Monday, October 6, 2014

“You cannot assume all students can read”:

An exploration of the issue of significantly low literacy among middle high school students.

Recently I completed my first practicum requirement for my Graduate Diploma of Education. While there I received feedback from my mentor that “You cannot assume all students can read.” 

Given the class I was teaching was year ten I was unnerved by this advice. With a class of twenty or more students I was not merely assuming, I was relying on my students’ fluency with spoken and written English. Such an assumption however is not justified;
“Australian surveys have indicated that 10 to 16 per cent of students are perceived by their teachers to have learning difficulties and have support needs, particularly in literacy, that go beyond those normally addressed by classroom teachers.” (LDA, 2014)

This essay hopes to explore a constructive response to students with significantly low literacy in middle high school. I am defining significantly low literacy as about six years below what is expected for a student’s educational level, so for a year nine student that would be a literacy level typical of middle primary at best.

Literacy is not a single easily grouped set of skills. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority takes a very broad definition;
“Literacy encompasses the knowledge and skills students need to access, understand, analyze and evaluate information, make meaning, express thoughts and emotions, present ideas and opinions, interact with others and participate in activities at school and in their lives beyond school.” (ACARA, 2013)

Significantly low literacy can therefore have different meanings. A student with autism may be more likely to struggle with comprehension but a near perfect level of reading accuracy (Brock, 2010). Another student may have no difficulty with comprehending what they need to write but struggle with actually producing written work (typical of a child with dyslexia). (SPELD, 2014)   

Definitions of literacy are also contested and political. Different measurements of literacy can emphasize (or overlook) oral as compared to written language or creativity and confidence compared with accuracy and retention. The motivation for teaching literacy may be pragmatically related to employment in one context and focused on developing emotional intelligence and self-reflection in another;
“For instance, ‘information literacy’ broadly refers to the ability to access and use a variety of information sources to solve an information need. Yet, it can also be defined as the development of a complex set of critical skills that allow people to express, explore, question, communicate and understand the flow of ideas among individuals and groups in quickly changing technological environments.”(UNESCO, 2005)

Yet for students these different skills and learning attitudes are not interchangeable. Hence by one standard a student may have high literacy while by another they may be struggling.
The explanations for significantly low literacy are equally varied.  A student who experienced significant absenteeism in their primary years or simply changed schools a number of times may have missed crucial stages in learning to read, particularly as different schools can teach literacy using different systems. Longitudinal research in the UK suggests “an absence of half a year between the ages of 7- and 11-years-of-age resulted in a reduction of 0.7 of a year and 1 year in reading and mathematics test scores respectively” (Carroll, 2010) That’s a dramatic amplification of effect.

It’s worth noting that a student who finds reading at their expected level difficult for a very long time may develop ways to compensate and cover for low literacy. If their school disruption is related to something that is stigmatized such as being in a number of foster placements then the student will have an added incentive to hide their low literacy.

Another possible explanation for significantly low literacy could be recent migration from a non-English speaking country. In some cases, where the reason for migration is to seek asylum, severe school disruption will probably overlap with the student’s unfamiliarity with English. Students in this situation can also make errors such as mis-gendering pronouns if their native tongue lacks such distinctions, errors which a native English speaker won’t often make even if their literacy is generally very poor, but which in this case is not indicative of a disability of any sort.

Autism Spectrum Disorders can, but also may not, coincide with a range of communication difficulties. The research into literacy issues for autistic children is fascinating in terms of theories of impairment to semantic memory (Brock, 2010). The predictive value of such research however is confounded by the wide spectrum of ability under the diagnosis of autism. A 2012 ABS report indicated that 5% of people with a diagnosis of autism who attended mainstream schools experienced no educational difficulties and less than half reported specific difficulties with communication. (ABS, 2012) It is best not to assume that every child with an autism diagnosis will have issues with literacy or the same issues.

Dyslexia literally means “trouble with words” specifically the written word. Students with dyslexia can be capable of comprehending language that is spoken to them, which they could not read themselves. Dyslexia Australia stresses that dyslexia is often concurrent with considerable creative and imaginative talent and this organisation prefers to call it a gift rather than a disability. The Australian Dyslexia Association Inc. (a separate body) also emphasizes that people with dyslexia are not generally poor learners but “different learners” (ADA, 2014) Reflecting this, while a proportion of students with autism will be eligible for an aid, dyslexia alone may not qualify a person for an aid in Victorian schools. The proportion of students with dyslexia in Victorian schools is difficult to assess given that dyslexia is subsumed under a broader category of learning difficulties in ABS statistics. This should be improved by the federally funded National Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD) launched in 2013 although there remains confusion at a school level as to whether to include mild cases of dyslexia when reporting disability. (CDA, 2014)

The majority of students with significantly low literacy should have these matters identified well before Year 10. Provided they are in the Victorian school system they will, face a mandatory testing of English, the English Online Interview (State of Victoria, 2014) in Prep. This can also be offered by schools in Grade 1 and 2. Schools only have to have students complete the test and enter the details online for a centralised diagnostic assessment of individuals or classes or schools. If students results show a disparity between their abilities and AusVELS standards the Reading Recovery program is available in many schools to assist. Unfortunately This program is no longer receiving targeted funding since 2011 due to Victorian government budget cuts resulting in its closure in some schools (Topfield, 2011).

The Department of Education provides psychologists who can provide some diagnostic testing for students with persistent literacy problems, not aided by Reading Recovery. Such testing requires a school referral and parental consent both of which are not always forthcoming.  The most exhaustive testing for Victorian students however will cost an additional $1200 of a student carers’ own money and is administered by Speld Victoria. (SPELD Vic, 2014) This puts it out of many families financial reach. Subsequently it is entirely possible that in year nine or ten a student with significantly low literacy may not have a fully supported explanation for their literacy level.

This is a shame because the adaptations required for a students low literacy are vastly different depending on the cause. If a student has dyslexia for example then making a provision for a take-home test to give them more time to read it may be sufficient, while an oral test would be even better. Those provisions are not equally appropriate for some one whose literacy is due to an intellectual disability or a historical neglect of their schooling.  The last of these would benefit from remedial classes while a child with an intellectual disability may require a completely different rubric.

Given that students with high absenteeism and those transferring to Victorian schools are even more likely not to be properly assessed, teachers, in a team with the schools welfare worker and any aids that work with the young person, need to develop their own awareness of their students’ literacy levels. Diagnostic assessment is crucial. Some students will attempt to avoid such assessment and will hide their inability if a class culture tolerates not handing in written work to the teacher. That has to be watched for.

Once the best possible assessment has been made of a students literacy then different interventions can be trialed. Online checklists for possible accommodations are an excellent resource to find solutions for students who have low literacy but fail to qualify for direct assistance. One is re-produced by the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Community Resource Centre (FAS-CRC, 2014) understandably because Fetal Alcohol Syndrome often produces an intellectual impairment too subtle to qualify a person for aide funding. This checklist includes simple suggestions like allowing a child to have copies of the class texts at home where a parent can support them or seating them closer to the teacher.

Lastly any attempt to address significantly low literacy needs to recognize that student engagement and hope are as relevant here as they are for teaching any subject. Students will usually require confidence that they will overcome their low literacy (including by adaptation) before they will try. Any understanding of the causes of a student’s low literacy is only an adjunct to a positive teaching relationship with that individual person.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2012) 4428.0 - Autism in Australia (2012) last updated 4 June 2014 viewed at on 16th June 2014
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), (January 2013), General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, viewed at on 16th June 2014

The Australian Dyslexia Association Inc. (ADA), (2014), Dyslexia in Australia, viewed at on 16th June 2014

Brock, J. (2010) Language comprehension in autism, viewed at on 16th June 2014

CDA, 2014, Children with Disability Australia Submission to the Senate Select Committee on School Funding Inquiry and report on the development and implementation of national school funding arrangements and school reform viewed at on 16th June 2014

FAS, 504 Accommodation Checklist, viewed at on 16th June 2014

H.C.M. (Tim) Carroll, (April 2010), The Effect of Pupil Absenteeism on Literacy and Numeracy in the Primary School, School Psychology International  vol. 31 no. 2 pp. 115-130

Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA) (2014), Learning Difficulties, Disabilities, and Dyslexia, viewed at on 16th June 2014

State of Victoria (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development), Last updated May 2014, English Online Interview, viewed at on 16th June 2014 Last Update: 14 May 2014 Last Update: 14 May 2014  Last Update: 14 May 2014

SPELD-SA, 2014, Frequently Asked Questions About Dyslexia, viewed at on 16th June 2014

SPELD Victoria Inc., 2014, Assessments, viewed at on 16th June 2014

Topsfield, J. (2011), Northern suburbs schools hit hard by Reading Recovery cuts, Sydney Morning Herald, November 26, 2011 

UNESCO, (2006) Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Chapter 6: Understandings Of Literacy, pp147-159