LITERACY HAS FALLEN: How to Rescale the Learning Ladder

The fate of empires depends on the education of youth.” – Aristotle


Today I write to you about something that worries me deeply. Literacy has fallen. Aussie kids are meant to be living in a place that gives them the opportunity to have one of the best standards of education in the entire world. Despite this, recent data from the Grattan Institute suggests that there is an enormous gap developing between students with strong literacy skills and those who by Year 9 are approximately eight-years behind the top ten per cent of students.


Yes, you read that correctly.


This is a time bomb that teachers, administrators and policy makers are working hard to fix. That is wonderful news for future generations of students but what does it mean for the kids that are currently in the system and far behind enemy lines of books, poetry and expectations?


It almost seems comedic that the students who have the greatest access to information on a whim are struggling the most to make sense of it all. After all, why would a student spend their time reading a book on the burning of the Library of Alexandria when they could much more easily spend hours and hours in a virtual world experiencing a fictionalised version of the same story? Moreover, why learn Shakespeare when they can trade memes of the funniest quotes from his texts on Snapchat instead?


I hope that you are seeing my point.


There is a big difference in reading and comprehension. The colourful distractions seem to be winning the war over children’s minds. Indeed, literacy has fallen.


Is there a way to fix this problem?


Yes, it is actually simpler than you think. I’ve seen the trend happening in some of the students that I have taught. It can be very daunting to know that you are about to enter Year 11 or Year 12 and know that you still read at a fourth grade level. One boy was so nervous about writing that he would spend entire lessons asking about films in order to avoid putting pen to paper. However, although it was too late for him to join the ranks of band 6 students, he did develop the ability to write coherently and comprehend what he was reading. He essentially climbed up from a primary school level of comprehension to a late high school level in two years. His intelligence was not lacking, he just did not get the attention he needed when he was younger. Whilst this is an extreme example, nearly every single student struggles with ignoring the lure of technology in order to improve their education. Literacy has fallen so badly in some students that it can have quite a negative psychological impact.


What I have noticed divides strong performers from ones that need more assistance is exactly the same as what the researchers have found. The way that this manifests is through many students giving up and finding distractions that take a focus off their feelings of unworthiness. It is heartbreaking to see but students really should not lose heart because more often than not, it is not too late for them to improve.


The beauty of studying English lies quite plainly, in the words. Every single word has a string of synonyms that are related to one another. The best way to improve these associations is to start reading books from a young age but the skill can be improved by creating a daily practice. Here are a few simple tools to improve literacy rates in students.


How to improve student literacy


Simple Habits

It is nearly impossible to convince a student who does not read anything for years to suddenly pick up a 250 page book and be expected to complete it in a few weeks. This is what many students are asked to do when they are given prescribed texts to study. Can you blame them for looking for shortcuts online? Alas, reading an online summary of a book along with its themes is a poor substitute for its message. A more effective tactic that is yet to fail me thus far is getting students to read under one of the following contingencies (depending on how soon assessment tasks are coming up):


  1. Read for 10 minutes per sitting (multiple readings in a day … for students who have upcoming tasks)
  2. Read for 10 minutes per day (this is the real winner!)
  3. Read at least 1 page per day (slow going but it works)
  4. Read at least 1 sentence per day (students who really do not like to read)


Although it seems quite counter-intuitive, committing to less actually garners better results. Most students start with the minimum and within a few weeks are getting lost in plot twists and fictional intrigue. The other thing that helps with this strategy is attaching the task to an existing habit like sitting on the bus. The habit could look like this: “each time I catch the bus, I will read at least 1 page of my book.”  You can begin this daily practice at any age and in any condition.


Make it a Game

To many young people, the world is becoming gamified. What this means is that some students are understanding the world around themselves using the same mechanics that are seen in the games that they play. It is a frame of understanding which is starting to get picked up by many employers who are looking at hiring graduates.


The great thing about books is that some of them hold very important secrets that exist in the universe. The only thing that is stopping hordes of people learning these coded messages is the enormous wall of perceived energy that is required to turn a page. Once inside the vault of endless knowledge, a clever student will be able to find answers to some of the more fascinating human questions. In order to stumble across some of these secrets (and get quotes that are MORE interesting than the ones on SparkNotes), there is a quick and easy game that does not take too much effort to play. There are no advertisements and you do not have to purchase any special applications to win.


One of the best teachers of my childhood used to allow a book to fall open at a random passage. We would then as a class try to extract the wisdom found within. I have since added my own twist to this game. Instead of opening just one book, we open multiple books and see if the wisdom is at all connected. The secret to doing well in this subject is learning how to find connections that at first glance do not appear to be there.


In order to illustrate how this game can be played, I have gone ahead and walked around my lounge room picking up books at random and flicking to whichever page falls open. If you wish to play along, you will read the page where your head is tilted towards. For this version of the game, you will turn fractured sentences into a paragraph that makes a new story. You can add any details but the quotations must remain exact. Please see below for an example of how I have played the game by walking around my lounge room collecting random books.


The following data has been extracted:


“a ruler must be able to exploit both the man and the beast in himself to the full.” (p.93, Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’)


“‘This hive of industry,’ as the Director was fond of calling it, was in the full buzz of work.” (p.127, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’)


“Come out, you old witch!

Come out and play” (p.21, Louis Nowra’s ‘Radiance’)


“almost every town was marked by the remembrance of some story” (p.152, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)


“He was going backwards, and now he again stood empty and naked and ignorant of the world. But he did not grieve about it; no, he even felt a great desire to laugh, to laugh at himself, to laugh at this strange foolish world.” (p.74, 75, Herman Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’)


Now, out of randomness, let us make sense of the sentences. Below is a paragraph that has been constructed using the fragments from other books. The bold words are the ones that have been added.


He was going backwards, and now he again stood empty and naked and ignorant of the world. But he did not grieve about it; no, he even felt a great desire to laugh, to laugh at himself, to laugh at this strange foolish world. For it is said that a ruler must be able to exploit both the man and the beast in himself to the full. He looked about and noticed that almost every town was marked by the remembrance of some story, even though this hive of industry,’ as the Director was fond of calling it, was in the full buzz of work. His aching hands banged on the door of his adversary as he shouted “Come out, you old witch! Come out and play”.


When you read the above sentences, could you have imagined them fitting together so neatly? Me either, if you haven’t yet, grab a few books from your shelf and try to do the same!


Slow Down: The Curious Case of the Meditating Mr Morris




Now for the weirdest piece of advice. For this magic trick, I call upon my wonderful English teacher Mr Morris. This teacher would without fail for at least 5 minutes per class get us all to sit down and settle into a quiet space within ourselves. I did not think much of it at the time but since then, it has become apparent that those few minutes that seemed superfluous were actually incredibly helpful for developing deep comprehension skills. By spending a little bit of time pushing us away from distractions, the students were able to have a clearer mind when analysing texts. I’m not an expert on the topic but my current practice merely involves tossing my telephone across the room and spending a few minutes focusing on breathing.


Inspire Them!

English really is a subject that borders very strongly on philosophy. There are some incredible insights to be gained for students who authentically seek knowledge from texts. Even films and songs are layered in meanings that are puzzles in themselves to solve. Anyone can do this subject well if they are willing to pick up a book and a pen and mine their minds for subconscious wisdom. If you are a parent who wants to help a child improve, think of a book, a song, an artwork, a poem or a film that moved you and share why it made you feel something. Even if you do not feel like you have a literary background, connecting in this way is the groundwork that shows students the magic that can be found in the world of the imagination.

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