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Get the job done early

By Robyn Wheldall

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That nearly half of the adult population in Australia is not functionally literate for

today’s demands is certainly cause for concern. How can a country remain prosperous

and deliver on productivity if one in two of its adult citizens cannot read and write

at an acceptable level? Not only is this level of illiteracy a burden on the individuals

themselves and on society (often in the form of welfare payments), but it poses a

massive opportunity cost. This country is not big enough to have only half of its adult

population contributing to its development.

That things were better in the past is always a tempting conclusion and one that should

not necessarily be rapidly drawn. But something that has always struck me is that all of

the older people I come in contact with seem to be able to read and write well-structured

and grammatically correct sentences. What’s more, those sentences are often written in a

beautiful script. This seems to be the case irrespective of socio-economic background, and

no matter how long these individuals had attended school. My father left school on his

14th birthday to become an apprentice surgical instrument maker in London. This was

not by choice. He was an academically curious boy and probably scholastically gifted,

but this held no sway with his father who sent all his sons “to the bench”. This was the

family trade. My mother left school at 15 to become a secretary, as many women in her

generation did. Neither completed secondary school, yet both could read and write with a

high level of proficiency. Similarly, my husband’s family, who were poor by any standards

of the day, are all highly literate and continue to be excellent writers.

I am not harking back to the past unnecessarily. But what the older people in my life

have in common is that they all had primary schooling. They were taught to be literate

(and numerate) when they were in primary school. There was no certainty that they

would participate in many (if any) years of secondary schooling and so the job had to be

done and dusted in those primary school years.

There is a lesson here for us. Just because we typically now have children and young

people in school for 13 years does not mean that we should take too much time about

making sure they are literate and numerate. There should still be some urgency around

this. While we know we can teach older children to read, it takes a lot more effort and

the lost opportunities for reading can never be recovered. The early years are the years

when this instruction should take place. As we now know from neuroscience, the brain

is highly receptive and plastic at this point, and this is the time when learning to read

needs to occur. Our brains are not wired for reading which, as we know, is a relatively

recent cultural invention. The window for ensuring that all children learn to read is not

huge and we should keep this is mind when we plan for instructional priorities in the

early years of schooling. If we can teach this essential skill to all children by the end

of their first three years in school, we will have a different country in the future. What

could be more important than ensuring that children have well-developed literacy skills

to face the demands of the 21st century?

Robyn Wheldall

Joint Editor

This article was published in the October 2019 edition of Nomanis.