Page 4087 - Week 13 - Thursday, 31 October 2013

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Dyslexia is one of those variations of a learning difficulty, but not the only one. But because of differing understanding over the years of what constitutes a learning difficulty, incident rates have remained unclear. Incident rates for dyslexia are also difficult to quantify, depending on what is included in the definition. Some say it is about two to three per cent—those few percentage points who are resistant to a variety of teaching techniques and who need one-on-one assistance. Some say it is 10 per cent or higher. Some include all reading delays as dyslexia.

Still, the reality is that there are children in our schools who are failing to learn to read at the same rate as their peers, children who are struggling in spite of the reading programs implemented in their classrooms. Some academics say that about 25 per cent of all children in Australian classrooms have difficulties learning to read. Maybe in the ACT the rate is not that high, but even here it is not just one or two per cent of students.

The progress in international reading literacy study, or PIRLS, is an international study in 2011 that included 59 countries. Australia participated for the first time, and testing was undertaken on year 4 children. Australia scored lower than 21 other participating countries, including Ireland and Northern Ireland, the United States, England and Canada as well as Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Chinese Taipei.

We were the lowest English speaking country surveyed and, interestingly, we had a wide spread of results. While 10 per cent of Australian year 4 students reached the advanced international benchmark, 32 per cent the high benchmark and 34 per cent the intermediate benchmark, almost one-quarter or 25 per cent of students did not reach the intermediate benchmark. The results indicated that Australia has a substantial tail of underperformance.

We shared our place half way down the table with countries like France, New Zealand, Spain and Belgium. The countries that performed worse than us were from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central and South America. The report highlighted that Australia would do well to aim to lift this tail of underachievement as well as work to extend the learning of the top achievers.

The ACT is not immune from those international statistics. Certainly averages are high but we need to focus on who is being left behind and why. We cannot pretend, on the back of strong NAPLAN results, that there are not children who are struggling to learn to read in ACT primary schools and that we cannot do something better to help them.

Public debate about how we teach our children to read is not new and, unfortunately, can often be divisive. The so-called reading wars are not helpful to fall into, but it is true that a brief Google search will reveal that when politicians wander into the debate about how we teach children to read, there are two sides in the debate: phonics and whole language, and they emerge with all bows armed. Then each side is backed up by their supporters—linguists and educators that say politicians should butt out of the debate about how to teach kids to read and leave it to the professionals and reading

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