• Emina McLean

Adolescent literacy in Australia: Part 1

Updated: Jun 4

This is a two-part series about adolescent literacy. Appropriately, when we talk about literacy, we tend to focus on the early years in primary school, but for those of you who are teaching or working with adolescents, you will be acutely aware of just how many students transition to secondary school without adequate skills in reading, spelling and writing. Part 1 focuses on the status quo while Part 2 will focus on assessment, instruction, intervention and resources, drawing on The Simple View of Reading and The Simple View of Writing.

The status quo

I have summarised 2017-2019 National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data for Year 7 and Year 9 students in Australia below. According to the National Assessment Program (2016), “Students who are below the national minimum standard have not achieved the learning outcomes expected for their year level. They are at risk of being unable to progress satisfactorily at school without targeted intervention. It should be noted that students who are performing at the national minimum standard may also require additional assistance to enable them to achieve their potential.” You can read more about the standards here, but to achieve the minimum standard is a very low bar indeed, across all domains.

By year completed:

(credit to Reid Smith for suggesting this table format as an alternative to the one below)

By Year Level:

What we see above is more students performing worse in Year 9 than in Year 7, in every domain, across the last three years. We see fairly depressing achievement in Reading, Writing, Spelling, and Grammar and Punctuation in Year 9, with Writing performance being particularly poor.

When we delve further into the data and look at performance by group, the trend tends to be that there are poorer scores for Indigenous, Language Background Other Than English (LBOTE), and regional/rural/remote students, and for those from families with lower parent income/education. While the aggregates above leave a lot to be desired, in some groups, the percentage of students at or below the minimum standard can surpass 40%. Outside of major cities, results are often dire. For example:

- In 2019, 58.2% of Year 9 students whose parents were not in paid work achieved at or below the minimum standard for Writing

- In 2019, 47.2% of Year 9 students in the Northern Territory scored at or below the minimum standard in Reading

- If we compare Indigenous and non-Indigenous Year 7 students’ Writing scores in 2017, we find a large gap. 62.8% of Indigenous students scored at or below the minimum standard compared to 26.3% of non-Indigenous students.

Such examples are easy to find and there are many, many more we could list.

Link to 2017 NAPLAN report:

Link to 2018 NAPLAN report:

Link to 2019 NAPLAN report:

What about our secondary students’ performance on other measures? Australia participates in The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA looks at the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in the domains of Reading, Maths and Science. The 2018 Reading data tells us:

- Only 59% of Australian students achieved the National Proficient Standard (so 41% did not)

- There is a 1.5-year gap between our highest and lowest performing states/territories

- There is a 3-year gap between our lowest and highest socioeconomic quartiles

- There is a 2.5-year gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students

- Between 2000 and 2018 reading performance in ACT, NSW, SA, TAS and WA declined

- Between 2000 and 2018 reading performance in VIC, NT and QLD did not change

Follow this link to read more about PISA and other assessments we participate in such as PIRLS and TIMSS:

Possible educational and psychosocial consequences of illiteracy

- Impacted education engagement, achievement and attainment

- Impacted access to the curriculum and learning (access is reliant upon literacy)

- Academic underachievement (Livingston et al, 2018; Wiener et al, 2002)

- Educators may hold negative attitudes towards individuals with learning difficulties, believing that these individuals are less intelligent, more difficult to teach or lazy (Lisle & Wade, 2014)

- Students (and educators) can underestimate their abilities in other domains due to literacy difficulties (Lockiewicz et al., 2014; Shifrer, 2013)

- Dyslexia is associated with elevated risk for both internalising (emotional) and externalising (behavioural) disorders (Boyes et al, 2019)

- Reading difficulties are a risk factor for later mental health problems (Leitao et al, 2016)

- Impact on self-concept and self-esteem (Humphrey et al, 2002; Glazzard, 2010)

- Peer acceptance and social relationships are often linked to academic performance; consequences for poor readers can occur (Humphrey et al, 2002)

- Learning difficulties including dyslexia are associated with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (Livingston et al, 2018)

- Impact on wellbeing and quality of life (Davis et al, 2009; Nalavany & Carawan, 2011)

- Adolescents with learning disabilities at twice the risk of emotional distress (including risk for violence and suicide attempts) (Svetaz et al, 2001)

- 60% of students with dyslexia also have one psychiatric diagnosis (Margari et al, 2013)

- Entering The School to Prison pipeline (Christle, Jolivette & Nelson, 2010)

- Pushed out of the education mainstream into alternative education with mixed (often poor) results (Snow, Graham, McLean & Serry, 2019)

In closing

Of course, things are complex. There are many factors which influence student performance and outcomes. In the next post we will look at what we have the most control over (our assessment, instruction and intervention) in the hope of turning things around for some of our students.

Next: Adolescent literacy in Australia: Part 2


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