Literacy and Australian Children

donatebuttonDefining Literacy
Literacy can be defined as “The ability to read and write the printed text that represents spoken language – that is, to be literate.”blackgirlreadphoto

(source: American Medical Association [AMA], 1999; Baker, 1999; Rowe & Rowe, 1999)

Implications of Literacy

Research conducted in Australia shows clearly that children skilled in literacy (and numeracy) are not only more likely to stay in school and post-school earn higher wages, but they also have higher levels of confidence, a better ability to deal with daily tasks and better outcomes in terms of lifelong learning and health.
(Source: Council of Australian Governments National Reform Agenda, “The NSW Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan”, April 2007, p. 2)

So, literacy is one of the most significant foundations for success in life. However, the 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Aspects of Literacy Survey found that approximately 46% of Australians aged 15 to 74 years had very poor to poor ‘prose literacy’ (ability to read documents), and 47% had very poor to poor ‘document literacy’ (ability to understand and use information from a variety of text sources) (ABS, 2006). These Australians do not have the literacy skills necessary for the complex demands of everyday life and work.


Literacy Levels in Australian Children

The Council of Australian Governments National Reform report that in New South Wales, alone, as many as 15 per cent of all students progress to high school without meeting minimum standards in literacy and numeracy. The Council states that every year almost 13,000 children fail to meet basic standards in reading, writing or mathematics when they finish primary school.

The 2009 NAPLAN results showed that for Year 3 students, in reading, 12.5 per cent, or over 10,000 students, in NSW were either at or below the minimum standard for reading. By Year 9 almost 18,000 students, or over 20 per cent of students, were at or below the minimum level.

There is universal recognition amongst those studying literacy in Australia that once students reach high school, it is almost too late to recover these skills.

Indigenous Literacy Statistics

The literacy statistics related to the general population in Australia are confronting, however not anywhere near as challenging as literacy competency rates in Indigenous Australians.

More than one third of Indigenous students in Year 3 are currently at, or below, the minimum standards in literacy and numeracy. About 35% of Indigenous children at Year 3 are at or below minimum reading standards and 38% are at or below numeracy standards.

The Effects of Poor Literacy

Research (Silverstein et al, 2002; ABS, 1996; Freebody & Ludwig, 1995; Needlman et al, 1991), demonstrates that poor literacy in early childhood not only reduces the likelihood of later success in literacy, but also increases the risk of children dropping out of formal education.

Poor reading and writing skills are associated with:

  1. lower self esteem
  2. poorer educational outcomes
  3. poorer social outcomes
  4. higher rates of unemployment
  5. welfare dependence
  6. and teenage pregnancy

(Silverstein et al, 2002).

The Policy Briefing Document Literacy in Early Childhood notes the following:

Reading difficulties disproportionately affect children from disadvantaged homes (ABS, 1996; Freebody & Ludwig, 1995; Needlman et al, 1991), and those children who experience difficulties in learning to read are unlikely to catch up (Stanovich, 1986). Poor reading levels can also impact negatively on individuals’ health (AMA, 1999). All of these factors contribute to a perpetuation of the poverty cycle.

In contrast, literacy has many benefits for children, families, communities and society as a whole (ABS, 2006). High levels of literacy have been linked to:

  1. Increased academic success
  2. Increased occupational success
  3. Increased self esteem and motivation to learn
  4. Participation in and a commitment to education
  5. Socially acceptable behaviour
  6. Positive regard for one’s abilities and prospects leading to empowerment


Responsibility for Literacy

The acquisition of literacy for Australian children cannot be thought of as the sole responsibility of schools, rather families, communities, health, educational and businesses should play a role in ensuring that resources to achieve literacy are available to all children, especially those in greatest need.

Information Sources

Achterstraat, P., (Auditor-General), “Improving Literacy and Numeracy in NSW Public Schools”, Audit Office, New South Wales, Auditor-General’s Performance Audit, October 2008

Council of Australian Governments National Reform Agenda, “The NSW Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan” April 2007

DEET Annual Report 2005-06: Performance Reporting

Every Child a Chance Trust, “The long term costs of literacy difficulties”, 2nd Edition, London, United Kingdom, January 2009 .

Every Child a Reader Organisation, “Every Child a Reader: the results of the third year”, London, United Kingdom, 2008 .

Heckman, J., “NBER Working Paper Series – Schools, Skills, and Synapses”, National Bureau of EconomicResearch , Cambridge, Massachusetts, June 2008, .

National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), “2009 NAPLAN – Achievement in   Reading, Writing, Language Conventions and Numeracy” December 2009, .

NSW Public Schools, “Supporting Students”, The NSW Department of Education and Training, retrieved December 2009 from

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, “Ten Steps to Equity in Education”, Policy Brief , January 2008

Policy Brief: Translating early childhood research evidence to inform policy and practice

Thomson, S. & De Bortoli, L., “Exploring Scientific Literacy: How Australia measures up: the PISA 2006 survey of students’ scientific, reading and mathematical literacy skills”, OECD PISA National Report, 2008, Australia.

Verity Firth MP cited in General Purpose Standing Committee No. 2, “Budget Estimates for Education & Training Transcript”, 16 September 2009



There is a cool book called The Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald D Davis.

In the book Davis notes the following ways in which a Dyslexic child might see the word ‘CAT’. So interesting.


What percentage of all the kids you know have some difficulty reading?

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