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Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training
12/07/2021
Adult literacy and its importance

DELANEY, Ms Jane, Senior Adviser, Early Childhood and Education, Speech Pathology Australia [by video link]

SERRY, Dr Tanya, Fellow, Speech Pathology Australia [by video link]

[14:32]

CHAIR: We move to Speech Pathology Australia, giving evidence to our committee today. We're very grateful to have them with us. Do our witnesses from Speech Pathology Australia have any additional comment on the capacities in which they are appearing?

Dr Serry : I'm an associate professor of literacy at La Trobe University. My background is as a speech pathologist and fellow of the association and co-director of the newly formed Science of Language and Reading Lab, or the SOLAR Lab, which is a virtual platform for research and advocacy for improving language and literacy skills.

CHAIR: That's great. While nothing you do today is necessarily under oath, the hearings are legal proceedings of parliament and have the same respect as proceedings of the House, and the giving of false or misleading evidence can be regarded as contempt of parliament. So would one of you be happy to give us a quick summary of the points you'd like to pick out of your submission that we can discuss today, and then we'll go to questions.

Ms Delaney : Speech Pathology Australia thanks the committee for the opportunity to appear at this hearing about adult literacy and its importance. Speech Pathology Australia is the national peak body for speech pathologists working across Australia, representing over 12,000 members. Speech pathologists are university-trained allied health professionals with expertise in assessment, diagnosis and treatment of communication and swallowing difficulties. Being able to read and write is profoundly transformative both for individuals and for population-level health and wellbeing. Language skills are the foundation of all learning but in particular literacy. Oral language competencies and literacy skills have a reciprocal and cyclical relationship. Strong oral language competency facilitates access to written language, which in turn facilitates ongoing growth in language competency. Oral language abilities are intrinsically related to the development of literacy, therefore acknowledgement of the early years of a child's life as a critical time for the development of language and literacy is essential. Early communication skills are known to predict later social, emotional, academic and vocational achievement.

As oral and written language is the medium of learning in our education systems, students with communication disabilities and learning difficulties are at a profound disadvantage from the outset. This trajectory may lead to ongoing literacy difficulties in adolescence and adulthood. There is a significant link between early childhood education and development and adult literacy. However, we would argue that the education system does not sufficiently recognise this vital relationship. There is a widely held belief that some students will be slower to learn to read compared to their peers but, given time, will catch up. Evidence suggests otherwise. For many the gap will widen rather than narrow. Policymakers, funders and providers within the education system nationally must acknowledge the unique impact that communication disability, including literacy, has on an individual's ability to access and participate in education and achieve expected educational outcomes. Unless this is addressed, Australia will continue to perform poorly in literacy and numeracy levels when compared to other countries.

As an association we believe a consistent, evidence-based approach to literacy instruction must be adopted across Australian schools. The recommended approach would be an explicit, comprehensive teaching approach, including systematic, phonics-based instruction in the critical early years of school. This must be supported by funds to develop information and guidance for school principals to support their decision-making about literacy programs that they implement within their school. Australia must recognise the need for a national early language and literacy strategy to ensure a positive outcome for all. Countries such as the UK, US and Canada all have national early literacy agendas. Speech Pathology Australia is a member the National Early Language and Literacy Strategy coalition currently undertaking a project to develop such a strategy. Tanya Serry and I are both representatives on this coalition. This draft strategy in development highlights priorities to support a national approach to facilitating early language and literacy development. As previously highlighted, early language and literacy development is a strong predictor of later literacy and academic achievements. Unless government departments support the national strategy initiative and play an active role in its development and implementation—that is, making it a national priority—the potential benefit for all Australian children and adults will not be achieved.

From a speech pathology perspective, speech pathologists are qualified to conduct a wide range of assessments to determine the presence, severity and areas of breakdown in a child's reading, spelling and writing composition, as well as oral language competencies. As such, speech pathologists must be included as essential members of the literacy and learning support teams in schools, working collaboratively with teachers and other key stakeholders. Speech pathologists and teachers have different but complementary roles within education. There are very good evidence-based interventions that are known to maximise outcomes for students, specifically those that utilise the whole school collaborative approach and include the expertise of a speech pathologist. We do thank you for the opportunity to participate in this crucial inquiry, and we of course are happy to take questions.

CHAIR: Thank you. Just a quick clarification: apart from your clinical work with children that are tracking well but have a biological reason for having trouble with expression, for those that have learning difficulties, are speech pathologists encountering the entire cohort of those with literacy challenges, or is there some small group that you're not going to be necessarily seeing? Do those that have a problem with verbal expression represent the entire cohort we should be targeting, or is there a small group over here that might have some numeracy problems but are not in the literacy basket, so to speak? I'm asking whether you look after every child who's lagging or just ones with expressive challenges.

Dr Serry : I can answer that. We don't have expertise in numeracy. I think that's really important to say at the outset. We know that, as Jane was saying, there is this incredibly strong link between spoken or oral language and written language—spoken language being something that we are hardwired to acquire; written language we're not. But we have to be taught how to read, how to spell and how to write, and that's from a foundation of oral language. So the issue is that children that have language difficulties might be just children who come from backgrounds where they just haven't had a lot of exposure in their early years. They might be children that have some sort of neurodiverse condition or syndrome. So we can capture all of those children who are at risk of oral language difficulties, and the vast majority, more than 50 per cent, will go on and experience difficulties learning to read when they get to school.

In terms of the numeracy I can't comment with any authority. However, I'd be fairly confident in saying learning mathematical skills is still quite a verbal skill. There are a lot of verbal aspects to understanding the concepts. Again, please, I don't want this to be taken as fact, but know that language and literacy invades every single aspect of the school curriculum, whether it's phys ed, maths, history and so forth. I'm speaking a little bit in the dark with the latter comment, but my experience and my research tell me, especially with secondary teachers who are receiving students who really can't read and are supposed to be teaching them science and so forth, these students really have not got adequate reading skills to access the curriculum. And those students will become adults with the same skill because gaining skills in the literacy, the written language side, does not come by just more experience. The people who are struggling and falling behind, whether they're five years old in their first year of school or they're in year 7, need additional intervention. They've told us, and they've told their teachers, that what is on offer in the normal classroom has not met their needs, and they need to be given additional support.

Ms BELL: Thank you, Ms Delaney and Dr Serry, for coming to speak with the committee today. We appreciate your time. I want to ask what I would consider the big question which is on a lot of people's lips at the moment, including the education minister, and that is the difference between phonics-based instruction and word meaning instruction. I'm wondering if you could (a) break that down for the committee for the record—that is, the difference between the two approaches—and (b) give the research that proves one perhaps over the other in terms of better outcomes. It's a big question, I know.

Dr Serry : No, that's absolutely okay, and I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about and discussing this too. There's a real problem with the term 'phonics based'. I'd just like to make that very clear at the start. An evidence-based program for young learners and for those who are older and struggling needs explicit and systematic phonics instruction but not at the exclusion of everything else. The National Reading Panel, which was a committee commissioned in the US in 2000, really gave us the five-pronged model of a comprehensive reading instruction program, and it includes phonemic awareness and phonics, phonemic awareness being just hearing the sounds. You don't necessarily have to be able to write the sounds but hear, for example, the three sounds in the word cat and so forth, so phonemic awareness and phonics. But also students need to be taught about oral language, expanding their vocabulary and reading fluency. So what we prefer now to use is the term 'structured literacy' as opposed to 'phonics based', because there are so many different types of phonics, some with more evidence and some with less evidence. But it's never at the exclusion of all of the important building of a student's language, building their background and content knowledge. So I just want to qualify that when I'm talking about phonics it's within a larger program, and we are talking about systematic, structured phonics. The whole language approach, which is probably more referred to these days as a balanced literacy approach, takes the view that the meaning is at the centre of getting the word off the page. So a child might read a sentence, and if the child can't read a particular word, the cue might be, 'What do you think it might be? What does the picture look like? What animal can you see? Oh, it must be a cat.' There's a lot around using multiple cues to get the word off the page. It's called the multiple cueing system, whereas in a structured literacy approach, the child would never, ever be told to take their eyes off the letters. The letters are at the core, so being able to unpack a word into its parts and then blend it back together is at the core of a structured literacy program.

The evidence? Look, we've got good evidence. I don't think we've got fantastic evidence yet. But the increase in recent years in terms of the cognitive science and the neuroscience continues to give us a lot more confidence that children really need that bottom-up approach where they start with a small number of letters, being able to play with them, break them up, put them back together and manipulate them, so that the word 'mat' can become 'at', which can become 'cat', which can become 'cap' and so on. The neuroscientific evidence is giving us a lot of solid information on how the brain actually changes from when we are very novice readers and having to sound out every word to when we become competent readers such as we all are. We can look at a word and it looks like it's happening at the speed of sight, but in fact a good reader still pays attention to the intra-word elements, the sounds, what we call phonemes, inside the word. Poor readers, these adult people we're probably focussing on today, would use things like looking at the context, predicting, guessing, skipping over the word and coming back to it, things that are inefficient and are really taking their eyes off the text, because they don't have the decoding skills to actually get the words off the page.

Ms BELL: Wow, that's a very comprehensive response and a very valuable one.

Dr Serry : There's one study that is quoted a lot, which I can send the committee. It's called the Clackmannanshire study, conducted in Scotland. It must be in the area called Clackmannanshire. That was really the one that we go back to—it was I think published in about 2007, so it's not new—the one that really put systematic synthetic phonics, that really bottom-up approach, on the map, then it's much more the neuroscientific advances that have really confirmed that study as well.

Ms BELL: So having not worked in schools or in an educational environment for some time myself, what's the current approach to reading for that age group under five? Is it different depending on the curriculum in the state, or is it the same across the country? Forgive me for not knowing.

Ms Delaney : Inconsistent would be the word we would use, and in terms of those decisions, part of our recommendation was providing information to principals and leadership teams around making decisions based on the evidence that is there but also what programs to use, because there are multiple, as Tanya said, and looking at which ones would be most appropriate.

Dr Serry : I just want to add to that too. I'm in Victoria. I've done some contract work with the Victorian state Department of Education and Training and also with South Australia and New South Wales, and they are all operating in their own little vacuums. So there is not consistency. Even if I can just talk from a Victorian perspective, my colleague Pam Snow, whom I'm the co-director of the SOLAR Lab with, talks about it as choose your own adventure, which fairly gets right to the chase of it. But with two schools a corner, a kilometre, away from each other, one can be following a very structured literacy, high-quality, evidence-based approach, not letting many children slip through the cracks—we really know that with quality teaching, about 95 per cent of children should have no difficulties learning to read in the early stages—whereas down the road it could be still very much grounded in a much more whole language or balanced literacy approach, and the departments don't really seem to be noticing. No-one seems to be called as to 'How come you're not doing this, or why aren't you doing that?' So it's not consistent. Look, I am a speech pathologist. I've been an academic in speech pathology for 20 years. But I have recently in the last year and a half moved to the school of education, because we know that many schools of education are still training students in methods that were really big in the eighties but have really shown to lack an evidence base or have not been the best or most efficient way, letting too many students fall through the cracks, and that to me is a strong argument of why we are finding ourselves in this situation at this commission, because there has been an acceptance that some kids just won't ever learn to read, and the evidence is so against that. Our brains are not hardwired to read, but with quality teaching the very vast majority can become more than functional readers and spellers and writers. I feel like I've gone a bit off track there, sorry.

Ms BELL: No, thank you for that response.

Ms HAMMOND: Just picking up on that last point there, I do hope that you made a submission to the ACARA review.

Dr Serry : I did, with my colleague Pam Snow, yes.

Ms HAMMOND: What you've learnt about teaching and language skills in early, does that translate to adult education?

Dr Serry : Look, my research is very much in the early to late adolescent space, but there's no question that—let's take the decoding out of it; let's assume that one has got the basics or the mechanics, which is really just the foundation—the more words you know and the more knowledge you have, the easier reading is going to be. If I can read about something that's familiar to me and be a strong reader, I can read about something highly unfamiliar and not be a strong reader, because I don't have the vocab or the conceptual knowledge, so the answer I think to your question is yes. Language is always going to be super valuable, but we can teach language and vocabulary and background in a really facilitative way, not in a very formal way. We would just talk about photosynthesis or whatever the particular topic is, so that language building is really valuable and important for literacy, because it is the foundation of extracting meaning from text. I hope I answered your question there.

Ms HAMMOND: You did. But also it's picking up on whether the same teaching strategies would be used for adult education as for early learners, and there might be similarities but there might also be—

Dr Serry : It also comes back to my earlier point, and it very much ties in with Jane's introduction, understanding that reading is not just about guessing and predicting but having a solid foundation of knowing how the letters, the writing system works, and the importance of filling children up with language vocabulary. I would not say that that is standard knowledge assumed by a lot of teachers. Some might and some mightn't, so there's still a very mixed playing field out there of what kids are getting. Yes, they should be the same strategies, but I can't guarantee in any way that those strategies are being used consistently in classrooms for five-year-olds or 15-year-olds. There's a lot of focus on the very busy work of writing and spelling and dictation, whereas we know so much can happen with really high quality, rich oral language in a classroom.

Ms HAMMOND: So your submission is really about, as some of our other submissions have been, addressing the issue at the beginning, and that's excellent, because we've got to look at it from both ends, trying to prevent this from happening, those low levels of adult literacy and adult numeracy. But at the same time we need to address the current levels of low adult literacy and numeracy, so we've got to look at it from both ends. The range of submissions on this have been great, but in relation to the adult space, so current adults who have got literacy or numeracy issues, first of all I imagine that as speech pathologists you probably have worked with people with aphasia. If somebody has got aphasia, does it affect their reading or their numeracy or just their ability to speak?

Dr Serry : It depends on where the stroke happens. But people can present suddenly, like a person who cannot read or has got very basic reading and writing skills as well. So again it depends on the location in the brain where the stroke occurred, but absolutely, yes.

Ms HAMMOND: And so in those cases I imagine that speech pathologists have got a whole range of programs to be able to teach the person to read and write again.

Dr Serry : That's correct, and it would look similar in many ways to what we would say is best practice for beginners, children, novice readers: learn the basics, small steps, bottom up, sequential. The difference of course is that adults have a sudden acquired disability, so they've got some previous experience which they may or may not be able to access. But in principle it's really just going back in small steps and just being like a quarter of a step ahead of where the learner is at so that you can just keep helping them, scaffolding them, to move forward.

Ms HAMMOND: Do you think that there is a difference then, with a low level of literacy and numeracy, say, in recent migrants, who might have excellent literacy and numeracy in their own first language, in a way of educating them in terms of developing English literacy and numeracy?

Dr Serry : I'd make a few comments. I'm certainly not an expert. I'm wondering, Jane, if you want to say anything about that. All I can really comment on that again is my knowledge in regard to children and adolescents coming here where English is their second, third, fourth language. Unless there is some reason why, you have some sort of learning difficulty, learning the English writing system on the back of another writing system is often a huge advantage, ultimately. It will take some time and effort, and there's going to be a lot of time needed to just learn the language and the vocabulary. But we know that once we've got one language, you kind of use that as a metalanguage about anything else that you learn. So yes, there's a fair bit of blood, sweat and tears to get there, but it's often really a facilitator as opposed to a barrier, ultimately.

Ms Delaney : That would be with individuals who have a strong first language.

Ms HAMMOND: The final question that I have for you is with respect to your recommendation of a national strategy. I think you've mentioned that it's in development. Who is currently developing the national strategy?

Dr Serry : ARACY. It's through ARACY.

Ms HAMMOND: Could you give us what that stands for? It sounds racy.

Dr Serry : ARACY stands for—

CHAIR: Children and youth research alliance.

Ms Delaney : Thank you. So ARACY are coordinating that. It's a project that has been funded through the Ian Potter Foundation, and there are 10 associations that obviously have literacy at their forefront or early language literacy at their forefront who are creating a document that looks at priority areas to support a national approach.

Ms HAMMOND: Okay, just one more question. I know I said I was going to finish. I think the working of speech pathologists within schools is brilliant, but my understanding would be that there's a dearth of speech pathologists in Australia at the moment. I know that in the west—that's in WA—there are not that many courses and limited enrolments in them, so if we were to expand this, I presume we'd need to get more speech pathologists.

Ms Delaney : Speech Pathology Australia is actually in the process of a workforce project to investigate barriers to the number of speech pathologists that are out there. There are a number of new universities who are starting up courses, so we do see over the next few years that there will be more speech pathologists graduating. But yes, this has been and continues to be an issue in terms of workforce but also just demand for speech pathologists.

Ms HAMMOND: A double degree in speech pathology and education would actually be a very useful one.

Dr Serry : It's actually interesting. I did in my previous role when I was heading up speech pathology at La Trobe—I'm at the same university, just a different part—look into that quite seriously, and it didn't go anywhere, because there's just too much outside of that link between language and literacy that both cohorts would need to do that we'd probably have no interest. A lot of speech pathology is quite medical. A lot of teaching is quite curricular. We did look into it. We're looking at other pathways, through the SOLAR Lab particularly. It makes so much sense at one level, but it just on paper was going to end up being a six-year course that we just weren't sure we could find people for.

Ms HAMMOND: If you could get a master's level qualification in education that was only a year to add onto—

Dr Serry : That's what we're looking for at La Trobe. I'm sure the universities are following, but that's part of our work in the SOLAR Lab.

CHAIR: Thank you to our witnesses, Speech Pathology Australia, Dr Serry and Ms Delaney. It was great to have you with us. They were excellent contributions. To SPA, for any follow up, data, questions or opportunities to comment on the transcript in the next seven days, the secretariat will be in touch—and vice versa. All the best.