Poor Reading and Writing Skills are Dooming Students to Failure in High School and University, Eminent Scientist Warns

by Natasha Bita, The Australian 11 September, 2023

   One of Australia’s most eminent scientists has blasted a lack of basic literacy for sabotaging students’ success in high school and university, as damning new data reveals that failed teaching methods could cost a generation of children $12 billion in lifetime earnings.

High school science teachers have blamed low literacy for students’ struggles in the high-stakes STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

Australia’s former chief scientist, Alan Finkel, is demanding more focus on the phonics-based teaching of reading and writing in primary school, as well as the ­basics of mathematics, to stop students failing in high school.

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“These are muscle memory subjects you need to know early,” Dr Finkel said on Sunday.

“In literacy, not teaching phonics has been a serious problem because we have a generation that hasn’t been taught effectively how to read. And good luck picking up mathematics at university for a subject like engineering or architecture if you didn’t learn it at school”.

Shockingly low levels of literacy are also revealed in a report by Equity Economics, which calculates $12bn in lost lifetime earnings for children who fail to master reading and writing.

It shows the ACT is the only state or territory in which year 9 students are reading at the level expected for their grade, based on mean scores from last year’s ­NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests. Year 9 students performed at the level expected of a year 8 student in South Australia, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia. But in Queensland and Tasmania, year 9 students had the reading ability of a year 7 student, in terms of mean scores.

The report says four out of every 10 students in Australia do not meet international reading benchmarks for 15-year-olds.

“Children with lower levels of literacy are more likely to end up in the lowest income bracket in the future,” the report states.

“This perpetuates a cycle of reliance on government assistance and escalates costs within healthcare, housing, employment and justice systems. The impact extends across lifetimes and generations.”

Dr Finkel, an eminent neuroscientist and electrical engineer who served as chief scientist from 2016 to 2020, warned that low ­levels of literacy were sabotaging teenagers’ learning in other subjects at high school.

Many science teachers “do not think their students are proficient in what many would consider basic skills.” “Literacy and numeracy underpin the higher-order thinking we expect in our science classrooms,” he said.

“Students in science should be applying their knowledge from maths and English classes to reinforce their learning and access scientific concepts.”

Dr Alan Finkel warned that low levels of literacy were sabotaging learning in other subjects at school.

The warning from such a high-profile scientist will put pressure on the nation’s education ministers to mandate the teaching of phonics-based reading – in which students sound out letter combinations to ‘decode’ words instead of guessing them by looking at pictures, or learning them by heart.

Dr Finkel, who has also served as special adviser to the federal government on low emissions technologies, co-founded science education company Stile Education, which provides curriculum materials to one in three Australian high schools.

In Stile Education’s latest survey of more than 1100 Australian high school science teachers, 57 per cent per cent felt their students’ literacy levels were limiting their ability to understand science in high school.

Half felt their students’ poor grasp of maths was limiting their ability to understand science. Students could not use basic spreadsheet tools to manipulate or visualise data.

Dr Finkel said children also needed to be taught to touch type, given they spent so much time on computers.

Forty per cent of teachers felt their teenage students were not proficient touch typists – an important skill if children were to avoid injury such as carpal tunnel, tendinitis or repetitive strain injury from using keyboards incorrectly.

Alarmingly, given the rapid rise of generative artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT, 40 per cent of teachers felt their students could not understand the difference between a good and a bad source of information on the internet.

To reduce cheating and improve learning, Dr Finkel called for a return to pen-and-paper exams in schools, with students reading their answers aloud, to “bypass any opportunity for AI to be involved”.

Dr Finkel said it was essential that students learn to think for themselves, based on the foundational skills of reading, writing and maths taught in schools.

“People need that ability deeply ingrained in their brains, so they can be part of a real-time conversation,” he said.

“Too few students can tell the difference between good and bad information on the internet”

In the workplace, if you’re having a discussion with people around the table, you expect each of your colleagues to articulate their thoughts clearly and verbally.

“You can’t do that if everyone says, ‘I need 10 minutes to research my answer”

Education Minister Jason Clare said on Sunday that he was “interested in what works”.

“Phonics is a critical part of that and so is catch-up tutoring,’’ he said. “Some children need extra intensive support, either one-on-one or in a small group to help them catch up and keep up.”

Mr Clare said educational priorities and targets for schools were under review for the next schools reform agreement with state and territory governments next year.

Federal Opposition Education spokeswoman Senator Sarah Henderson said the Labor state and federal governments had “dropped the ball on the need to adopt explicit instruction and other evidence-based teaching and learning methods in every Australian classroom”.

“The biggest disadvantage a child can suffer at school is not their postcode, but failing to learn to read and write,” she said.“

The Australian Education Research Organisation says that once a child in year 3 falls behind expected learning standards, in most cases they never catch up.”

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