Why Australia Is Behind In Reading – and an Easy Way to Fix It

Readers Workshop

So, looks like the media and the politicians are getting their collective knickers in a knot because a bunch of fourth graders didn’t get great marks in an international reading test. Poor kids, they’re the Australian Swimming team of the month. The response will be pretty predictable – the unions will call for more money, the politicians will blame the teachers (I believe they’ve already started), the media will blame a leftist curriculum and call for ‘back to basics’ and Tony Abbott will blame the Carbon Tax.

In my opinion, none of these things are useful (though the money could be, but I’ll get back to that.) The biggest problem with education in Australia is, quite simply, the low status of education in Australia.

Teachers are constantly put down, ridiculed and told that they’re not smart enough in the media. Science news is mostly contained to the ‘quirky facts’ section of the paper, or presented in the same breath as crackpot ideas from the internet (look at the fluoride debate in the Qld media over the weekend). Our ‘role models’ aren’t writers and mathematicians and scientists, but sports people and actors. And reading and writing is so dismissed in Queensland that the government stopped a minuscule amount of funding for writing awards (but horse racing is well funded up here).

It gets worse. Get into a school and listen to what the experts are telling you about reading, and all you’ll hear are programs and teacher jargon – phonemic awareness, reciprocal reading, guided reading . . . all things which lead to what Kelly Gallagher calls Readicide. Hands up if you can remember a book ‘killed to death’ by overzealous questioning, analysing and over reading? I can add Frankenstein, Cannily Cannily, Sally’s Story and The Outsiders to any list you just compiled!

Do you want my very simple way to improve reading in this country? Encourage a love of reading.

That’s it, simple. Give kids time to read. Give them a choice of material to read. Celebrate reading. Make it important. Stop over testing. Stop over teaching.

The money I talked about before? Put it towards classroom libraries. Put it towards author visits in schools.

Teacher education? Let them read books! Let them spend a day reading picture books or novels or non fiction or comic books. Let them become passionate about something, because that’s how they make their students passionate.

The media? Celebrate authors! Promote authors, put them on the front page. Write articles about reading to young children and about how to talk about books with school age kids. Make authors role models and leaders!

The curriculum? Give it back to the teachers, like they do in the best education countries in the world. Trust the teachers and let them bring their passions to the table. And let them have books and reading time!

There’s so so so much I could (and probably will) talk about on this subject – it’s one I’ve been passionate about for years. But if all the things the media and politicians suggest haven’t worked over the last ten years, maybe it’s as simple as getting people passionate again!

What makes you passionate about reading? What would you like to know about reading in schools?



  1. I’m obviously very VERY passionate about this. I literally have tears in my eyes… Yes. I read this in the news just this morning and you have hit on so many points I was thinking. This over-analysing and over-thinking books appears to begin in Prep (as has been my experience, anyway), however I also get that it’s to encourage/assess comprehension. I had hoped it would be allowed to come about more organically, though. And if the readers they were given were a little more interesting…. perhaps it (interest in the book) WOULD happen naturally! Bug-bear of mine, sorry.

    1. Oh, big bug bear of mine too – happy to have other people with me.

      I used to do Reader’s Workshop in my classroom – all about creating a reading environment and a reading community and teaching comprehension through mini-lessons, small group work and just talking about books – it was awesome and I still hear from those students about the books they’re reading 🙂

  2. There is so much focus on the nuts and bolts of written language in schools. Often kids come to school without the foundation of loving books and without the belief that literacy learning is important. There are a lot of issues in education could make a list, Room to enjoy our learning time and value learning material is definitely one of them.
    I hope you do write more about this.

    1. Often kids come to school without the foundation of loving books and without the belief that literacy learning is important.

      This is it exactly – I had the good fortune of hearing Mem Fox talk about books and reading last night, so I’m totally inspired to write more – it’s probably my biggest crusading point!

      1. Yes I spoke to you about it on twitter, I was crazy jealous! I actually remember having Possum Magic read to me by my library teacher and the specific parts she explained to us, I still think of when I read it to my boys! It’s not much of a stretch that I became a teacher because of that woman! In Victoria we don’t really have library teachers any more… =( I’ll be reading x

  3. Stop over stuffing the curriculum with “good ideas” and parenting because parents don’t anymore. Yes I agree that a lot of stuff the government mandates is important but seriously do schools have to be responsible for everything. We adults think of school the way it was when we went. I fondly remember friday afternoon art class that went for an hour or so but there seriously is no time for teaching reading or writing or one on one time with kids anymore and certainly no time for friday afternoon art. You would be lucky to be able to fit 30 minutes of art in a week. The curriculum is so overstuffed and kids are time poor. Unfortunately the basics have been shoved aside for the government’s “good ideas”. Enough already, let teachers teach and parents be parents. I love books and I have 22 month old twins who love books. We read and read and read and they throw tantrums when we leave the library. Instilling a love of books and reading is one of the most important things you can do as a parent.

  4. I could bang on about this all day. I have been involved in research on literacy and I don’t have to tell you, one of the best indicators of children being able to read well was adult modelling- specifically those adults in the home.
    I still maintain the best thing for a child to read is something they are interested in – be it comic, magazine, catalogue for all I care. And to see the adults in their lives read too. Combine this with reading aloud to children and they have a flying start.
    Testing is not the answer to high literacy levels.
    Children (and adults for that matter) don’t learn in isolation – and teaching to a test is not teaching at all.
    Cutting funds to specialised programmes doesn’t help. There are always some children who need extra support in becoming literate, yet these are some of the first programmes to get cut.

  5. Good points! In public libraries I’m advocating great reader service training for staff (and encouraging personal reading and reading conversations) and a lot more collaboration.

    1. Interesting! Could you say more about your advocacy? (And are staff allowed time to read at work? I saw that in a paper once, thought it the best idea ever – and valid professional development – but getting that through management would be nigh impossible.

  6. So true! I looked at the year 2 curriculum for reading and then read some of their test papers, I was astounding at what they were trying to teach children who couldn’t even read properly. Too many kids are falling behind because we are trying to psuh rules of reading instead of the love of reading!

  7. I agree. My love for reading started when I was very young and I quickly became obsessed with all books, I believe I owe it all to my mom, who read to us from a young age. She got us excited about books like Narnia and reading a chapter a night was all it took! All kids needs is some encouragement and a lot of them will take it from there.

  8. It seems pretty simple, doesn’t it. I signed up Miss E (6) and Miss L (3) to our local library today. They were very excited to get their own cards and borrowed four books each. Miss E has already read one of them all by herself. Even Miss A (15 months) paces the house with a book in hand. So important. And fun!

  9. I am applauding you – this is so true. I am married to a teacher and see first hand how badly they are treated and how much focus is placed on NAPLAN preparation rather than a real appreciation for reading and learning. We have three kids and they all have heaving bookshelves, even the 2 yo. We both believe in the power and importance of reading but it seems that is not a view that is universally shared by all. We’re doing our bit to encourage a love of reading in our kids, I can only hope the politicians get the hint soon and do more to help others do the same.

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