Do Australian teachers have poor literacy skills? Let’s look at the evidence

By Eileen Honan

Australians have been sold the idea that our primary school teachers today have poor literacy standards, not only by popular media but often by politicians and sometimes even by the universities that train our teachers. So how true is it? What evidence is there to support these claims? My colleagues* and I decided to find out.

This blog post is a report on our ongoing research. We haven’t finished yet. Our starting point is a survey of what the profession itself thinks (if you are a primary school teacher you might like to join in). We made a few surprising discoveries just to get to this point.

The neverending story

As Professor Bill Louden pointed out a few years and a few reports ago, there have been over 100 reports on teacher education in the last 40 years.

The latest instalment in the neverending story about what is wrong with the preparation of Australian classroom teachers was released earlier this year. It is the Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers Report

As a direct result literacy and numeracy testing of preservice teachers ( student teachers) is being rolled out across Australia.

Who is telling the story?

We are particularly interested in the construction of preservice and graduate teachers as lacking in literacy capabilities.

The view from popular media commentators is clear. Here are a few memorable ones

Can’t write can’t spell

Teachers have a lot to learn

Lament over standards as aspiring teachers flop literacy

It is not surprising that these comments are not supported with evidence. What we did find surprising is how little evidence has been used to support recommendations in government reports.

Tracing back the story

So we began to trace the empirical evidence behind the claim that our primary school teacher education students and graduate teachers lack literacy abilities

We examined academic papers and research reports, government reports and submissions to inquiries, and media commentary.

Those outside Queensland may not be aware that the ‘new’ literacy and numeracy testing was first recommended as part of a review in Queensland in back in 2009. And this was in direct response to a claim from the review that:

Concerns were raised about the adequacy of some primary teachers’ levels of content knowledge. ….These concerns echo concerns raised with the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy about the literacy skills of pre-service teachers. The Inquiry noted ‘some scepticism among practising teachers about the personal literacy standards of new graduates’

Ok so we have some concerns raised, and these concerns reflect findings from a previous Inquiry. This earlier one was the National Inquiry into the teaching of Literacy which resulted in the report Teaching Reading

So let’s go back to that report. The data quoted as evidence are provided through a description of “issues raised” in focus group discussions by participants.

The literacy competency of student teachers was raised as an issue in all focus group discussions. Participants reported that many pre-service teachers lacked the literacy skills required to be effective teachers of reading.

Surely the evidence provided was not just a group of teachers complaining about the quality of pre-service teachers?

Well not entirely. The report also drew on other reports, as well as some small scale studies involving the testing of pre-service teachers’ knowledge of aspects of language use.

One of these sources that is often cited is the Australian Government Report Prepared to Teach.

Yet the lead author of this report, one William Louden, also argued there is a need to investigate the different factors influencing the quality of our preservice teachers.

So after following the trail back to here, we decided to take up Louden’s suggestion and look closely at the different areas discussed around the literacy standards of primary school teachers.

Four dimensions identified to carry out further research

We believe that the factors that influence the quality of pre-service and graduate teachers can be grouped together into four dimensions.

Personal literacy

The first dimension relates to the personal literacy capabilities of preservice teachers. Can preservice teachers spell? Can they write? Is it true that “Graduating pre-service teachers’ levels of personal literacy should be equivalent to the top 30 per cent of the population”?

Knowledge of the curriculum

The second dimension relates to preservice and graduate teachers’ knowledge of the English curriculum. They don’t know enough about literature, they don’t know how to assess writing, they don’t know what to include and exclude from their classroom teaching. Hence the increase in packages and programs such as Soundwaves a spelling program that proudly claims, “you don’t need to be a phonemic expert”.

Quality of teaching

The third dimension relates to preservice and graduate teachers ability to teach, or their pedagogical knowledge about English and literacy. That is, if you don’t know how to teach spelling you can’t teach literacy; teachers who write are good teachers of literacy; teachers who use digital texts such as blogs and websites themselves are experts at using these in classrooms. There are also arguments in the literature about explicit teaching, direct instruction, inquiry based learning, whole language approaches, systemic phonics instruction, etc etc.

Teacher education

A fourth dimension is initial teacher education program’s impact on the above dimensions. So how does the standard of entry to teacher education program impact on graduate teachers’ personal literacy abilities? Does the mode of delivery of teacher education (four year, graduate entry etc) have an impact on graduate teachers’ ability to teach literacy? How does the length and type of professional experience (school based, intense internships) influence preservice teachers’ knowledge of the curriculum?

The content of initial teacher education programs is often hotly disputed as well. Do we teach phonemic awareness? Is there enough practice or too much theory? Who are the best people to teach initial teacher education? Teachers? Researchers?

The next step, a survey

We have used these four dimensions to construct a survey of members of the teaching profession across Australia.

We aim in this survey to answer the following research question, What are the expectations of the profession about the literacy capabilities of graduate teachers required to deliver high quality, intellectually demanding literacy education?

We envisage the results will provide some empirical data that can replace the anecdotes embedded in current storylines about the capabilities of preservice and graduate teachers.

After this survey our next step will be to discover what primary preservice teachers understand about their own personal literacy skills and their perceptions of their own abilities to teach literacy.


*My colleagues involved in this research are Associate Professor Beryl Exley (Queensland University of Technology) Associate Professor Lisa Kervin (University of Wollongong), Associate Professor Alyson Simpson (University of Sydney) and Dr Muriel Wells (Deakin University)  A related paper can be found here



Dr Eileen Honan is a Senior Lecturer in Literacy and English Education at The University of Queensland.

8 thoughts on “Do Australian teachers have poor literacy skills? Let’s look at the evidence

  1. John Pritchard says:

    Have the standards really been established by , say, performance on a literacy test? I do not believe that literacy standards are lower today than in the past, but I do believe that a small minority of teachers may need to undergo remedial work in literacy. Again, I have no evidence, just an observation of are tired teacher and principal.

  2. Eileen Honan says:

    Hi John, thanks for your comment. This is really why we thought it was important to gather some evidence. I also don’t think it is easy to establish standards based on the performance on a literacy test, but unfortunately that is the way the current government and policy makers in general think these days. Don’t know what to do about literacy? Let’s test!!!

  3. Max Coltheart says:

    Let me ask John’s question in a different way, In your last paragraph, you say “our next step will be to discover what primary preservice teachers understand about their own personal literacy skills.”

    It seems to me that this cannot be done unless you know what each teacher’s personal literacy skills are: if you don’t know that, how can you determine what each teacher understands about his or her own personal literacy skills?

    Or perhaps what you meant was: “our next step will be to discover what primary preservice teachers believe about their own personal literacy skills”. That can be investigated without your needing to know what their personal literacy skills actually are.

  4. Eileen Honan says:

    Thanks Max for your comment and for your query about the use of the word “understand’. Obviously with a survey all we can do is ask preservice teachers to provide us with self-perceptions, self-understanding, self-beliefs about the standard of their literacy skills. We think however that this is an important aspect of the larger issue. We are also cognisant of Louden’s work (and others) who have used these self-perception data to support various arguments about pre-service teachers.

  5. Max Coltheart says:

    Eileen, your blog was headed “Do Australian teachers have poor literacy skills?” But as you say above your study will not and cannot provide any evidence that could answer this question: so why choose such a misleading heading?

    Your heading should instead have been “Do Australian teachers perceive that they have poor literacy skills?” A lot less sexy but a lot more accurate.


  6. Maralyn Parker says:

    Max, thanks, the sexy heading was mine not Eileen’s.

  7. Pamela Snow says:

    This is an important issue, but it does seem that the agenda behind this work is establishing that there isn’t a problem, rather than identifying the parameters and general “lumps and bumps” associated with teacher literacy and language knowledge, so that this can be improved. I was particularly struck by the plan to examine primary pre-service teachers’ perceptions about their own literacy skills. It is always problematic to ask a novice what they do and don’t know (or how well they have mastered the skill base for their future work) because, well….they don’t know what they don’t know. Pre-service doctors might say they have a good grasp of immunology for example, but once they are working clinically, will gain an appreciation of the vast depth of the field and by comparison, the modest extent of their own knowledge. A little knowledge is always a dangerous thing. What will happen if the pre-service teachers’ self-assessment is rosy, but their actual skills are poor?

    In the meantime, we already have quite a lot of Australian and overseas evidence that tells us that primary teachers don’t have strong meta-linguistic abilities (see below) in domains needed to support early literacy skills, so it would be great to see some of the energy described in this post directed into strategies that pre-service providers could use to effect change in this important aspect of primary teaching. The recently published NZ paper at this link represents such an attempt:

    Here’s some examples of published papers identifying that there are significant concerns re teacher knowledge and skills re language/literacy that need to be addressed:

    Cunningham, A. E., Perry, K. E., Stanovich, K. E., & Stanovich, P. J. (2004). Disciplinary knowledge of K-3 teachers and their knowledge calibration in the domain of early literacy. Annals of Dyslexia, 54(1), 139-167.

    Fielding-Barnsley, R. (2010). Australian pre-service teachers’ knowledge of phonemic awareness and phonics in the process of learning to read. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 15 (1), 99–110.

    Joshi, R. M., Binks, E., Hougen, M., Dahlgren, M. E., Ocker-Dean, E., & Smith, D. L. (2009). Why elementary teachers might be inadequately prepared to teach reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(5), 392-402.

    Moats, L.C. (2014). What teachers don’t know and why they aren’t learning it: Addressing the need for content and pedagogy in teacher education. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, doi: 10.1080/19404158.2014.941093.

    Stark, H.L., Snow, P.C., Eadie, P.A. & Goldfeld, S.R. (in press). Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: The knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers. Annals of Dyslexia.

    Tetley, D., & Jones, C. (2014). Pre-service teachers’ knowledge of language concepts: Relationships to field experiences. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(1), 17-32.

  8. Eileen Honan says:

    Hello Pamela, thanks for your comment. Please don’t worry that we have already pre-determined the results of this research. In this first stage of the research we have used survey design to construct a survey of the profession using a range of literature. The second stage will be to construct a survey of preservice teachers. Of course there are issues with asking people to self-assess their abilities, and we are very aware of the research literature around those issues and will be taking that into account when we report the results.
    Finally it appears that you are inferring that preservice teacher educators should not be involved in research, or invest their time in reporting on research in blogs such as this? Please rest assured that we all make time in our busy lives to teach our preservice teachers about the important and valuable resources required to develop their “meta-linguistic abilities’. Unfortunately none of us work with New Zealand preservice teachers so we cannot comment on the results of that study. Once again thanks for your comments

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