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Duxes and dunces in Australia

By Valerie Yule - posted Tuesday, 13 March 2012

How do we produce a clever country? The Gonski Report recommends changes to funding, and a new national curriculum is in place, but is this enough to put Australia at the top of the class?  All part of the clever country, not just a few

Australia produces a small proportion of duxes (duces?) at the top and a large proportion of dunces at the bottom. We have been concentrating on improving the mass in the middle, but the cost and the number of the dunces is so great that more needs to be done in improving them.

Methods of improving the dunces have been tried for so long we should surely realise they are insufficient – such as remedial reading after they have failed, long hours of drill or repetition, and small classes.


We are now looking at the Finnish example of a literate society, with rewards of status and pay for well-trained teachers, and good well-furnished schools for all pupils. Finland also has no private schools to take the parents who demand good schools. It has a more even distribution of wealth in society, with less difference between rich and poor.

Sometimes a little thing can have a tremendous effect. Written has no tricky spelling in it – although the Finnish language itself has its difficulties. This means that children can start school at seven, ensuring fewer start before they are developmentally ready, and because children can learn to read at home, the bright are not held back.

We however are tackling our tricky spellings by technical means, which help those with access to them – leaving the disadvantaged still at sea. We have spellcheckers so that we can write with few spelling errors, even when the spellings are undoubtedly tricky. As long as we can put our own misspellings through spellcheckers, our own writing will be relatively safe from errors. This is less useful for beginners learning to read and write and for the disadvantaged who have no computers out of school. We have computer apps that can read aloud whatever writing is fed into it – but the task is to get the writing into the computer.

We have arguments that it is not necessary to have universal literacy. Poor spelling is taken as a useful clue to lesser ability, when selecting employees. Everyone is thought not to need to read instructions or books. The lower classes are less likely to riot if they do not read of better lives than theirs – but television shows them this. ‘I doubt if we should be teaching these children to read – it only makes them harder to catch,’ said a priest to me at a disadvantaged school. That is true, but it also shows them better ways to live that are not criminal. 

Universal literacy is becoming ever more important as jobs require more skills. The taxpayers’ bill is huge to pay for the underprivileged who are unemployable, and for all the other associated effects of poor literacy.

Therefore it is time that we did something about the ‘little things’ that are spelling traps – because they can make such a difference.


The first thing to do is to prove that statement, for to those who are highly literate it is unbelievable.

Surely part of our education revolution should be safe experiments.

There should be Parallel Text experiments - reading books in which the text is repeated on the opposite page without the spelling traps. This will not only give the beginner and poor reader help to read the original text, but will also make us think that perhaps the spelling traps are not necessary – except to trap those not as skilled as we are.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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