A fresh approach for students struggling with literacy - Education Matters
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A fresh approach for students struggling with literacy


With nearly one in five Australian adolescents performing poorly in literacy, and numbers rising steadily, literacy expert Dr Margaret Merga has called for a rethink in the way Australian schools support students struggling with literacy.

In her research, Edith Cowan University’s Dr Merga surveyed over 300 teachers working with students struggling with literacy in mainstream high school English classes around Australia.

“The survey clearly showed that interventions focusing solely on developing literacy skills in the classroom may be having little impact,” she said.

She said that instead of allocating considerable expenses to “high-stakes testing regimes, or embracing silver bullet approaches”, educators should be more adaptive in their approach, looking holistically at students and their circumstances.

“For example, teachers using skills-based interventions may only have limited success with students who have become profoundly disengaged through years of failure in literacy, or who have high rates of absenteeism from school,” she said.

In her survey findings, teachers said meeting the needs of students with a wide range of abilities and difficulties in a mainstream classroom was challenging.

“Teachers may be catering to multiple learning barriers in their classroom, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, diagnosed learning difficulties such as dyslexia, or students acquiring English as an Additional Language,” Dr Merga said.

She added that students may also be struggling with literacy for a wide variety of other, non-academic reasons and not fall into any of those categories.

Absenteeism, home factors, student attitudes and engagement, school and systems factors, and disabilities influencing learning were also considered major barriers to literacy learning.

Dr Merga has called for researchers and schools to work closely with students and their communities.

She said teachers need strong support and resourcing from governance and policymakers to help identify and enact innovative and multi-faceted solutions.

“Researchers must listen closely to teachers and school leaders rather than imposing top-down findings on schools that may not be contextually appropriate, or sufficiently responsive to students’ diverse challenges,” Dr Merga explained.

“Literacy levels reach beyond the classroom and are closely related to social factors and future employment prospects in adulthood.

While early-primary literacy initiatives are essential, she highlighted that the secondary school years cannot be neglected.

To view the research, please click here.

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