One in three 15-year-old students in Canberra is not meeting the reading benchmark and the ACT government should take immediate steps to provide evidence-based literacy instruction to all students, a new report has found.
The report by Equity Economics and funded by the Snow Foundation says literacy levels in the ACT are worse than 20 years ago, with the percentage of students below the Australian proficient standard on the Program for International Student Assessment dropping from 23 per cent in 2000 to 30 per cent in 2018.
One in five year 9 students is reading at a year 6 level, while disadvantaged year 9 students are four years behind their advantaged peers, NAPLAN data shows.
The report points to two case studies - South Australia's literacy guarantee and Catholic Education Canberra Goulburn's Catalyst program - as reform programs which have improved reading levels.
Co-author of the report Jessica Del Rio said the principle of school autonomy had led to great variation on how students were taught to read.
"There's almost a sacred cow in the ACT education system based on an idea of local control. It is up to schools to choose how they teach kids how to read and it doesn't matter if it doesn't match what the scientific research says," Ms Del Rio said.
"They don't have someone telling them what they can use and what they can't. It's totally up to the schools and the problem is that that's open to interpretation. And teachers aren't being properly supported by materials, books and training."
Ms Del Rio said balanced literacy was the dominant method used to teaching reading in ACT public schools, rather than systematic, synthetic phonics, which is mandated in the new Australian curriculum.
"ACT is kind of a laggard in this in this way that they haven't embraced literacy instruction in a way that is consistent with the science of reading and in a way that our neighbours like NSW has and jurisdictions like South Australia has," she said.
The report recommends the ACT government invest in $11 million to distribute a high-quality curriculum for kindergarten to year 1 students, buy decodable readers, train teachers and school leaders, mandate a year 1 phonics check and provide small group tutoring for students falling behind.
The report shows since ACT Catholic schools started its Catalyst program in 2020, which is informed by the science of reading and science of learning, the proportion of schools below average or well below average in reading, writing and spelling has dropped dramatically.
Meanwhile, government schools have made some progress in spelling but not in reading and writing.
Catholic Education director for Canberra Goulburn Ross Fox said there was more consistency in reading, writing and spelling instruction across the 1000 classrooms in the system since the Catalyst program began in 2020.
"We think we're enjoying good success in at least a third to a half of those classrooms," Mr Fox said.
"We're optimistic that we'll achieve our goals that every child in every classroom experiences really great learning opportunities as a result of their the high quality instruction from their teacher."
Mr Fox said the system's past performance was lower than they wanted - not from a lack of effort from teachers - but because the teaching practices and resources were ineffective.
An Education Directorate spokesman said the directorate was reviewing the details in the report.
"The ACT public school system provides a systematic, evidence-based approach to early literacy instruction through the 10 essential instructional practices in literacy, based on the research of Professor Nell K Duke," the spokesman said.
"This instruction includes the explicit teaching of phonological awareness and letter-sound relationships in the early years."
The directorate supports the use of decodable texts and authentic texts and will support schools to deliver the new version of the Australian curriculum from next year, the spokesman said: "In 2022, ACT NAPLAN mean scores were significantly above the national mean for reading in years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
"The ACT is the highest-performing Australian jurisdiction in reading literacy, as measured through international assessments for 15-year-olds through the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018, as well as for year 4 students in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2021."
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