Literacy is one of the most important foundations for success in school and life (ABS, 2006). **Disturbingly, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Aspects of Literacy Survey found that approximately 46% of Australiansaged 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).
Australia’s literacy performance against international
standards was detailed in the 2006 Programme for
International Student Assessment (PISA) study. The
study indicated that 14% of Australian students aged
15 had failed to reach a baseline level of reading
proficiency considered essential for future development in reading and other areas of knowledge acquisition, while 21% were functioning at the minimum baseline proficiency level. While this poor outcome was not limited to Australia, five out of 57 countries achieved significantly higher results: Korea; Finland; Hong Kong, China; Canada and New Zealand (Thomson & De Bortoli, 2008).
A poor foundation in literacy prior to school entry 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 lower self-esteem, poorer educational and social outcomes, and higher rates of unemployment, welfare dependence and teenage pregnancy (Silverstein et al, 2002).
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 increased academic and occupational success, increased self-esteem and motivation to learn, participation in and a commitment to education, socially acceptable behaviour, positive regard for one’s abilities and prospects leading to empowerment, a reduction in the need for programs required to address illiteracy and a subsequent reduction in the social and financial costs associated with illiteracy.
What does the research tell us?
Some children come to school better off than their peers when it comes to early literacy skills. Students who start out
with optimal literacy foundational skills tend to thrive and grow academically, while less advantaged students tend to get left behind (see Figure 1).
**while the ABS study was conducted in 2006, current literacy rates in Australia are still poor.
Source: Policy Brief No 13 2008: Translating Early Childhood research evidence to inform policy and practice.