Old and illiterate

The other reading problem

According to the Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen teachers have been inflicting ‘whole language’ teaching on kids for more than 30 years and the consequences have been disastrous. If this was the whole story you’d expect to find that Australians who started their schooling in the late 70s and early 80s would have higher rates of illiteracy than those who started before the trend took off. It’s not so.

Literacy_by_age.gif

What this graph shows is the proportion of people at each age group with very poor prose literacy skills (the survey was done 1996). Those in the 20 to 24 years group would have started school during the late 70s and early 80s. And as you can see, they are less likely to have very poor skills than any of the older groups (see here for more information). Australia’s biggest problem group is older people.

Maybe they didn’t teach phonics back in the good old days. Or maybe kids back then had other problems that kept them from learning to read. Older Australians are certainly less educated than young Australians. On average they spent far less time in school. But whatever the reason, Australia has many older people who struggle with things like medicine labels, newspaper articles, and recipes.

There’s a standard conservative story-template that opens with the discovery of a social problem (crime, AIDS, family breakdown, poor literacy etc) and traces its causes to a breakdown in social order that started in the 1960s and 70s. The villains are radical lefties and liberals who have good intentions but naïve ideas about human nature. The victims are today’s children. The story calls for a conservative hero who rescues society from the deluded elites and brings back order through discipline. More cops on the beat, stiffer sentences for offenders, sex education which teaches kids to say no, and plenty of class room drills in letter sounds and multiplication tables.

Some stories fit the template naturally while others have to be pushed and twisted. Albrechtsen may be right about phonics and whole language – I’m not an education expert and I don’t know the research. But I do know that illiteracy isn’t just a problem for young people and that this story does not naturally fit the template.

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Tony.T
2021 years ago

Some of my students are barely literate.

I don’t suppose I should of admitted that.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

Sometimes i feel barely literate in front of my student. But that’s just a function of astonishment and frustration.

More seriously though, the older age group above went to school in a dreadful era of harsh discipline, huge class sizes, vicious central control of teachers, and an obsession with mental arithmetic, grammar, cursive, and the kings of England.

Everything the left reacted against in building a new way of approaching education.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

Note the intentional mistake above. My one student has a fair few names.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Tony T, I too am sometimes disappointed with the written expression of some of my students. But I wonder to what degree that’s a factor of the massification of higher education (if there ever was a golden age of beautifully written university essay prose, it may have been because there were so few university students) and to what degree it’s a function of spell check and grammar check in microsoft word – which of course weren’t programmed into the typewriter I used to compose on.

Some of the Latin writers of the Roman Republic bemoaned the corruption and stupidity of youth. Plus ca change?

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

There is one method of comparing literacy levels which will not be used — testing current cohorts against the distant past by using comprehension test materials and results held by the various bureaucracies. In 1975 the senior school inspector in Ballarat mentioned his belief that standards were declining, and wished there were past tests available so that he could make comparisons. I told him of the tests held by the Department, and suggested he obtain them next time he was in Melbourne.
When I next saw him he told me he had been to the Guidance Division as suggested, where they told him no such material existed. He had no doubt they were telling the truth.
I gave him a few phrses and names to drop casually into his conversation obn the next visit, and wonder of wonders they found something. Quite astutely on their part, the only items they could “discover” related to spelling. They new this was his favourite hobby horse, and decided [correctly as it turned out] that thowing him this would get the hounds off the trail of everything else.
Some of the old material would not be fully applicable today — but much of it would. With less capable students going on than was the case in the past, some higher secondary comparisons could not be made. But no one in authority wants to make ANY comparisons.
In N.S.W., the well-intentioned section of the left most influential in destoying the State Education system centred around people whose own inteelctual limitations embittered them so effectively that they became incapable of seeing they all too often threw out the baby, but preserved the bathwater. By 1972, the worst features of earlier education had largely disappeared, and they even had the bonus of a Federal Labor Government. So clearly, they decided, “It’s Time” for educational changes.
The fruits of those changes are with us now. State School teachers increasingly send their own children to non State Schools. Left wing atheist Labor Politicians will send a child to a Catholic School to PROTECT the student from the local State School — ad nauseum.
The trend will probably continue. Labor politicians have put it into the too hard basket, and it seems unlikely the Liberals would ever touch difficult changes which benefit the less affluent sections of society, that Labor dare not tackle.
The looney tune left have done wonders for elite schools, Catholic schools, fundamentalist religious schools and many others; but for the public system?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2021 years ago

‘State School teachers increasingly send their own children to non State Schools’.

Do you have any statistics showing that this drift is greater for teachers than for the population as a whole?

derrida derider
derrida derider
2021 years ago

Bemoaning the indiscipline and ignorance of the young has, of course, a very long history. It’s the only socially acceptable way for oldies to express their (understandable) jealousy.

The fact that functional illiteracy is overwhelmingly a problem of older people is something I’ve been boring people at dinner parties about for decades. This is one of those ‘debates’ where obvious facts are routinely ignored.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

I once asked the NSW Teachers Federation, of which I was an activist member, this very question, James F.; but all it achieved was irritation — and not on my part either. One significant point for me anyway, is that whereas once it was a case of teachers in non-government schools sending their own children to State Schools, we now have the reverse. I’m speaking from personal experience here. The trend has been extremely depressing.
Re the question of functional illiteracy among older people, an important factor often “overlooked” by bureaucrats when presenting their data, is the increasing time over the years, that most students have spent in “ducation. Older generations left school much younger, many not even reaching 15 before they were gone. Class sizes didn’t help either. In 1958, for example, I was teaching 44 children. There were plenty of classes in thoise days with more than that; but since mine was a one teacher school, with students ranging from 5yrs to 14yrs, it wasn’t the most relaxing year of my life. And I have worked with teachers who had one teacher schools with pupil numbers in the 60s. I’m referring here, by the way, to the number of pupils they had to teach, not the years, the 1960s.
I was criticising some aspects of standards in the 50s, derrida derider, which in light of your comment, must mean I’m sufficiently ancient to be ready for the Guiness Book of Records? Despite my imminent collapse into much delayed senility, however, I can clealy recall that I didn’t always believe standards were slipping. In 1963, for example, I recall discussing the exciting evidence for significant improvement occurring in reading among NSW primary school pupils. It arose primarily from an approach which worked so well that it was eventually dropped. In the early 1950s, Qld school students were outperforming their NSW counterparts in spelling. I was able to adapt my programme in order to improve my own students’ performance; but all of those outmoded notions have been dispensed with mowadays. We concentrate on more important issues such as higher self esteem — having a basis for it is secondary.
And if you have any questions about the “indiscipline” you mention, try talking to school cleaners. They can even tell you about the “ignorance” problem, as some are shocked regularly by the poor literacy standards — and it’s not just the students they have in mind.
If, by the way, I had the energy, derrida derider, to be “jealous” about the young, it could only be for their age. I’m certainly grateful that I had teachers through primary school who had neither degree nor diploma, but required literacy levels of us which exceeded those of some recent successful 3rd Year Uni English students I’ve encountered.
But people are staying in “education” much longer now, so that must be good — for the unemployment statistics.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

David, I have to say as a member of the 35-44 age group (just), I found the Kings of England quite interesting. Liked it as a kid – and it gives me a nice basis for appreciating Marlowe and Shakespeare. Much better than Oz history – an endless succession of explorers and assertions that “The Aboriginals are a Dying Race” (nb – I went to primary School in Joh’s Queensland in the 70s).

Andrew Leigh
2021 years ago

Norman, I share your frustration. The US NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress (http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/), was designed to measure performance over time, by chaining questions from one to the next. It was started in 1970, and a module to compare across states was started in 1990 (http://www.policyalmanac.org/education/archive/doe_state_of_education.shtml). Australia still has nothing comparable.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Don Aitkin made the point very well in yesterday’s Fin – this whole debate is marred by selective quotation of statistics favouring one’s (political) position, rather than a holistic view of all the evidence. A sure sign that it’s being driven by politics (as Don suggests…) rather than a real concern with the issue of literacy.

It will be interesting to see if Nelson’s review really does get to grips with the evidence. The fact that the review he commissioned before the election on the accreditation of universities broke the Yes Minister rule by suggesting it’s right for all universities to do research. A conclusion Nelson rejects – because he’d like to see private teaching-only universities (aka Carnegie Mellon in SA) established to compete with public universities (without the large startup costs of building infrastructure which plagued Melbourne Uni Private).

Anyone interested in a perspective informed by the evidence should read the thread at John Quiggin’s place – http://www.johnquiggin.com/archives/002082.html#comments
There are several comments by Margaret Farrell, who did her PhD on reading and pedagogical methods.

anthony
2021 years ago

Literacy is a complicated area and an ongoing process over-dominated by agony aunt prescriptivist. Functional literacy is what really counts, the rest is moralising. Spelling is the untucked shirt of language and the mother of a thousand tsks tsks.

Was there a time when janitors/cleaners didn’t have a low opinion of “students these days”?

James
James
2021 years ago

Huh? What that graph shows to me is that literacy was improving until the late 1970s early 80s (20-24 age group) and then started to decline, which supports the phonics advocates’ case.

It would be interesting to see the results of a more recent survey.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Those who worry about the decline in educational standards might like to explain the Flynn Effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect) named after its discoverer, New Zealand political scientist James R. Flynn, who found that average IQ all over the world rises about three IQ points per decade.

On reading, in addition to the post and commentary at Quggin’s place referred to by Mark there is an excellent account of the state of American research, the steps involved in learning to read, the state of play in the US and what they have been doing about it, plus comments on the problem of academic freedom and the lack of accountability in teaher education institutions in a conversation Dr Norman Swan had with Dr Reid Lyon on Health Matters recently. (See http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/helthrpt/stories/s1240933.htm)

Scot Mcphee
2021 years ago

mark b i went to primary schol in qld from 1971-77 and i can be stuffed if i remember anything about the kings of england. lots of leichardt, kennedy, burke, wills, blaxland and wentworth etc.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

The “I.Q.” results in NSW State Schools rose so significantly around the beginning of the 60s from memory, that the tests had to be revised. The improvement had arisen largely from the widespread use of effective reading materials such as those from S.R.A., and the Perth developed W.A.R.D. and I.M.P. systems.
Subsequently these highly effective systems were dropped in favour of more “progressive” methods of [not] teaching basic skills.
Anthony asks was there ever a time when cleaners didn’t have a low opinion of what was happening in their schools? Yes. The first systematic serious doubts I encountered, Anthony, began in the mid 70s, and it was also about the literacy levels of some of the new teachers, who appeared ill prepared for what had once been assumed to be part of their job description.
But everyone passes the H.S.C., so the standards MUST be high now?

trackback
2021 years ago

Arrivals, departures and returns

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trackback
2021 years ago

Wrong method?

Damn that “whole language” reading education: Australia ranks fourth in the OECD for high-school reading proficiency, according to the latest PISA report.