WHEN BOB FITZGERALD, Chief Inspector of Blacktown Police Area Command, was in Year 4, he stole a book from a library in South Australia. It was Babar the Elephant and he couldn’t understand a word of it. He’d been to thirteen schools by then, and at none had he learnt to read.
That year, a teacher called Mrs Gallagher took an interest in Bob and with her help over the next few years he slowly learnt to read. ‘The first book I fell in love with was The Lord of the Rings. I read it nine times,’ he says. For a kid who had lived in twenty-seven different houses and experienced much in his life he wanted to escape from, the acquisition of literacy was life-changing. ‘It helped me get out of the cycle that I wanted to be out of,’ he says. ‘And the escapism of it...gave me an opportunity to disappear from the real world.’ Fitzgerald is now an avid reader. He’s been at Blacktown in Western Sydney for thirty-eight years and makes a point of having books everywhere at his station. Police officers keep them in cars as a way to soothe and distract children when they’re called to a domestic dispute. Fitzgerald regularly sets up bookstalls at local fairs, and there’s a book box in the station foyer that he replenishes. ‘We got a lot of people who report on bail, and most of these books go with those people,’ he says. He has a mantra: you can’t steal a book.
As you read this sentence, your brain effortlessly links marks on a page to the one correct word from a lexicon that may run to 100,000, making it easy to think that reading comes naturally. Learning to speak is natural. We’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years and are born with brains primed to process language. But our brains aren’t primed to read for the simple reason that reading is new. We’ve been doing it for fewer than six thousand years, since the Sumerians and the Egyptians invented their own writing systems. Every child learning to read has to profoundly rewire their brain, performing a spectacular feat of neuroplasticity. Fitzgerald’s story is unusual not because of how difficult he found it to read – but because he eventually succeeded.
Most children who find reading difficult in those early years of primary school never become proficient readers. In 1986, applied psychologist Keith Stanovich explained this in terms of the Matthew Effect – the name references the Bible verse about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. If kids get off to a good start in reading, they improve their vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, grammar and knowledge. This makes reading easier, which in turn makes them likely to read more, which makes reading easier again. It’s a spiral of exponential increase, the greatest tool ever created for self-education. Kids who learn to read quickly and easily not only become better readers, they learn more – more facts, more about lives unlike their own, more empathy. In short, more possibility.
Contrast this with the child who finds reading difficult in their crucial early years. They are less likely to enjoy it, which makes them less likely to do it, which means they develop more slowly in areas from vocabulary to knowledge and which, in turn, makes reading even harder and less engaging. As their peers rocket off into new places, these kids are stuck trying to distinguish dog from god. No new worlds open up for them. The most piercing thing they learn is frustration and shame at being left behind.
Low literacy, even more than low numeracy, is highly correlated to behavioural problems. The child who cannot read is likely to hide this fact by acting out, or simply feels so frustrated or ashamed that she cannot help overreacting. Young people with low literacy are less likely to finish school or go on to higher education. They’re more likely to be unemployed, become pregnant in their teens, have poorer health, be welfare-dependent and be incarcerated. Half of all young male offenders in Australia have deficits in comprehension and spoken language, and those who commit more serious offences are particularly likely to have language impairment. It breaks Fitzgerald’s heart that he still frequently arrests people who say to him, ‘Sorry Sarge, I can’t read.’
Which makes it concerning that, as has been extensively noted, literacy has been declining in Australia for some years. The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results showed that Australia was one of nine countries to have a significant decline in literacy performance between 2009 and 2015. There is some quibbling about the exact amount PISA scores have slipped, as there is dispute about the validity of declining NAPLAN literacy results, but few would deny the trend is worrying. A staggering 44 per cent of Australian adults lack the literacy skills required for everyday activities.
Research has shown over and over again that literacy problems start early. We tend to think of reading as something kids learn when they get to school, but actually what happens from before birth to age five plays a critical role. Children who arrive at school with poor language and poor emergent literacy rarely make up the gap. One study found that up to 90 per cent of children with persistent language problems at age five had poor literacy outcomes when tested ten years later. So it’s deeply troubling that recent data from the Australian Early Development Census suggests that nearly 23 per cent of Australia’s children are not developmentally on track with their communication skills at school entry.
Which is why dozens of organisations around the country are, like Fitzgerald, trying to get books into the hands of small children.
FOR DECADES, RESEARCH has shown that – even controlling for factors such as maternal education and socio-economic status – children who are read to from a young age have better literacy, and do better at school, than those who aren’t. And the earlier reading starts, the better. Recent research by Dr Michelle Brown using data from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children showed infants whose parents read with them for eleven minutes or more per day had stronger reading, spelling and grammar skills in Years 3 and 5.
This message about the importance of reading books to children has, largely, been heard, and book-gifting programs operate around the world. In the UK in 1999 Bookstart became the world’s first national book-gifting program, providing books to every child in England and Wales at different points from birth to five years old. In the US, Reach Out and Read was started in 1989 when staff at Boston City Hospital complained to Barry Zuckerman, a pediatrician, that books were being taken from their waiting rooms. What a wonderful problem to have, he thought! How can we get them taking more books? Reach Out and Read now operates in fifty states, providing seven million books a year. Both programs have flourished thanks to central government support, but in Australia such support has never materialised. One of the few reasons to regret that Mark Latham never came to power is that in 2004 he promised he would give books to every child born in Australia.
Instead, we have dozens of book-gifting programs operating in different parts of the country. Many specifically target communities experiencing disadvantage. Nationally, there’s the Let’s Read program from The Smith Family, developed with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, which has donated around 20,000 book packs a year since starting in 2004. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation supplies books both in English and language to remote Indigenous communities; it’s provided more than half a million books since 2006. The states have their own programs. United Way brought Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to Australia from Tennessee, which mails children a book a month until they go to school. The New South Wales Government recently committed $8 million to roll the program out to disadvantaged communities across the state. Other states have universal book-gifting programs, providing books and literacy resources for all children at different points until the age of five, with Western Australia’s Better Beginnings and Queensland’s First 5 Forever highly regarded. Paint the Town REaD is an initiative that supports communities across Australia to celebrate and promote reading in whatever ways seem most appropriate to them, from Fitzgerald’s books in police cars in Western Sydney to book boxes in the homes of First Nations’ Elders in Bundaberg.
But if we’ve heard the message about the importance of books, we’re still some way from a general understanding of why shared reading is so important, or how best to do it. I remember feeling slightly foolish reading to my daughter when she was too small to hold up her own head. I knew vaguely it was good for her but I didn’t know that babies make more than a million new neural connections every second or that their brains are 90 per cent developed by the age of five.
If pressed, I’d probably have said that shared reading develops a love of books and prepares kids for later reading, which is true. The National Early Language and Literacy Coalition (NELLC) identifies five key components of emergent literacy, three of which are aspects of proto-reading: the ability to identify letters, knowledge that letters correspond to sounds, and the conventions of print (that sentences run left to right and top to bottom on a page, and so on). Shared reading, of course, supports all these things. What I did not understand – and what Sue McKerracher, Chair of NELLC, says many people don’t quite grasp – is the crucial role books play in developing the remaining two components: oral language (the child’s ability to speak and listen) and their phonological awareness.
I did not understand that while it is great if children start school able to recognise letters or write their own name, the most important things for reading success are a large vocabulary and strong spoken language. The words on the page are important, but even more important is the extended discussion, the back and forth of dialogue, that books can enable.
‘The thing we have to get our head around,’ says Mary-Ruth Mendel of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF), ‘is that literacy is built on the ability to speak and listen.’
ONE OF THE most well-known studies of oral language in young children is Betty Hart and Todd R Risley’s 1995 paper, ‘The Early Catastrophe’. Once a month, they went into the homes of forty-two families in Kansas City across the socio-economic spectrum, recording the amount and type of language that was spoken to children from the age of seven months to three years. They found that children living in poverty heard less than one third of the words heard by those in high-income families. Extrapolated out, this equated to a gap of thirty million words by the time the child was four years old.
Later studies have questioned the size of this gap, but the study has been enormously influential in emphasising the importance to children of oral- language development and a language-rich home-learning environment. Of course, one of the best ways to extend the range of language spoken in the home is through books. A child is much more likely to learn what a zebra is, say, or hear the passive tense in a book than in conversation. But to really get the most out of books, parents should engage children in dialogic reading, a practice that’s more conversational and active than simply reading the words on the page. It involves pointing out similar sounds (‘puppy begins with a p sound. What else begins with a p sound?’) and noting other sound patterns, such as rhymes. It also involves initiating discussion about the meaning of the text, asking questions about what might happen next, for example, and talking about what they can see in the pictures (‘can you point to a koala?). At the heart of the practice is the concept of taking turns with the child, and Michelle Brown’s research suggests it’s best done long before they begin to speak, when their turn might simply involve touching the page or making eye contact. Says Professor Elaine Reese, psychologist and early literacy expert, ‘It’s those conversations, the back and forth, the interactions that are so important, not just reading the text word for word. Especially with younger kids.’ An experimental study led by Reese aimed to isolate exactly which type of talk around books was most beneficial for children. Two groups of parents were given the same books and trained in how to have high-quality conversations around them, but one group focused on meaning (storylines, emotions, cause and effect) while the other focused on phonological awareness (rhyming words and sounds). For some parents, focusing on sound rather than meaning was an odd way to read a book, but the study found this was a better predictor of children’s letter recognition at the end of the study, and results showed that by age six, those kids were better readers. But the more meaning-focused talk was helpful too, advancing oral language and narrative skills, which studies show will likely help children with reading comprehension later. ‘So they’re both good for children’s reading but in different ways,’ says Reese.
Nearly all book-gifting programs now try, to a greater or lesser extent, to educate parents about the importance of dialogic reading. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library sends a tip sheet with each book for parents on how to introduce it to the child and, in some locations, such as Tamworth, links the program into other services, including libraries and maternal and Indigenous health services. Similarly, Let’s Read partners with maternal health services and early childhood education providers on the assumption that parents are more likely to respect information about dialogic reading imparted to them by trusted professionals. Better Beginnings in Western Australia does the same, distributing books and pamphlets, and connecting parents into other literacy resources and services, such as their local library. ‘As with all of our packs, and the program in general, it’s the messaging to parents that’s really important,’ says Alison Underwood, co-ordinator of Better Beginnings. ‘Otherwise it’s just a gift-giving program.’
There is enormous possibility in this idea that it’s the conversations we have around books, rather than the books themselves, that matter. One of the risks in any book-gifting program is that handing a book to a parent with low literacy can simply bucket them in shame. Even if they do pick up the book, they often feel ill equipped to read to their kids. ‘One of the things that we heard a lot from parents,’ says Wendy Field, head of policy and programs at The Smith Family, ‘is that they were worried that because they had low literacy levels, they would do it wrong and they would break their children’s literacy.’ Samantha Page, CEO of Early Childhood Australia, says parents from non-English-speaking backgrounds sometimes think it’s better to set their child up with an audio book rather than read themselves, as they’re worried they’ll get the pronunciation wrong.
Dialogic reading, however, can be done by those with no functional literacy at all. At the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, they encourage parents to pick up a book and just tell a ripping yarn. ‘We’ve heard the funniest stories,’ says Mendel. ‘They look at the pictures and off they go!’ Professor Sharon Goldfeld of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute agrees. ‘It can be a cookbook or magazine – it doesn’t have to be a fancy book. It’s just about pointing at pictures and talking to your kids and having a conversation.’
In Australia, where Indigenous literacy rates remain significantly lower than the rest of the population, this focus on speaking and storytelling is also a way of honouring and incorporating the oral traditions of Indigenous cultures. ‘It helps us to widen the focus, especially for families that aren’t as comfortable with books,’ says Reese. She has done research with Maori cultures showing that extended reminiscences, talking about the past with a child, were actually a better predictor of their early literacy than shared book reading. ‘We think it’s because there’s just such an emphasis on oral language and memory in Maori culture that they just do it really well,’ she says.
Dialogic reading is also a fantastic tool for building home languages, though Dr Van Tran, of the VietSpeech Project at Charles Sturt University, says it’s not used as much as it should be. ‘There are so many bilingual children in Australia and we just focus on the value of English books,’ she says. Building children’s oral language and literacy in their home language doesn’t just help with later literacy in that language, it helps with literacy in other languages, such as English, too. This is why organisations such as the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation focus on books and literacy support in language. Tran developed a ten-week program called Super Speech that trained parents in how to use a set of bilingual Vietnamese and English books to help their children learn Vietnamese. The same dialogic reading model was used, but in two languages. The parents were astonished to learn that such a simple activity could build language skills. ‘They thought they had to go to formal education,’ says Tran. She argues that shared bilingual reading is even more important than shared monolingual reading. ‘Once [these children] get to school, English dominates,’ she says. She urges parents to think of the years before school as a golden period. ‘If we can teach them to speak the home language to some proficiency before they go to school, that would be ideal. Otherwise it will be very hard. You’ll be pushing against the ocean.’
Still, changing the way parents read to children isn’t easy and the evidence suggests it may take more than books and tip sheets. When surveyed, parents are overwhelmingly positive about book-gifting programs; most show an increase in the frequency of shared reading and significant attitudinal shifts. A 2020 evaluation of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library in Australia found that after six months, a remarkable 81 per cent of parents felt confident reading to their child, up from only 8 per cent at the start of the program. But no robust study has been able to show that these benefits of book-gifting programs translate into improvements in children’s later literacy. Between 2006 and 2010, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute ran a randomised control trial of Let’s Read looking at the impact of the program on emergent literacy and language at ages two and four. They found no significant difference in the outcomes of those in the experimental group and the control group. As Goldfield explains, this could be for many reasons: people who sign up for trials are likely to be more literate to begin with; it’s always hard to show impact for light-touch interventions. ‘I guess it’s partly the study, partly maybe it is a null result,’ she says. ‘The research doesn’t really support it but you’ve kind of gotta go with it. Because it seems intuitively good, right, to give away books?’
The second part of the Let’s Read trial, however, was more promising. This was more intensive than just handing over information about dialogic reading: the researchers trained early educators in the practice. The impact on children’s literacy was again assessed through a randomised control trial, and while the sample size was too small to see a real effect, the results were better than expected. ‘It was kind of like, blow me down!’ says Goldfield. ‘I was expecting to see nothing much, but [I] saw this systematic movement in the right direction.’
For Goldfield and others, this is where the real opportunity lies: in deeply embedding dialogic reading practices for both educators and parents, so language-rich activities can be threaded through a child’s day-to-day life. It means encouraging parents to sing to their children, to talk as they dress them, to point out that bus begins with the same sound as bee. In short, it’s about getting educators and parents talking differently to their children, but it’s fiendishly difficult because it involves changing something at the heart of the parent-child bond. ‘You just get such a strong social gradient,’ Goldfield says. ‘A lot of families who live in a lot of adversity or come from very adverse circumstances haven’t been brought up with that. How do you play with your kids? How do you use language? If we could get that great oral language working, we would probably get better literacy outcomes.’
One of the few programs that has been shown to make a difference in this area through randomised control trials is the Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters (HIPPY), supported by the federal government and run in 100 disadvantaged communities around Australia. On average, children start the program significantly below the national norm on pre-literacy and pre-numeracy tests, but most finish marginally above it. Developed in 1969 at the Hebrew University, it’s a two-year literacy and numeracy program for four- and five-year-olds with many more touchpoints than any book- gifting program. It involves tutors, who are always peers from the same community as the parents, coming into the home once a week. The tutors talk to the parents about learning, provide materials including workbooks and reading books with the aim of empowering them to be their child’s ‘first and forever teacher’. Parents are encouraged to work through the books daily with their children but also, crucially, to engage in ‘everywhere learning’, by pointing out the names of foods while making dinner, for example, or counting when going to the shops. HIPPY aims, in other words, to enrich the home-learning environment by changing the way parents interact with their kids. It is a literacy and numeracy program but, in practice, it can look a bit like a parenting program.
WHILE FEW EARLY literacy programs in Australia have the robust evidence base of HIPPY, there is promising work going on all over the country in libraries, not-for-profits, speech pathology practices, parent groups and early childhood education centres. One of the issues, however, is that there is no universally accepted, shareable tool for measuring and supporting children’s growth in oral language and early literacy. This is why, in 2017, the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation contracted the Australian Council for Educational Research to develop the Early Language and Literacy Development Index (ELLDI). Senior Research Fellow Dr Dan Cloney, who led the project, says the ELLDI is a world first, a trans-disciplinary formative assessment tool for two- to eight-year-olds administered around everyday activities like shared book reading. It can be used by early childhood educators, teachers, support staff and others to receive real-time feedback about where a child is placed with their early language and literacy development – and, crucially, how best to intervene to support their growth.
With early literacy, there is no silver bullet. Solutions are complex and layered, and to really shift the dial we need services to work together and tools and knowledge to be widely shared and validated. Yet this rarely happens because – unlike countries such as the US, UK and Canada – Australia does not have a national strategy to guide them. Literacy plays a significant role in a number of the strategies around early learning, including the Early Years Learning Framework and various state-based policies, but there is no explicit, national strategy for how educators, parents and community might work together to tackle such a complicated, multifaceted issue.
In 2017, a shared sense of frustration about this led to the establishment of NELLC, with ten founding members including the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, the Australian Library and Information Association, Early Childhood Australia and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. In September last year it released a Proposed National Early Language and Literacy Strategy based on four priority areas: supporting families, improv- ing early childhood education, providing specialist support to children with language and learning difficulties, and improving and disseminating the knowledge and research base for early literacy. The hope is that the strategy will provide governments with ‘foundational material and strategic direction’ for the creation of a fully implemented National Early Language and Literacy Strategy from birth to aged five. ‘At the moment we’ve got about 15 per cent of five year olds who are vulnerable or at risk of never developing the language and literacy skills they will need as adults,’ says Sue McKerracher. ‘I would like to think that we could get that below 10 per cent. If we could have nine out of ten five-year-olds starting well, that would be a significantly better place than we’re in at the moment.’
The obstacles in the way of this, as McKerracher and others know, are many. Implementing a national strategy requires collaboration between the Commonwealth and states, and across ministries for education, early child- hood, families and the arts, where libraries usually sit. Any initiative that aims to improve quality in the early childhood education system faces the problem that there is no real system: centre quality varies hugely, as do the state-based provisions that govern them and the education levels of a staff so poorly paid and disrespected that a recent survey found 73 per cent plan to leave the sector within the next three years. Meaningful reform requires the political will to conceive of change not in forward estimates but in a generation.
Still, Travers McLeod, CEO of the Centre for Policy Development, sees some reasons for hope. During the pandemic shutdowns, early childhood centres were deemed essential services, highlighting both the importance and fragility of such work. Towards the end of 2021, the National Early Language and Literacy Strategy was one of nine national reviews to come out, all looking at different aspects of what quality looks like in the sector. Billionaires Andrew and Nicola Forrest have also entered the arena, establishing Thrive by Five to advocate for improved early education across Australia. Partly backed by the Forrests’ Minderoo Foundation, the Centre for Policy Development completed the first report from its Early Childhood Development Initiative in November 2021, recommending a suite of reforms including a national guarantee for children and families around early child- hood development.
For many of the people I spoke to for this article, hope that the national early literacy strategy might prompt significant change is tempered by exhaustion and something that veers from resignation to fury. It is a tragedy that, in a country as wealthy as Australia, more than one in five children might never open a book and experience the jolt and wonder of being trans- ported to a place beyond their imagination. The evidence, I hear over and over again, could not be stronger. We know that the early years are when kids’ brains do most of their development. We know that with literacy, early intervention is crucial. And still we fail to invest in and support services in this sector. ‘I think everyone should be astonished by it,’ says McLeod. ‘They’re the most important years of one’s life. It’s probably the most important thing a society does, prepare its children for the world, and the system and the investment has not caught up with the science or the evidence.’
‘Australia’s got to pull itself together when it comes to the children of Australia,’ says Mendel. ‘It’s said all the time they’re the future of Australia. Really? Get serious about it.’