Kids who struggle to read face lifelong disadvantage: experts

Low literacy levels in Australian children from disadvantaged backgrounds are setting up young people to continue the cycle of unemployment and socio-economic struggle, leading education experts have warned.

The results of successive waves of NAPLAN tests indicate that many of these children come from disadvantaged backgrounds, are failing to meet national reading benchmarks, and this will have serious life-long consequences.

The international Journal of Research in Reading recently published a special issue dedicated to improving literacy engagement, edited by Associate Professor Clarence Ng and Professorial Fellow Steve Graham of the Australian Catholic University Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education.

“Reading is the vital foundation stone upon which all learning is built. It is the key to positive social, academic and life outcomes,” said Associate Professor Ng.

In an article entitled Using student voice to promote reading engagement for economically disadvantaged students, Professor Ng highlights the significant role which teachers play by seeking, acknowledging and acting on students’ voices.     

Associate Professor Ng said disadvantaged students struggled to read for a variety of reasons including families where reading was not a priority, non-English speaking homes, and peer group pressure.

“There are many potential barriers to reading but the message is clear. If a young person doesn’t learn how to read and spend time on reading, they will find it difficult to deal effectively with simple everyday tasks such as reading product labels in the supermarket or following medication instructions.” 

He added the act of reading was closely linked with the ability to write.

“Young people who can’t read well, will be more likely to struggle to complete basic writing tasks like filling out a form when applying for a job,” he said.

Despite the serious problems he had witnessed, Associate Professor Ng was keen to emphasise the majority of teachers were doing their best to deal with this educational challenge and innovative programs can have dramatic effects. 

He cited the example of a Queensland school which is making excellent reading progress, using a classroom practice called Learning-focused Reciprocal Teaching (LRT). 

The innovation promotes student interaction during reading and focuses students’ dialogues and discussion on improvement and supporting each other.  

The study’s Year 3 teacher said she preferred the newly-adopted LRT practice because her students’ took more responsibility for their reading and learning. 

One of the Year 3 students said, “I prefer it [LRT] a lot because people help each other and in the old reading group people are their old selves and not helping each other… it's changed them a lot.”

Associate Professor Ng’s research on literacy learning has won nationally competitive grants from the Australian Research Council. His work on LRT was funded by the Queensland Education’s Education Horizon Scheme. He currently leads an Australian Research Council Discovery Project   designed to raise the literacy bar by offering higher order literacy learning to disadvantaged students.

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