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Literacy learning in a pandemic

Literacy learning in a pandemic

Feature 7 minute read

To mark International Literacy Day on Tuesday 8 September, we look at literacy learning during COVID-19. What impact on literacy rates is the pandemic likely to have?

Although hard evidence from research into the effects of disrupted schooling on student learning is yet to be produced, existing data provide clues about what the consequences of this period might be for Australian students.

Equity is an issue

Many factors may affect a student’s ability to effectively weather the COVID-19 storm, according to ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson, and many are beyond their control. Dr Thomson writes regularly about equity in Australian education and, in this column for Teacher magazine in April, she argued that pre-existing equity issues that affect achievement levels – for example, access to technology, the home learning environment and a student’s computer skills – were likely to be exacerbated by remote learning.

‘The research shows that our disadvantaged students are less likely to have a computer at home or a quiet place to study,’ Dr Thomson wrote. ‘The impact of such factors will probably be compounded by a prolonged period of remote learning, with potential consequences for achievement in all areas, including literacy.’

So equity is still an issue. What else do we know?

Missed learning opportunities

Australia’s declining performance in key international student surveys is well documented. Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a global survey of the maths, science and reading achievement of 15-year-old students, point to diminishing results in all three domains since the survey began in 2000. PISA 2018 is the most recent report, which revealed that Australian students’ reading achievement is almost a full school year lower than in 2000.

However, PISA – conducted in Australia by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) – can tell us more about students than just their achievement levels, surveying students on a range of matters related to schooling, including missed learning opportunities through lateness and truancy.

Unsurprisingly, missed learning opportunities are linked to lower reading literacy. In Australia, students who missed some classes once or twice in the previous two weeks scored lower in reading literacy by the equivalent of half a year of schooling compared to students who had not missed any classes. The achievement of students who missed classes three or more times in the previous two weeks was more than one full year of schooling lower.

‘Even a small number of missed learning opportunities can have a big impact on achievement,’ Dr Thomson, who leads PISA in Australia, said. ‘Despite the best efforts of students, parents and carers, teachers, schools and systems, there’s little doubt that 2020 has been a highly disrupted year of schooling.’

A track record of remote learning

A report recently discovered in ACER’s archives is a timely reminder of Australia’s rich history of learning from home. ACER’s first research project looked at primary distance education programs in Australia, which were gradually introduced across five states between 1914­–22. The 1931 report by our first Chief Executive, Dr K.S. Cunningham, outlines 12 principles and practices of effective home learning that are just as relevant to remote learning in contemporary Australia. For example, cooperation between parents and teachers is crucial, assignments should be appropriate to each student’s achievement level and – this will resonate with many struggling to juggle working from home with the demands of remote learning – students should work to a timetable that suits parents and carers.

Does this long-established culture of learning from home stand Australian students in good stead for coping with remote learning? It’s perhaps a long bow to draw, but Professor Pauline Taylor-Guy – a former teacher, and now head of ACER’s Centre for School and System Improvement and of the organisation’s online learning program – says they are as relevant to remote teaching as distance education… and that remote and online teaching could be here to stay.

‘Australia’s teachers were asked to adapt to remote learning very quickly, and they did an incredible job at a very challenging time,’ Professor Taylor-Guy said. ‘It’s likely that the lessons we learned from this quick pivot will inform future remote and online teaching programs.’

Supporting Australia’s students

What can parents and teachers do to minimise the effects of the pandemic on literacy levels? Encouraging a love of independent reading is a great place to start. Research points to the importance of reading to children from a young age to encourage literacy skill development; although it is school-aged children most affected by the move to remote learning, it’s never too late to start. Another study based on data from 27 countries including Australia found that children growing up in homes with lots of books had a significant academic advantage over their bookless peers. What’s more, if parental role modelling is one of the biggest influences on child behaviour, recent Australia Council for the Arts research revealing that 72% of Australians read books for pleasure – up 17 percentage points from 2016 – is heartening. Additionally the study found that sales of children’s books grew by 3% in 2019.

With many parents still working from home while students learn remotely, we have a greater opportunity than ever before to be involved in our children’s learning – but it's a challenging time for all concerned. ACER's consultant psychologist says one of the most important things parents can do to support their child during the pandemic is to care for their own wellbeing – and to ask for help when they need it.

Will literacy rates continue to fall? Are disadvantaged students likely to suffer further? Can parents help offset the impact of remote learning? It’s clear more research needs to be done into the disruption to traditional schooling experienced in 2020. Perhaps only time – and hard data – will tell.

Find out more about International Literacy Day.

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