Libraries the key to lifting students’ reading outcomes – expert

Libraries the key to lifting students’ reading outcomes – expert

In February, education ministers agreed on several sweeping changes to NAPLAN, including a new proficiency standard aimed at improving students’ literacy and numeracy outcomes, and allowing parents and students to access the results sooner than previous years.

As more than 1.3 million Australian students prepare to sit their NAPLAN tests in more than 9,800 schools and campuses across Australia tomorrow, educators, parents and policymakers will be hoping that the reforms deliver their intended results and lift literacy and numeracy outcomes.

According to the Productivity Commission's latest report, nearly 90,000 Australian students do not meet minimum standards for reading or numeracy in NAPLAN.

To stem this decline, some experts say there is one key place schools should be more strongly focused on bolstering – their libraries.

In a joint statement on Australia’s school libraries, the Australian Education Union, Australian School Libraries Association, and the Australian Library and Information Association, flagged a “severe decline” in the number of qualified teacher librarians, librarian training programs, school library funding, and centralised school library services and policy advisers over the last several decades.

“The systemic devolution of aspects of decision making and financial management to the local level means that funding for school libraries relies on the resource allocation priorities established at that level, which might or might not place a high priority on the need for a well-staffed library service,” the organisations wrote.

Thriving libraries can help to turn the tables

Dr David Caldwell is the Program Director for the Master of Education, Master of Education (TESOL) and the Graduate Diploma in Educational Studies (Digital Learning) at the University of South Australia.

He says the road to better reading outcomes starts with a thriving school library.

“It is hard to foster a love of reading, which of course results in an increase in reading competency without a designated space that houses quality literature, as well as a devoted ‘reading’ expert that inspires, models and instructs best reading practice,” Dr Caldwell told The Educator.

“I would also suggest that these findings say a lot about the NAPLAN test itself, rather than necessarily being an indicator of students’ low literacy levels.” 

Dr Caldwell said communities need to recognise that young people’s contemporary reading practices come in a range of forms beyond the types of texts tested for in NAPLAN.

“For example, young people are expert in ‘reading’ digital texts, which comprise a range of complex features such as animation, hyperlinks, and sound, in addition to written script,” he said.

“Moreover, the types of texts that young people ‘read’ in their linguistic landscape such as graphic novels, advertisements and sports statistics, are often informal, yet rich and complex in their literary features.”

Dr Caldwell said these diverse and complex texts, which young people can ‘read’, are typically not the kinds of things assessed in high stakes testing such as NAPLAN. 

“The point being: Australian students’ literacy outcomes might indeed be close to ‘on track’ than we think.  NAPLAN simply does not test for the various and contemporary kinds of texts that students can read.”

‘NAPLAN is not helping’

Dr Caldwell is also concerned that the recently announced changes to NAPLAN will not address some of the more serious issues Australia’s education system is facing.

“Pushing the start date forward, and slightly changing how the NAPLAN data is reported does not address deeper inequalities and achievement disparities in the education system.

“One simple way to tackle inequality in the education system would be to literally dispense with NAPLAN, which has been [re]producing inequality.”

Dr Caldwell said while NAPLAN’s claims to identify, track and ultimately ‘tackle’ issues of inequality in literacy and numeracy education, high-stakes testing “inherently favours a single worldview, a particular way of being, and way of knowing, which essentially aligns with those most privileged in Australian society.”

“Take for example NAPLAN’s language of instruction, English. Why is it that those students for whom English is an Additional Language are penalised for their multilingualism, rather than rewarded and celebrated?” he said.

“Translanguaging is a well-established pedagogy whereby students complete a task in/through multiple languages. This is not an option in NAPLAN.”

What’s the alternative to NAPLAN?

Dr Caldwell said NAPLAN, via the MySchool Website, “exacerbates these inequalities by recording and publicly displaying NAPLAN school scores, thereby promoting further social stratification between schools/school communities.”

“Presuming one does not/will not dispense with NAPLAN itself, another way of thinking about this question is to consider what changes could be made to the NAPLAN test to make it more inclusive,” he said.

“The only alternative would be to construct a highly personalised and contextualised language and numeracy test, so that each individual students’ skills, achievements and worldview, such as multilingualism and more informal text types that are relevant to a students’ reading world are included in the NAPLAN test.”

Dr Caldwell pointed out that this would then mean the test results “are no longer generalisable”.

“One can’t compare results across students, across year levels, across schools, and across states,” he said.

“And this is the ultimate point: NAPLAN does not simply test for and then report on inequalities and achievement disparities in the education system; as a high-stakes test, it is inherently part of [and contributes to] such inequality.”