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Australia’s literacy woes demand fresh thinking

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Many have tried many have failed, there have been any number of approaches to teaching literacy in Australia and most seem to have made little impact on the unacceptably bad level of teenage reading and writing skills.

Nearly one in five Australian adolescents performs poorly in literacy – and that number is growing – so a rethink and a shift towards a more holistic approach could be in order.

Literacy expert Dr Margaret Merga surveyed more than 300 teachers working with struggling literacy learners in mainstream high school English classes around Australia.

“The survey clearly showed that interventions focusing solely on developing literacy skills in the classroom may be having little impact,” Merga said.

“Rather than allocating considerable expense to high-stakes testing regimes, or embracing silver bullet approaches, we need to be more adaptive in our approach, looking holistically at students and their circumstances.

“For example, teachers using skills-based interventions may only have limited success with students who have become profoundly disengaged through years of failure in literacy, or who have high rates of absenteeism from school.”

Surveyed teachers said meeting the needs of students with a wide range of abilities and difficulties in a mainstream classroom was challenging.

“Teachers may be catering to multiple learning barriers in their classroom, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, diagnosed learning difficulties such as dyslexia, or students acquiring English as an Additional Language,” Dr Merga said.

“However students may also be struggling for a wide variety of other, non-academic reasons and not fall into any of these categories.”

Absenteeism, home factors, student attitudes and engagement, school and systems factors, and disabilities influencing learning were also considered major barriers to literacy learning.

Merga called for researchers and schools to work closely with students and their communities.

“Teachers need strong support and resourcing from governance and policymakers to help identify and enact innovative and multi-faceted solutions,” she said.

“Researchers must listen closely to teachers and school leaders rather than imposing top-down findings on schools that may not be contextually appropriate, or sufficiently responsive to students’ diverse challenges.

“Literacy levels reach beyond the classroom and are closely related to social factors and future employment prospects in adulthood.

“While early-primary literacy initiatives remain essential, the secondary school years cannot be neglected.”

The research was published in literacy journal English in Education.

Image by Andrew Smith under flicr cc attribution license

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