A Third of Australian Children Can’t Read Fluently: Grattan Institute

20 March 2024

2.9 MINS

An important report from the Grattan Institute has found that up to a third of school-age children in Australia cannot read fluently because of deeply flawed methods used to teach children in schools.

The report, “The Reading Guarantee: How to give every child the best chance of success”, used independent reports on student and school performance to show that Australia lags behind many comparable Western nations in teaching children to read.

The report says:

“In the typical Australian school classroom of 24 students, eight can’t read well. Australia is failing these children. And it’s a preventable tragedy – the reason most of those students can’t read well enough is that we aren’t teaching them well enough.”

For those students in school today who are hardest hit by poor reading performance, the cost to Australia is $40 billion over their lifetimes.

Staggering Cost

Students who struggle with reading are more likely to fall behind their classmates, become disruptive, and drop out of school. They are more likely to end up unemployed or in poorly paid jobs. These conclusions confirm what many employers and concerned teachers have reported for many years.

Decades ago, it was a key concern of the Australian Council for Educational Standards (ACES), originally headed by Professor James McAuley from the University of Tasmania and Dame Leonie Kramer, a professor of English at Sydney University.

They tried in vain to alert the education establishment, governments and parents of the disaster unfolding in many schools.

Because the consequences of poor teaching of reading were experienced disproportionately in poorer areas, government and education departments around Australia swept it under the carpet.

The Grattan report says that a key cause of Australia’s reading problem is “decades of disagreement about how to teach reading”. It says that the evidence is now clear, however, as to what works and what does not.

“The ‘whole-language’ approach – which became popular in the 1970s and is based on the idea that learning to read is an easy, natural, unconscious process – does not work for all students. Its remnants should be banished from Australian schools.

“Instead, all schools should use the ‘structured literacy’ approach right through school, which includes a focus on phonics in the early years.

“Students should learn to sound out the letters of each word, and teachers should read aloud rich literature to their class. Once students have mastered decoding new words, they still need explicit teaching to build up their background knowledge and vocabulary, so they can comprehend what they read – the ultimate goal of reading.”

Unproven Theory

The Grattan report is not primarily concerned with why an unproven educational theory was endorsed by many leading education “experts” in the 1970s across Australia, and why it has been so difficult to challenge it.

Part of the reason is that the whole-language approach to learning was an integral part of the progressive education movement that swept through the Western world from about the 1960s.

The characteristics of this movement included open-plan classrooms without desks, the belief that students learn through discovery rather than from formal teaching, the abandonment of “chalk and talk” teaching in favour of an informal learning experience, opposition to examinations, rejection of grading of students to measure their understanding of a subject, and, in some quarters, a rejection of a formal curriculum with defined subject matter.

These ideas go back to Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that people were enslaved by structures and institutions, and must be liberated from the constraints of conventional society.

In the 20th century, these ideas were adopted by leading educationalists, teaching faculties in universities and teachers’ colleges, and teachers’ unions, and finally endorsed by governments.

From the 1970s onwards, progressive education theory was taught to trainee teachers, so that entire generations of teachers were indoctrinated to believe that the mantra of progressive education was self-evidently true.


It is to the credit of many teachers and schools, most particularly in the non-government sector, that they quietly ignored what they knew to be defective and dangerous teaching methods, and continued to provide a sound educational experience to children.

The Grattan report’s rejection of the “whole-language” approach and endorsement of phonics is an important point on the road to the recovery of sound educational methods.

The report proposes that all state and territory governments, and Catholic and independent school leaders should commit to a six-step “Reading Guarantee” to lift reading standards in Australian schools.

It says: “Australia needs a reading revolution. We need to transform the way we teach reading in school, so that every Australian child gets their best chance in life.”


Originally published in News Weekly. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko.

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