The terrible truth about reading rates in Australia (and how to fix them)

By Sue Thomson

One in five of all our students fail to achieve minimum levels of reading or maths. That’s shocking. What’s even more shocking is that if you look at the pool of disadvantaged students, that figure skyrockets to one in three, compared to one in ten among advantaged students.

But some disadvantaged students beat the odds and succeed – and that’s we call academic resilience.

These figures are straight from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  The good news is we can fix this but there is a long way to go. One key difference between the resilient and non-resilient is the growth mindset,  a belief that one’s ability can increase over time, that intelligence is not fixed but changeable. Encouraging students to believe that will be a key driver in any changes and any improvement. 

In addition to scoring lower on tests such as PISA, research has shown that students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer educational outcomes than their more affluent peers on a range of measures, including school completion

Yet, despite this association between socioeconomic disadvantage and poorer educational outcomes, a small number of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds do excel at school. Just over 13 per cent of socioeconomically disadvantaged Australian students, and 11 per cent of students across the OECD on average, show what PISA terms ‘academically resilience’ by scoring in the highest quartile of reading literacy performance. 

This apparent success despite the odds is the focus of a new ACER report that examines what, if any, characteristics these academically resilient students share, why this might be, and what we can learn from this small group that might assist in improving outcomes for all students.

Enjoyment of reading helps

Learning to read is a challenging task that requires persistence and motivation. It has been suggested that enjoyment of reading and motivation to master tasks may be two manifestations of academic resilience. Similarly, Dweck suggests goal-oriented students tend to be academically resilient and exhibit higher levels of confidence than others, and they are likely to seek challenges and be persistent. 

In Australia, and across the OECD on average, academically resilient students tended to enjoy reading more, were willing to work hard to master tasks, and indicated more of an inclination to set and pursue goals than did non-academically resilient students.  

Figure 1.  Differences between resilient and non-resilient students in attitudes and dispositions

While these findings may be as one would expect, there is interesting variation across other participating countries in students’ enjoyment of reading. In Japan and the participating Chinese jurisdictions, both academically resilient and non-academically resilient students scored at or above the OECD average on the enjoyment of reading index. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden neither group appeared to really enjoy reading, although non-resilient students enjoyed it less than resilient students. 

Figure 2. Average scores on Enjoyment of reading index, resilient and non-resilient students, Australia and comparison countries

Gender differences at play

Given that females outperform males in PISA reading literacy in every country, gender is likely to be a major factor in whether a student is academically resilient. Interestingly, while a larger proportion of Australian female students than male students were academically resilient, there was no statistically significant difference between their reading literacy scores. This suggests the resilient males are even more resilient than their female peers.

Table 1. Mean scores PISA 2018 Reading Literacy, by gender

Australian femalesMean (Standard Error)Australian malesMean (Standard Error)
Whole cohort 519 (2.0)487 (2.2)
Non-resilient students373 (4.1)352 (3.5)
Resilient students613 (6.0)617 (7.3)

Whole school influences

Prior research has found that the average socioeconomic profile of a students’ school is strongly associated with their performance on PISA.

While a substantial proportion of academically resilient Australian students attend schools in the lowest socioeconomic group, far more resilient students than non-resilient students attended schools in the highest two quarters of aggregated socioeconomic background, suggesting that attending schools with more advantaged peers may play a role in a student’s chance of being academically resilient. 

Table 2. Distribution of resilient and non-resilient students by school socioeconomic background

School aggregated Socioeconomic backgroundResilient students (%)Non-resilient students (%)
Lowest quarter3957
Second quarter3028
Third quarter2012
Highest quarter114

There are a number of reasons attending schools with more advantaged peers may play a role in a student’s chance of being academically resilient. It may be the influence of peers on students’ motivation for learning, or because the more advantaged schools themselves have better access to resources than less disadvantaged schools, that students attending more advantaged schools receive stronger support from parents or teachers, or perhaps that they were selected to attend these schools on scholarship.

The importance of a growth mindset 

Research has shown that holding a ‘growth mindset’ – a belief that your ability can increase over time – is linked to better academic achievement and can even temper the effects of socioeconomic disadvantage.

Data from PISA supports this theory, as Australia’s academically resilient students were more likely than non-academically resilient students to hold a growth mindset. Eighty per cent of academically resilient students disagreed with the statement ‘your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much’, compared to just 41 per cent of non-resilient students and 70 per cent of Australian students on average.

Growth mindset, along with enjoyment of reading, motivation and goal setting, stand out against gender and school profile as areas related to academic resilience that can be readily targeted by education systems to help address socioeconomic disadvantage. By directly addressing these issues in the classroom, we may be able to improve outcomes for the 87 per cent of Australian students who have not overcome their disadvantage.

Dr Sue Thomson is Deputy CEO (Research) at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and the National Manager of the PISA project.

Cover Image by Bruce Matsunaga / Flickr
Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

8 thoughts on “The terrible truth about reading rates in Australia (and how to fix them)

  1. Pamela Snow says:

    I was surprised in reading this article, that there was no consideration of instructional approach/quality that these students are exposed to. What about the possibility that “beating the odds” is to be expected when all students, regardless of background, are exposed to high quality early (and ongoing) reading instruction and support that is delivered by teachers who are knowledgeable about how the English language works, at both spoken and written levels? Isn’t classroom instruction core business in schools? There is Australian evidence to indicate that pedagogical decisions impact on outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, e.g., yet this is not considered here. If students are not exposed to high quality instruction in school, what’s the fall-back position? Where else is it going to happen? And how will students with weak literacy skills find their way in a technology-driven economy in which jobs for unskilled workers are being replaced by artificial intelligence?

    I also have misgivings about growth mindset, in the sense that it is a theory that has not unequivocally fared well in independent research conducted outside of Dweck’s lab. In their 2020 publication “How learning happens”, Kirschner and Hendrick observed (p. 81)

    “…..efforts to replicate growth mindset interventions in the field have often been patchy and so we might pause to consider whether “motivating” students is the best way to motivate them?”. They go on to ask “What if a growth mindset is viewed as more a philosophy as opposed to an intervention? All teachers should believe that their students’ intelligence is malleable and that they can help them improve it, otherwise, why bother?”

    Finally, it is important to remember the role of reading ability in driving reading enjoyment, as reported recently (2018) by a team led out of the University of Oxford, who concluded “….it is the children’s reading ability that determines how much they choose to read, rather than vice versa.” See:

    It’s disappointing when we seem to look for solutions to poor academic outcomes everywhere other than the academic inputs that students are exposed to. Home language and literacy environments are nearly impossible to directly influence but school instructional environments are domains where educators decide what will happen and how. Why don’t we focus our energies on maximising returns from that space, given that the tax payer is already paying to have staff in the room? More resources are always welcome, but some schools punch above their weight without additional resources and they can illuminate the path for us to changed instructional practices and improved student outcomes.

  2. Bronwyn Ryrie Jones says:

    Thanks for this response, Professor Snow. I’m a primary school teacher, and as a practitioner it is absolutely obvious to me that when students struggle to read, they cannot enjoy it. If students struggle to read, they also cannot simply work on their mindset as a means to experiencing success. I wonder what this would even look like in the classroom? The child sits there, staring at the book, unable to decode a word, or to segment a word to identify the sounds, and the teacher says what? Something like, “You can’t read it yet, but if you try you can learn.” I’m not sure this is helpful. Like in most areas of life, when people struggle, they don’t just need more willpower (or as this article suggests, they don’t need to just be a more “academically resilient” person); in fact what they require is carefully scaffolded and expert instruction.

    On the point of being “resilient” (or not), I’m quite uncomfortable particularly with the labels used in this piece. It is very easy to label students from disadvantaged backgrounds who struggle to read “non-resilient”, but is it fair or accurate or helpful? I find that labels (ironically) are suggestive of a fixed mindset about these students; once we’ve decided that they’re “non-resilient”, do we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to continually improve reading instruction? If we expect a growth mindset (however it’s defined) of 5 year olds, perhaps we should avoid the blanket labelling of vulnerable students, and instead – as you suggest Pam – highlight those practices that are shown, on average, to have the best impact for all students who are learning to read. This will certainly be more useful for the teachers I work with, and that’s what the profession is crying out for.

  3. James Ladwig says:

    Pam, that CIS ‘study’ using a sampling that makes the claims it attempts to defend highly unreliable and untested. I wouldn’t use that as the basis of claims re pedagogical choices. The so call ‘best practice’ sampling doesn’t test any counterfactual and is based on a cherry-picked sample. (This critique applies to many government ‘studies’ using the same methodology btw.)

    Technical question for Sue. Which PISA report explains how equivalences are estimated between raw scores and ‘years of school’? Couldn’t find it in the national report, so I’m guessing it’s
    In one of the international technical annexes?


  4. Sue Thomson says:

    James – it is in the national report, but what we do it via regression. PISA takes 15 year olds so there are kids in various year levels. Send me an email or contact via Twitter for more info.

  5. Pamela Snow says:

    James the CIS study used a purposive sampling method because that’s what is most appropriate when studying “known aberrations”. It is neither economical nor practical to try to randomly sample for such cases. The stories of these schools were written up as informative case studies, with no attempt to over-generalise from the findings. It is easy to dismiss findings because we have a bias against their authorship, but critical appraisal of evidence requires that we set those biases to one side to see whether we can learn something from the committed and hard working teachers in these schools.

  6. James Ladwig says:

    Hi Pam,

    I agree that such ‘purposive’ sampling is common — but that doesn’t make it either a good methodology nor valid for the claim you made, which was very much generalised: ‘There is Australian evidence to indicate that pedagogical decisions impact on outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

    To give another example of the methodological issue, remember when the NSW DET did studies of ‘successful’ departments — by doing case studies of high departments whose results exceeded their predicted results (then based on an early form of value-added analysis)? The findings of those case studies were fine, but whether or not the characteristics of those departments were also present in ‘under-performing’ departments hadn’t even been asked.

    Same problem here – it may well be the case that the very same pedagogical decisions made in these cases have occurred in other contexts and not led to any improvements in other contexts. But we don’t know, and can not know from that study.

    In relation to your overall concern — whatever impact ‘growth mindsets’ have or don’t have — the PISA report is about 15 year olds, who would have developed their own sense of efficacy over at least ten years of schooling prior to that age. And the nexus of relationships that would have formed those beliefs would certainly included their prior experience in schooling.

    Please also be aware, in relation to your other reference, that the basic premises of twin studies are hotly debated when it comes to ‘complex social behaviours’ (like reading). I would recommend you have a look at McEwen, C. A., & McEwen, B. S. (2017). Social Structure, Adversity, Toxic Stress, and Intergenerational Poverty: An Early Childhood Model. Annual Review of Sociology, 43(1), 445-472. doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-060116-053252 , where you will find a much more rigorous analysis of the interaction between individuals, their larger environment, epigenetically, over time (across generations in fact).

    Finally, notice, I didn’t say your claim regarding pedagogical choices was wrong. The degree to which it is true is, however, debatable and currently being debated with much more appropriate metholodogies. And remember, the CIS reports have not be subject to the same level of independent review and scrutiny one would expect in independent academic research. So if you really want to make your claim, I would recommend basing it on much more rigorous and valid research.

    I would also point out that all pedagogical decisions are embedded and constrained within systems of curriculum, the management of teachers, and especially the measures used for specific outcomes. Focusing only on pedagogic choice is unwise – for any advocate of this or that model of teaching.

  7. Pamela Snow says:

    James I would say that reading is less a “complex social behaviour” than a complex cognitive-linguistic behaviour. Complex psycho-social sequelae emerge for those students who fail to grasp it at a developmentally appropriate time – as my research has shown in youth justice, out of home care and flexible education samples, across both primary and secondary samples. I am well acquainted with the impact of trauma and inter-generational factors on student well-being and achievement (but will of course look at the paper you link to).
    Yes we can argue til the proverbial cows come home about sources and levels of peer review, but as you would know, rigorous peer review does not guard against “bad science” and nor does all useful and interesting research find its way into the peer reviewed literature. That’s why we all need to be open-minded and curious. I remain perplexed that the article we are discussing describes a quest for better academic outcomes and looks everywhere except the academic inputs.

  8. Exceptionally fascinating article. Exploration is significant yet similarly significant is an educator’s private information on his/her understudies’ instructive requirements and the setting where those understudies exist. Great instructors use examination to make proficient decisions about which practice or methodology would turn out best for singular understudies in a particular setting. Great instructors should consistently consider their training and thoroughly question research before taking up another training.

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