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Australian English education is built on sand

By Chris Nugent - posted Thursday, 24 October 2013

It's now common knowledge within our communities: the levels of basic reading and spelling skill in our schools and workplaces are at desperate lows. For example, a recent media broadcast reported an ABS study to the effect that half of Tasmania's adult population is functionally illiterate. Only months earlier the same media had reported too, that the reading test scores of Australian students in Year 4 were the worst out of some 27 countries in the English speaking world.

Earlier still, in April of 2011, Australia's eleven Industry Skills Councils jointly reported that up to 8 million (!) Australian workers struggled with basic reading skill. Finally, no-one that I've met in recent years has contested the view that our primary and secondary schools house an additional 1.5 million students who are also struggling with basic reading and spelling.

But it wasn't always this way, and a national problem of this magnitude could not have developed overnight: it had to have been officially allowed to develop over a very long period of time. So what could have gone so enormously wrong with the way that our Australian governments have directed our teachers to both test and teach reading and spelling skills? Or how on earth did our teachers of basic literacy skills get so apparently led astray?


To directly and truthfully answer these questions all we need to do is take a brief look at the 'modern' English curriculum that our Australian national government requires our present day teachers of English to follow. In looking at our National English Curriculum we need to bear in mind that, by definition, a curriculum is the official job description that any teacher has got to fulfill as a condition of his employment. And this is where we find some alarming and incomprehensible answers.

It is embarrassingly simple for anyone to prove that Australia's 2013 basic literacy curriculum for primary schools is professionally incompetent. All you need to do is load the National Primary English (and literacy) Curriculum into the PDF file converter on your computer.Then, with the file converter'sword finding tool,you simply go looking for the number of times that particular words do or don't appear in the document.The result iscalled a word count analysis.

Australia's current National English (and literacy) Curriculum for years foundation through to year 10 was issued by ACARA on the 13th December 2012. The primary school sections of this curriculum contain 28,416 words. The word count analysis as follows shocks:

The word count data in the two boxes should be considered as spread over the 7 year levels that are in Australian primary schools. Among other things, this data shows that Australia's national curriculum authority is alarmingly bent on refusing to direct our teachers to systematically test or teach the 3 core literacy basics of English spelling skill, English read aloud skill and the English alphabetic (i.e. 'phonic') principle. The numbers in the boxes do say it all. There is no excuse. No primary English curriculum could be more professionally incompetent.

The stark figures in the boxes leave most people speechless. How is it possible for anational primary literacy curriculum to soblatantlyavoid even mentioningalmostall of the main features that are involved in the systematic testing and teaching ofthe literacy basics? And this for every year level in the primary school ?


When a fanatical semi religious fervor such as this directs the thinking about what is needed for basic literacy teaching, this fervor is called an 'ideology'. This ideology, that has so patently removed the 'literacy basics' from Australia's National Primary English Curriculum, is called the whole language ideology. This whole language ideology has a dominated the design of all government sponsored literacy curricula produced in Australia since 1982. It is precisely this ideology that has functionally destroyed quality in basic literacy education throughout the country.Following are a few summary facts which back up this call.

  • The 2013 national primary English curriculum by ACARA, is totally unable to help any primary teacher  in  the  job  of  teaching  children  to  either  spell  or read. Current primary English literacy curricula at all state and territorial levels are very little better if at all.
  • Basic spelling skills,  read-out-loud  skills  and  alphabetic  skills  are  the 3  core skills which underpin literally every successful writing and reading task at school or  in the workplace.  Yet   since   at   least   the   early   1980s,   none   of   our government sponsored  literacy  curriculum  documents  has  contained  guidelines to  direct teachers at any level to the systematic testing or teaching of any of these 3 core skills.
  •  As a consequence of this neglect, Australian government education systems at all levels between and including our kindergartens and workplaces have not systematically tested or taught the ‘literacy basics’ for some 30 years.
  • Even Australia’s illiterate and semi-literate workers who have been supposedly re- taught basic skills (under the auspices of those government funded programs run by Australia’s  eleven   Industry Skills  Councils  and   DEEWR)  have  never been systematically tested and   instructed in any of the 3 foundational ‘literacy basics’ as described in  2  above.
  • Since the early 1980s, literacy curricula throughout Australia   have   been oriented toward actually eradicating spelling from the testing and teaching of basic English at all levels: no other conclusion is possible. Later articles on this site will elaborate.
  • The spelling-for-age level performance of our school students was last nationally tested all  the  way  back  in  1936.  Despite official denials, Australia’s yearly NAPLAN tests do not conventionally test accurate spelling skill.
  • At least 70% of our exit secondary school students fail industry standards in  spelling
  • And 72% of our exit primary school students, in at least Tasmania, fail in accurately sounding out words of 3 and more syllables: common English words such as consonant, imperative , survival  and Australian heritage words such as Kakadu, Bandiana, Tingalpa.
  • After  some  30 years  of  similar  curricula  to  these,  Australia  now  has  up  to  8 million  workers  with  basic  reading  problems  in  its  workforce  and  at  least  1.5 million students with serious spelling and reading problems in its schools.

Our national English education system has, for 30 years, uniformly refused to systematically direct teachers to test or teach any of the 3 'literacy basics'. This system will continue to function like a building built on sand until we remove the bureaucratic nonsense that designed it and maintained it for over 3 decades.

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About the Author

Chris Nugent is a retired specialist teacher. He is the author of Planned Illiteracy in Australia : The Very Clear Evidence.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Chris Nugent

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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