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The Age - 'The Death of Literacy' - interview with our MD

Author: Chris Johnston and Farrah Tomazin - Chris Johnston is a senior writer.
Farrah Tomazin is education editor.
Date: 04/10/2008
Words: 2582
Source: AGEĀ  Section: Insight

ANDREW Aston heads a major recruitment company in Melbourne, and his firm gets 2000 CVs a week from people looking for jobs. All sorts of people - all ages, all demographics, seeking all kinds of work, from menial to executive.

Aston never really thought he would be so up close and personal with the divisive issue of literacy in this country. But he is, like it or not. That is because through all the changes in media and technology and methods of communication, there is still essentially only one way to apply for a job - in writing.

A generation ago the job application, whether it be for an entry-level office job or chief executive, was sent by snail mail or possibly fax. Now it is all email, but applications still comprise a cover letter and a CV, and they still have to be written.

According to Aston, the standard of the written word has declined. Grammar is poor. Words are wrongly spelt, meanings are mixed up. Punctuation can be either too much or nowhere near enough. Every job applicant has been to school. Weren't they supposed to learn this stuff?

If Australia is engaged in an increasingly ferocious literacy war - which it is - and the primary or secondary school classroom where children learn to read and write is the front line, then recruitment, Aston's field, is where the casualties from the war can often be found.

This is because it is the destination for those either heading towards the workforce for the first time or trying to extend themselves with new or better jobs. It is where shortcomings in literacy can be exposed.

"We see it all," Aston says. "And we have definitely seen a drop in standards of grammar."

This week he saw what he called "a classic CV of its kind". It was from a Melbourne school-leaver applying for office administration work. Like many these days, it included a cover letter and listed CV submitted via Hotmail.

"Right through the whole cover letter she used 'their' instead of 'there'. If she had read it back properly instead of using spellcheck, she probably would have seen the mistake," he says. "But to spellcheck, it was correct because the word was spelt right. It's just that it was the wrong word."

Aston says this is typical of generation Y, who have "grown up on email and texting where everything is quick and abbreviated and things get missed".
A national test of more than 1 million primary and secondary schoolchildren this year, on numeracy and literacy, showed one in five could not do better than the minimum national standard for reading and writing. It found that performance got worse as children got older.

The latest OECD figures show Australia fell from second place in 2000 in the rankings for reading test scores to sixth in 2006. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2006 found just over half the nation's 15 to 74-year-olds had adequate prose and document literacy skills.

This week it was revealed that a major Melbourne university was teaching first-year tertiary students basic grammar and punctuation because of a perception that they had not learned it at school.
Aston says these findings do not surprise him, judging by the CVs he sees. Employers, he says, contrary to the beliefs of the applicants in many cases, care about these things. If someone cannot spell or cannot check their work or skimmed over things, how might that apply to a workforce or production line or a set of business accounts?

"Personally," he says, "as an employer myself, I actively discriminate against people that don't take the time to get things right."
His statistic, from CVs seen, was the same as that big national test of 1 million children. "I'd say one in five of those that I see has some kind of literacy mistake in it."

There was another example that crossed his desk this week. It was also from a young person just out of school, this time applying for a job at an in-bound call centre. The cover letter was rich in jargon, he says, rather than simple language, a phenomenon that was itself becoming more common.

One of the things the young applicant was keen to stress about herself in the letter was that she had "five key strengths" and one of them was "attention to detail".
Except that she had made a mistake. "Detail" was spelt "detale".

"From that I learned that attention to detail was in fact not one of her strengths," Aston says.
Australia's literacy wars escalated in two significant ways this week. The first was the revelation from Melbourne's Monash University that it taught first-year students - in English courses and others, such as engineering - basic grammar and punctuation.

The second came on Wednesday when Education Minister Julia Gillard was forced to defend the board appointed to spearhead a national teaching curriculum. The Coalition - using, in part, the example of Monash University - accused her of letting the process be captured by left-wing ideology rather than common sense.

Poor literacy is a major concern for industry. As people leave school they naturally find their way into an evolving workforce; literacy is an issue because it can affect the quality of that workforce and therefore productivity and profit.
Andrew Rimington is a senior policy adviser with the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He also sits on a state reference group for the national curriculum, and a ministerial advisory council on education - which is a measure of the stake employers have in ensuring students come out of school with the right kinds of knowledge.

Rimington told The Age literacy was becoming "a very high priority" for industry groups.

"With economic uncertainty and the drive of global competition, we need a skilled workforce to remain competitive, and lifting the skills base of the workforce, particularly in manufacturing, is crucial."

Emerging technologies such as emission controls mean many workers will need to learn new skills, he says, and poor literacy could prevent them from doing that.

Rimington, like Andrew Aston, is familiar with horror stories about young workers with literacy problems. "I recall recently a vet clinic interviewed for a receptionist and three or four candidates were knocked back because they didn't know the alphabet," he says. "The owner had asked them if they could file client index cards, and they couldn't."

He says the skills shortage and new technologies mean many employers want staff to retrain, and literacy problems are being uncovered. "There's a feeling being uncovered that people with problems would be resistant because they felt they didn't have the capability, in other words they thought if they went for a higher job or retraining their lack of literacy would be exposed. That's an impediment on the employer's ability to progress them and it also impacts on productivity."

At grass-roots level, away from the boardrooms and reference groups, the message is the same.
Jan Hagston specialises in adult education and literacy. She works part-time at Swinburne University and runs her own business teaching literacy in the workplace.

She says the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) - a state government program - is very good at teaching year 11 and 12 students about practical, workplace-oriented literacy. But, still, there are many casualties, she says.
"Usually it's not until someone is in their mid-20s and onwards that they come forward to say they need help. We don't see those just out of school. But a few years later they might realise they don't want to do the same job forever or they get extra responsibilities or they get married or have children and they start to think about seeking assistance."

Industry demands literacy skills, she says. Not just reading and writing, but the ability to apply that knowledge.

"It's about being able to integrate skills, to think critically and problem solve, and to be able to do that, they need good literacy."

One problem, according to educators in schools and in private practice, is that literacy has become a hot political issue. Certainly this week it almost bubbled over, such was the rhetoric.

The appointment of Professor Peter Freebody to draft an early version of Julia Gillard's new English curriculum was attacked by Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne as a signal Labor would be "continuing the fluffy, nebulous, some would say dangerous, teaching methods of the last few decades".

Pyne said Gillard's claim that she was an education traditionalist in favour of back-to-basics literacy teaching was at odds with the appointment. Freebody - a professorial fellow in the faculty of education and social work at the University of Sydney - is an international expert in "critical literacy", which has been criticised as too postmodern and too removed from the mechanics of language and phonics (letter-sound combinations, favoured by traditionalists).

Freebody was not talking this week. A spokeswoman for the National Curriculum Board said he "did not wish to get embroiled in the political stuff".

The board will develop the curriculum in the four core subjects of English, maths, history and science. By 2011, students could essentially be studying the same curriculum in those subjects regardless of which state or territory they live in.

Freebody's supporters, from the progressive side of the debate, say he is the perfect appointment to guide a new English curriculum. Monash University associate professor Ilana Snyder, the author of The Literacy Wars, says those opposed to Freebody have "gone in for the jugular" because he advocates critical literacy, which has been "misrepresented" as "postmodern gobbledegook" because it stresses being able to "read the world and understand how language can be used to manipulate" rather than just basic grammar.

SNYDER says one of the main agents of conservative criticism - and one of the reasons she wrote her book - is The Australian newspaper, which she says has campaigned against progressive English teaching. She says a "false dichotomy" has been set up whereby basic grammar is at one pole and abstract postmodernism at the other.

"But the reality in a year 8 classroom is a middle-ground, (because) teachers have to attend to different literacy needs," she says.

Christopher Pyne says the fact that Monash University had to teach new tertiary students how to deal with basic grammar "rings alarm bells with me".

Critical literacy, he says, "has been responsible for a dilution of basic educational standards". He says Australia should "return to traditional teaching methods of English."

"The basics are what parents are crying out for, and what students need."

The lecturer in the Monash course, Baden Eunson, a prominent exponent of back-to-basics English teaching, says he has been forced at university to do a high school's job.

"We would like students going into tertiary knowing this stuff so we can get on with the real stuff," he says. "There are students who get high-90s ENTER scores but can't punctuate or write coherent sentences, who don't understand ambiguity. They are the kind of students who would write a sentence like 'A man was fined today for speeding in Horsham Court' and not understand the mistake."

The teaching of English in Australia changed dramatically in the 1970s, away from a grammar-based curriculum to a more literary approach. Everyone agrees on this - even the current school teachers aged in their 30s and 40s who were themselves schooled that way. "I don't want to turn back the clock," Eunson says. "But you can't experiment with style before you know the basics. It's like teaching calculus before you know arithmetic."

In the end, in the classrooms, it's up to the teachers to whom parents entrust their children.

Much has been said about the quality of teacher training at university. Last year, a damning Senate committee report claimed teaching no longer attracted the same proportion of "clever young people" as it did four decades ago. It found many new teachers had insufficient training in the areas they were teaching and had "limited appreciation of literature through not reading enough of it".

The solution has been a series of sweeping changes, such as requiring trainee teachers to complete a subject-based degree - for instance, arts or science - before studying education.

Education guru Brian Caldwell, a former dean at Melbourne University, goes one step further. He believes all teachers should get a master's degree before they can work in the classroom. While the majority of schools are doing "exceedingly well" when it comes to literacy, "the difference between schools is not as great as the difference between teachers," he says.

Annabelle Knight, head of St Michael's Grammar junior school, in Melbourne, believes it is up to teachers to make grammar interesting.
In the modern classroom, that means teaching it as an underlying component of other subject areas, not in isolation. Junior students at St Michael's are given "interactive writing sessions": they are told to construct sentences on the whiteboard, and in front of the teacher and their peers, and learn what constitutes a verb, noun or adjective. Some assignments involve writing formal letters similar to job applications. Struggling students are given a range of targeted "interventions", such as a laptop to learn editing skills, and being shown how to use spellcheck.

To Andrew Blair, president of the Association of State Secondary Principals, and former head of Mount Eliza Secondary College, the literacy debate is flawed because it often fails to accept that language continues to change.

"But that doesn't mean we shouldn't teach it," he adds. "Of course we should. Kids should be able to construct and use words and language appropriately - and that includes learning grammar. The curious thing about this is that we don't have any problem at all when we talk about the teaching of languages other than English, and the requirement to understand the grammar involved when we use those languages, but we're gun-shy when it comes to our own English language because we see it as a bit stodgy and traditionalist."

Asked how hard it is to keep students engaged, Knight says: "Not at all. You link it, for example, to lessons about the environment, or making a difference in the world - which is so important to our kids - then it becomes exciting for them because they see a purpose.

"But it really is in the hands of teachers," she says. "Grammar can be dry and dusty, or it can be just as exciting as teaching or learning anything else. You have to make it purposeful, so students can see there's a reason for doing it."

Chris Johnston is a senior writer. Farrah Tomazin is education editor.


  • Just over half of 15 to 74-year-olds had adequate prose and document literacy skills in 2006.
  • While this figure had improved slightly since 1996, the data confirmed that many Australians are still at a literacy disadvantage.
  • Those who did not complete year 12 or spoke English as a second language comprised 83% of those with poor literacy skills.
  • In May, more than a million schoolchildren sat the national literacy and numeracy test. One in five failed to exceed the minimum national standards.
  • Victoria is the only state that has a subject devoted to language conventions. English Language is offered at VCE level. It currently has 2000 year 12 students and 3500 in year 11.
  • There are 1.6 million workers in Victoria with no post-year-12 qualification.


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