemplary.
Learning to read, and reading to learn
We think reading and writing is done in the younger years. We teach them simple decoding in the first years of school and somehow think we have inoculated them against literacy failure for the rest of their lives. This is clearly not the case, as evidenced by our NAPLAN results.
Reading predicts success at school but the association between early reading success and later reading success declines as schooling goes on.
Reading in primary school is not the same as reading in high school. Language becomes more complex and more abstract as children progress through school.
Those who are weak readers - who had met their primary school KPIs because they had decoded their way successfully through the levelled readers of primary school - cannot cope.
Now they are expected to read to learn, and they don’t have the rich repertoire of language to draw upon to do this successfully. As a consequence they avoid reading and writing. The more they avoid, they less successful they become.
Learning to read, in itself, is not sufficient preparation for reading to learn.
Children require reading and writing instruction through all their years of schooling. And because language also becomes very specific to disciplines as we move through school, it is the high school subject teachers who must teach how reading and writing works in their discipline - even mathematics teachers!
Something to write home about
To write well, you need to have something to write about - opinions, knowledge and experiences. You have to know your topic well enough to argue a point, or build a plausible world for a reader to inhabit. You also need the language skills to convey those messages - to be able to play with grammatical structures, and select from a broad and diverse vocabulary so you find exactly the right words for the job at hand.
Similarly, to read well, you must have life experiences to bring to your understanding of the text. You also need a sophisticated grasp of grammar and a rich vocabulary, in order to comprehend the author’s intent.
These skills are not achieved with a spoon fed formulaic journey through a set of banal readers, teacher scripts and writing templates.
Instead classrooms should be full of discussion, inquiry and experiences - these are the nourishing foundations of a rich language repertoire.
Students should be reading real books, and being shown how language is working in those books to beguile, persuade, entertain and inform, and then being taught to use those same tools in their own writing.
Does that sound like the classrooms you know?