International study shows many Australian children are still struggling with reading

Jennifer Buckingham

07 December 2017 | The Conversation

Australia still has a ‘long tail’ of underachievement in reading

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016 looked at the reading ability of Year 4 children in 50 countries, and the results for Australia offer reason for optimism. Unlike the other international assessments — PISA and TIMSS — Australia’s national average performance in PIRLS 2016 has improved significantly since 2011. All states and territories improved their mean performance, with the exception of the ACT.

Percentage of students at the international benchmarks for reading in PIRLS 2011–2016, by jurisdiction

Source: Thomson, Hillman, Schmid, Rodrigues & Fullarton (2017). PIRLS 2016 – Reporting Australia’s Results. ACER, Melbourne. (p26)

The improvement in PIRLS mean scores is not entirely unexpected. Recent years of NAPLAN have shown an improvement in average scores for Year 3 reading. It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the reason for this, but it is fair to say that there has been a strong focus on early reading since NAPLAN was introduced in 2008, putting a spotlight on progress in this vital area of education. Indeed, the PIRLS results provide a very useful external validation of the reliability of the NAPLAN results, as they report similar trends in reading over similar periods.

However, education ministers cannot yet look forward to a summer break free of worry about literacy standards. The statistical picture beyond the PIRLS averages still gives cause for concern. The increase in the average scores in many states is due to better performance by students at the top end of the scale; which is excellent news and also runs counter to the trends in PISA and TIMSS.

But there has been little change in the proportion of children who perform below the minimum international benchmark in some states — and again a curiously large increase in the proportion of low-performing readers in the ACT.

Despite some improvements, Australia still has the second-largest proportion of children below the international intermediate benchmark for reading among English-speaking countries. PIRLS defines this benchmark as a ‘challenging but reasonable expectation’.

Percentage of Year 4 students below the Intermediate International benchmark, PIRLS 2016

2016 2011
Ireland 11 15
Northern Ireland 13 13
England 14 17
Canada 17 14
United States 17 14
Australia 19 24
New Zealand 27 25

Source: Thomson, Hillman, Schmid, Rodrigues & Fullarton (2017). PIRLS 2016 – Reporting Australia’s Results. ACER, Melbourne.

NAPLAN and PIRLS are useful indicators of reading performance and progress, but they show only that some children are having difficulty with reading in Years 3 and 4, respectively — they don’t pinpoint why. It is also clear that children who struggle with reading in Year 3 are unlikely to ever catch up. These children need to be identified and supported much earlier.

That is why a national Year 1 literacy check is still necessary. An expert advisory panel to the Australian government (which I chaired) reviewed early years assessments used around Australia and found a deficit in the assessment of phonics in particular. The panel therefore recommended a trial and possible subsequent adoption of the Year 1 Phonics Check that has been statutory in English primary schools since 2012.

The Phonics Check is a quick (five-minute) and effective reading check that is neither stressful for children nor onerous for teachers, and provides immediate information to teachers about this fundamental aspect of literacy development.  England’s results in PIRLS 2016 — the first cohort to take the Year 1 Phonics Check – are the best they have ever been.

The expert panel acknowledged that phonics is not the only important aspect of learning to read. Phonics is one of five essential components; along with phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Yet there is good reason to believe that phonics is not being taught effectively or assessed consistently in many schools, with devastating consequences for the children most at-risk of reading failure — children from socioeconomically or language impoverished homes, and children with learning difficulties.

When federal, state and territory education ministers meet on Friday for the year’s final Education Council meeting, their agenda will include the need for a national Year 1 literacy and numeracy check. Presumably they will consider Australia’s performance in the latest PIRLS results in their deliberations.

Between now and then, the PIRLS statistics will be dissected and debated, but it is important to remember they represent real children. In response to the question, ‘what does it mean to be unable to read?’, one mother of a Year 6 child poignantly described it as “not being able read the jokes in Christmas crackers around the table at Christmas lunch.” This should not be the case for a child who has spent seven years at school. A Year 1 literacy check could prevent many such children falling through the cracks.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project. She chaired the expert advisory panel to the Australian Government on a National Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Check earlier this year.

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