The literacy slump: where do the root causes lie?

The literacy slump: where do the root causes lie?

In September, a major parent survey revealed that 1.25 million Australian students have fallen behind due to the school closures triggered by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This alarming statistic was comes after a number of studies showing that students have been stressed and studying less.

One area of concern has been the ongoing slump in students’ writing outcomes. An independent review of NAPLAN by Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the ACT found that in the period between 2008 and 2019, writing performance among students plateaued between Years 3 and 5, before declining in Years 7 to 9.

According to researchers at the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education at the Australian Catholic University (ACU), this is because insufficient attention and expertise is being directed to teaching writing beyond spelling.

These findings have led to growing calls for a rethink on how schools measure literacy outcomes, with one expert recommending a greater emphasis on identifying vocabulary development and writing skills in NAPLAN literacy assessments.

According to Denyse Ritchie, honorary chair of literacy at Murdoch University and the principal of the THRASS Institute, not enough attention is being given to helping young children understand the meaning behind the words they’re learning to spell.

“That’s is where our real focus should lie – on the Year 4 slump in literacy outcomes, yet this is still something we’re not addressing,” Ritchie told The Educator.

“We keep addressing the initial stages of teaching children to read and write in their early years, but what about once kids have learned to read? When we’ve gotten them into reading, how do we build on these skills?

Ritchie said a significant factor at play in the literacy slump has to do with socio-economic factors – namely, the literacy skills of a child’s parents.

“We keep saying we see that there are more struggles in literacy in lower socio-economic areas, and is because parents in low-SES households often don’t have a sound knowledge of words that they can use to help their children read,” she said.

“So, it’s a never-ending spiral if teachers think that children should just know words and not the meaning behind them”.

Ritchie pointed to a question presented to children in a NAPLAN test that asked: “If I have a couple of bananas, how many do I have”. Failing to understand the correct quantity of a ‘couple’, hundreds of thousands of children answered incorrectly, with some choosing ‘five’ or ‘six’.

“There are lots of kids who don’t know these words because their parents either don’t use the word, or don’t use it in the right context. If this is the case, how are they meant to use this word in their comprehension?” Ritchie said.

Ritchie said it’s now widely known that the lack of vocabulary is restricting students’ literacy.

“When they get to secondary school, it’s not that they can’t read, it’s that they can’t understand what they’re reading, so they can’t express themselves – and that’s where we’ve really got the problem,” Ritchie said.

“Yet, we’re not doing anything about it and instead choosing to throw more money at phonics and at the early stages of literacy teaching. Unfortunately, that’s not where the problem lies”.