literacy skills of teachers

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

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.