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  • Emina McLean

The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children: Literacy in higher education and beyond

Updated: Jun 3


I spent the first twenty years of my life fervently Christian, then five to ten years as a furious atheist, and now five to ten years have been spent as an atheist with agnostic tendencies. I know the King James Bible well, and while I am not a religious person these days, I think we all have much to reflect upon and learn from the immense bodies of work contained in the texts of the Abrahamic religions, even if only to better understand how they have shaped societies and values over centuries, for good or ill.


In Hebrew and Old Testament Christian bibles, we can read about both the promise and the realisation of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. What is it about? The idea was that sin is generational, sin has consequences. Merriam-Webster states, “[This idiom] is used to say that children often suffer for the bad things their parents do.” Equally, if we do things right and well, we can protect and preserve future generations.


We often talk about the literacy challenges faced by primary and secondary school children. I have been reflecting lately on the reading and writing skills of the undergraduate and postgraduate students that I teach, and more broadly how students fare at university or TAFE with respect to understanding and applying literacy skills. I find myself spending a lot of time providing specific feedback to many of my students on their spelling, punctuation, syntax, morphology, and sequencing of ideas. I see education and speech pathology students making basic mistakes in their writing all the time. I am sure these concerns appear across a range of degrees and qualifications. My particular concern with education and speech pathology students is that, upon graduation, they are expected to be experts in these domains. They will be trusted to provide assessment, instruction, intervention and advice regarding language and literacy development in children.


It is hard to teach students a specific skill, such as how to write a detailed lesson or session plan, a case history report, or a language assessment report, if the foundations are not in place. When content needs to be taught, how much time can higher education teachers dedicate to developing general literacy and communication skills in any degree program? And how many higher education teachers have the interest or expertise? Sometimes in students’ written work it is a failure to proofread, or proofread well, but a lot of the time it is simply that they do not seem to know how to do it better. Most academics I work with lament the poor writing skills of many of their students across a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programs. How paradoxical this is, given it was arguably within our institutions that it all went so horribly wrong in the first place.


Inadequate teacher training in language and literacy, the sins of the fathers, are being visited upon primary school students, secondary school students, university and TAFE students, and adults in the workplace. We can and must do better.


What do we know about pre-service teacher education and teachers’ knowledge of language and literacy concepts?


There are many factors that influence and predict student outcomes. Teacher knowledge and practice is just one factor, but unlike factors such as socioeconomic status or the home environment, we can influence our practice. And we must!


It is well documented in the literature that pre-service training for teachers in language and literacy is lacking at worst, and highly variable at best. I have included several readings below. Hannah Stark and colleagues (reference below) demonstrated that teachers’ explicit and implicit knowledge of language and literacy concepts were areas of concern. The teachers in the study were most likely to rate their ability to teach skills including phonics, spelling, reading comprehension and vocabulary as ‘moderate’ or ‘very good’ despite most demonstrating limited knowledge. Leanne Wilson and colleagues (reference below) reported similar findings in New Zealand. Pre-service teachers in the study were unable to identify half of the applicable linguistics concepts correctly.


Jennifer Buckingham and Linda Meeks published a report last year on undergraduate teacher education in Australia. The reference is below. They found:


- Only 5/116 (4%) literacy units reviewed had a specific focus on early reading instruction or early literacy.

- In 81/116 (70%) literacy units reviewed, none of the five essential elements of effective evidence-based reading instruction were mentioned in the unit outlines.

- All five essential elements of effective evidence-based reading instruction were referred to in only 6% of literacy unit outlines.

- None of the unit outlines contained references to the Simple View of Reading.

- 13 (15%) of the lecturers and unit coordinators that could be identified had specific expertise in early reading instruction or literacy.


Read all about it:


Binks-Cantrell, E., Washburn, E. K., Joshi, R. M., & Hougen, M. (2012). Peter effect in the preparation of reading teachers. Scientific Studies of Reading, 16(6), 526-536.


Buckingham, J. & Meeks, L. (2019) Short-changed: Preparation to teach reading in initial teacher education. Retrieved from https://fivefromfive.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ITE-REPORT-FINAL.pdf


Carter, M., & Wheldall, K. (2008). Why can’t a teacher be more like a scientist? Science, pseudoscience and the art of teaching. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 32(1), 5-21.


EdWeek Research Centre (2020). Results of a national survey of K-2 and elementary special education teachers and post-secondary instructors. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/media/ed%20week%20reading%20instruction%20survey%20report-final%201.24.20.pdf?cmp=eml-enl-eu


Meeks, L. J., & Kemp, C. R. (2017). How well prepared are Australian preservice teachers to teach early reading skills? Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 42(11), 1-17.


Spencer, E. J., Schuele, C. M., Guillot, K. M., & Lee, M. W. (2008). Phonemic awareness skill of speech-language pathologists and other educators. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools.


Stark, H. L., Snow, P. C., Eadie, P. A., & Goldfeld, S. R. (2016). Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: The knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers. Annals of Dyslexia, 66(1), 28-54.


Washburn, E. K., Joshi, R. M., & Cantrell, E. B. (2011). Are preservice teachers prepared to teach struggling readers? Annals of Dyslexia, 61(1), 21-43.


Washburn, E. K., Binks-Cantrell, E. S., Joshi, R. M., Martin-Chang, S., & Arrow, A. (2016). Preservice teacher knowledge of basic language constructs in Canada, England, New Zealand, and the USA. Annals of Dyslexia, 66(1), 7-26.


Wilson, L., McNeill, B., & Gillon, G. T. (2015). The knowledge and perceptions of prospective teachers and speech language therapists in collaborative language and literacy instruction. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 31(3), 347-362.


What do we know about the literacy skills of students in higher education right now?


We have seen significant growth in the higher education sector over the last few decades. In 2010 in Australia, the cap on government funding for undergraduate courses was lifted, and universities in turn altered their admissions processes. This meant that we experienced an influx of additional students who otherwise would not have attended university. This was a good thing, right? Yes, but…


- These additional students had poorer literacy and numeracy skills (81% were below average on literacy measures)

- These students had lower ATARs than their peers. Two thirds of these students had ATARs below 70 or had received no ATAR at all.

- They were more likely to study management and commerce, information technology and teaching than other students, with education degrees often being their first choice.

- Additional students underperformed academically compared to their peers.

- Additional students dropped out at a rate 57-70% higher than their peers.

- Additional students who graduated tended to face a less smooth transition to work. It is harder to find work and they have lower incomes than peers.

- 89% of additional students attend(ed) a non-Group of Eight (Go8) university.

- Students in the bottom half of the literacy and numeracy distribution (based on PISA scores at 15 years old) dropped out at rates approximately 50 per cent higher than students who ranked in the top quartile.

- Low ATAR students (with scores of 0-60) dropped out at rates about three times higher than high ATAR students (80-100).


All of this information is available in a recent report by the Productivity Commission (2019).


In some studies, students with poor literacy skills have been shown to take longer to complete their courses. Poor literacy skills have been demonstrated in accounting, engineering, nursing and pharmacy courses, with some reporting poor literacy across a range of measures in up to 40% of students.


It is not just these additional students who present with poor literacy, and even if it were, it is not good enough to just accept that they will present with poorer language and literacy than their peers. What could have been done earlier? These students have had problems in primary and secondary school, often significant problems, and yet they remain unresolved.


What is being done about poor literacy in higher education, particularly in education degrees?


The federal government introduced the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education in 2016. Undergraduate and postgraduate education students are expected to sit and pass the LANTITE prior to graduation. This is a Year 9 level assessment of literacy and numeracy, modelled on NAPLAN. Around 10% of students fail their first attempt, with the failure rate appearing to rise a little over the last few years. Students are given three attempts to pass, with additional attempts provided in some cases.


It is truly staggering to me that students can complete Year 12, be admitted into an education degree as an undergraduate or postgraduate student, study education for 2-4 years, and still be unable to pass a Year 9 level literacy and numeracy assessment. What a stain on our education system at all levels. It is time for the LANTITE to be made an entry requirement for education degrees, not a tick-box to pass them. It is time to equip students with the requisite skills to pass the LANTITE, well before entrance to university, but certainly during their studies if required.


A range of academic support services are available to all university students, but they are not at the level or to the extent that many students require. I often refer my students to the service at my university, and they do a good job, within their remit. Students get advice on how to structure essays, how to proofread, how to summarise, how to reference, as well as general study, reading, writing and assessment tips. These services are not designed to explicitly teach students how to read, spell, or construct a sentence that makes sense in terms of meaning and grammar. There is little incentive for universities to provide more comprehensive literacy services.


What do we know about the literacy skills of the workforce?


The problem goes beyond the tiers of education. Poor literacy affects the workforce too. In 2006, as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 54% of Australians had adequate prose and document literacy. This leaves a significant proportion at a disadvantage when completing documents, applying for jobs, and navigating day to day life.

The ABS has since reported, based on the Survey of Adult Skills and the 2011–12 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), that 44% of Australians have literacy skills below the minimum required to operate effectively in the workplace and society.


The ‘Tackling Foundation Skills in the Workforce’ report, released in 2016 by the Australian Industry Group, reported that 90% of surveyed employers (n=300) reported low levels of literacy and numeracy negatively impact their business. They provided specific examples of issues including problems completing workplace documents.

This is a picture of the workforce. Hold in mind that many with literacy difficulties are not able to find or keep work.


In closing


The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children. Now, in turn, the children of education visit their literacy challenges upon their parents in higher education. While we bemoan the state of affairs, my hope is that the poor literacy skills of many higher education students can be a wake-up call to those in charge about the far-reaching consequences of poor literacy instruction, and may they take action to repair the wrongs. Future generations depend on it.

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