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How we lost the plot in reading

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Monday, 22 November 2004

The genesis of today's debate about literacy standards can be traced back to the late 1960s and early '70s - a time not only of Woodstock, but also of moratoriums and flower power.

Radical educators such as the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire and the English sociologist MFD Young argued that the then education system preserved the power of society's status quo. Approaches to learning stressed examinations. Traditional subjects such as history, literature and science, and the authority of the teacher were criticised as obsolete and instrumental in oppressing so-called disadvantaged groups.

This idea built on the works of US educational theorist John Dewey, who died in 1952. Dewey was more interested in learning by doing, than rote learning and instruction. At the same time, across the English-speaking world, more traditional approaches to teaching English were attacked as ineffective and the preserve of the elite.


Freire argued that literacy could no longer be restricted to the ability to read and write. Children had to be empowered as individuals by being taught to be socially critical and to deconstruct language and texts in terms of power relationships. American writers such as Donald Graves and English educators such as James Britton argued that teachers should free students to be creative and that self-expression was more important than learning correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.

This whole-language approach was based on the assumption that learning to read was as natural as learning to speak and that all teachers needed to do was to immerse children in a rich language environment and success would follow. Subject associations such as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English became staunch advocates of the new orthodoxy.

Overseas gurus, including Graves and Britton, as well as Freire, were invited to Australia and their texts became compulsory reading in teacher training courses. Radical teacher unions such as the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the NSW Teachers Federation argued that it was wrong to test students or to assume that Standard English was superior to a student's own language use.

A more recent variant of the progressive approach of the new status quo can be found in the work of the Australian Council of Deans of Education. Those responsible for managing teacher training, in New Learning: A Charter for Australian Education, argue that teaching correct spelling, grammar and punctuation is obsolete (because spell-checking programmes remove the need for correct spelling).

The deans also argue that there are no right or wrong answers and that what the report describes as good learners, in the jargon much loved by educrats, "Will not come to any situation with preordained, known answers. Rather, they will come equipped with problem-solving skills, multiple strategies for tackling a task, and a flexible solutions orientation to knowledge."

The result? In Australia, England and the US, many argued that standards fell and the new approaches had failed. Many parents also voted with their feet in favour of non-government schools as these, compared with government schools, were seen as more academic.


Today it's claimed there is a literacy crisis in our schools. Those defending the new educational status quo argue that all is well and Australian students are performing at the top of the table, based on measures such as the OECD's programme for international student assessment test and the results of recent national literacy benchmarking tests.

Not all agree. Earlier this year 26 literacy researchers wrote to Education Minister Brendan Nelson arguing that Australia's whole language approach to teaching was flawed and, as a result, thousands of students left school illiterate. There is also the concern that, if the PISA test had, as well as testing reading, also corrected faulty spelling, grammar and punctuation, most Australian students would have failed and, according to the Australian Council for Educational Research, about one-third of Year 9 students lack adequate literacy skills.

In Australia, a 1996 national survey of reading, initiated by the Howard Government against the wishes of teachers unions and the AATE, discovered that 27 per cent of Year 3 and 29 per cent of Year 5 students failed to reach the minimum standard. It should be noted that concerns about literacy are not restricted to the school sector.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in the The Weekend Australia  on November 13, 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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