Time to declare war on illiteracy

ANYBODY who has taught undergraduate university humanities courses during the past decade knows the depth of Australia's literary deficit.

For years, tutors and lecturers who grade written work by first-year students have been shaking their heads at students' inability to write.

I don't mean an inability to build and sustain complex arguments through 5000-word essays, or an inability to critically analyse discursive constructs in order to identify dominant ideological frames. Teaching these high-level analytical skills should be the normal business of university humanities departments.

What I mean is that a majority of 18-year-olds who enrol in most first-year humanities subjects are unable to reliably construct a simple sentence.

Many genuinely struggle to make themselves understood in written form. In practice, this means that too many university tutors and lecturers are spending precious time giving crash-courses in English grammar instead of leading discussions about the topics at hand.

Ethical considerations prevent me quoting from students' work. If I could, I would reproduce here examples of genuinely terrible language from local (not international) students who were educated in Australian primary and secondary schools for 12 years before being accepted into university with an ATAR score of at least 60. In other words, their results at year 12 were actually better than 60 per cent of their peers across the state.

According to UNESCO, Australia ranks among those countries which boast 99 per cent literacy among their populations. But UNESCO doesn't actually collect any data from Australia, because it assumes that rich countries have close to full literacy.

In reality, a substantial number of 18-year-olds beginning university degrees are functionally illiterate. In a knowledge economy, which relies increasingly on technical know-how and information exchange, people who don't have the ability to express themselves in written form are at an immense disadvantage.

After 12 years of structured education, widespread functional adult illiteracy suggests a major failing in school education. What are students doing at school if they're not being taught how to structure sentences and paragraphs in such a way that they can be understood? And how are they winning places at universities?

The mystery is that, outside of a long-running “literacy war” among educationalists with different approaches, the crisis in literacy is rarely acknowledged publicly. Business groups have occasionally raised the issue. Earlier this year, the Industry Skills Councils released a report that claimed that nearly half the country's working-age population lacks the literacy and numeracy skills to even study a trade.

In a knowledge economy, widespread functional illiteracy is a major disadvantage, not just for the illiterate individual, but for the economy as a whole. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that all children reach adulthood with at least the ability to read and write. For at least a generation now, that responsibility has been abrogated.

The problem is deepening. As a society we undervalue teaching to the point that we allow it to be the default profession for university students who underperform in their respective degrees. And the scores a year 12 student needs to get into a teaching degree are not high. So then we consign the next generation of children to be taught by twenty-somethings whose own literacy skills are mediocre at best.

As it became clear, during the 1960s, that Australia's economic base was shifting from agriculture and manufacturing to information, advocates of democratic reform were excited. Never before had so many people been schooled. The results could only be good for democratic participation and, therefore, for the effectiveness of government and for society as a whole. Half-a-century later, it is clear that longer schooling doesn't necessarily lead to a more educated population.

By not providing students with basic literacy skills, the school system is failing in its primary democratic duty: to give children born into disadvantaged circumstances the tools with which they can ameliorate those circumstances and participate fully as citizens and workers.

Typically, the bureaucratic response in recent years has been to insist on more and more standardisation, both in the examination of students' work and in the curriculum that's taught. This has become fused with the typical Treasury response, which is to implement a system of punishment and reward to differently renumerate the “worst” and “best” teachers. And the techno-fundamentalists insist on putting more and more technology into classrooms as if that will necessarily arrest the decline in students' basic skills.

Educationalists know that these responses will do nothing to address the issue and may actively contribute to the problem. What is needed is a true education revolution, which would see teachers valued in a way that reflects their central importance to society, and then given the time and space to develop pedagogically valuable relationships with their students.

Ensuring that every child possesses basic literacy skills by the time they leave school is fundamental if Australia is to avoid sleepwalking into permanent recession in the global knowledge economy.

Dr Russell Marks is Honorary Research Associate, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

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