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Monday, 16 March 2020
Double Bay
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

Thank you, Liz Dibbs, Chair, United Way Australia – and David Tudehope – for welcoming us.

  • The Honourable Gabrielle Upton MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier
  • Mr Clayton Noble, Chief Executive Officer, United Way Australia

I too convey my respects to the traditional owners of this land[1] and Elders, past, present and emerging.

I was very fortunate to have a mother who read to me every day.  My good fortune was even more so, given that being one of five children, she read to all of us.  As a result, even in the days when there were no pre-schools - at least that I knew of - I could read before I went to school.

I became an inveterate reader.  Also growing up in a largish family, and in the days before each child in a family had at least one and a half bedrooms each(!), I shared a room with my two sisters.  So a lot of my reading was done under the blankets using a torch!  

UWA’s motto ‘Read, Learn and Succeed’ contains a far too important truth to be passed off as a mere truism.  Whilst we hear stories of scientific, entrepreneurial and even political geniuses who left school at 14 or 15, more sophisticated studies tell us that the singular most common trait of the genius is perseverance.  A commonplace amongst known geniuses is a supportive home environment. 

In many ways, that sums up why some - not all - but some children from lower socio-economic environments don’t thrive at school or in later life. 

The building blocks have not been there from the beginning.  That very general statement is borne out by the statistics:

  • More than 20 per cent of Australian adults have very low literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving skills and are the least likely groups to be engaging in adult education programs to reskill and upskill for a changing workforce;
  • “More than one in five Australians can - at most - complete very simple reading or mathematical tasks, such as reading brief texts on familiar topics or understanding basic percentages” according to an OECD report;[2]
  • The economic and social costs of inadequate literacy are measurable.  In Australia in 2012, the estimated economic cost of poor literacy was $18.35 billion.[3]  Social costs include crime and unemployment or underemployment perpetuated across generations; 
  • Low literacy is also linked to lower wages, higher rates of welfare dependency, lower self-esteem, substance abuse, and teenage births.

That a country like Australia could, according to a 2012 study,[4] rank 27th out of 27 English speaking countries in early years reading, is an indictment on our literacy levels that can only be fixed by a concentrated effort on childhood literacy. 

You might ask: why childhood literacy? … rather than try to rectify the damning adult literacy figures.  

Although the best answer is that we should do both, the statistics tell us that we cannot afford to allow childhood literacy levels to be a secondary consideration. 

50% of language is learned by age 3 or 4[5]and, from birth to age 5, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life. Neurobiology scientists tell us 90% of brain development occurs by age of 5, with the cognitive and linguistic “building blocks” largely set in place by the time children start school. [6]

This is well established in international research.  The authors of The Critical Role of Oral Language in Reading Instruction and Assessment, published in 2007, stated that:

“Unlike mathematics or science, reading is the only academic area in which we expect children to arrive as kindergarteners with a basic skill level.

Research has shown that oral language—the foundations of which are developed by age four—has a profound impact on children’s preparedness for kindergarten and on their success throughout their academic career. 

Oral language consists of phonology (sounds), grammar (syntax), morphology (how words are joined together), vocabulary (meaning or semantics), discourse (understanding of the purpose of oral and written communication), and pragmatics (social use of language including turn-taking). The acquisition of these skills often begins at a young age, before students begin focusing on print-based concepts such as sound-symbol correspondence and decoding. Because these skills are often developed early in life, children with limited oral language ability at the time they enter kindergarten are typically at a distinct disadvantage.”[7] (Fielding et al., 2007).[8]

Children with a history of oral language impairment are more likely to present with reading difficulties than their peers among the general population. Some research identified this increased likelihood to be as great as four to five times more likely than their peers (Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin, 2001).[9]

The latest 2019  report from the Australian Early Development Census, which measures children at the start of their first year of school, shows that ‘Developmental vulnerability’ in one or more areas  of physical, social, language and cognitive, emotional, and communication and general knowledge has decreased slightly from 22% in 2015 to 21.7% in 2018.[10] 

However, that is still one in five children who are developmentally vulnerable.  Experience and research tells us that that will be higher for children living in low socio-economic areas.  Research also shows that if these children start school behind, they’re likely to continue on a poor developmental trajectory at school and in later life.[11] 

Educationalists now talk about “School preparedness as critical in addressing low level literacy rates.”

Andrew Kay, World Literacy Foundation founder, CEO and Literacy educator said:[12]

“We know that children growing up in low income backgrounds, Indigenous and/or migrant homes are the ones most likely to be affected.

We need to direct the bulk of resources to these children; I believe a whole community approach is the way forward,” he continued. “[We need] the involvement and engagement of parents of pre-school aged children, local community, local community groups and schools ...working together.”[13]

The best school preparedness starts at home with reading to babies almost from the time they can twitch their toes.  Attendance at pre-school is now recognised as a core part of literacy development, seen in the Minister’s commitment to 600 hours of quality preschool education in the year before school.

This commitment is beginning to show in the figures.  Pre-school enrolments have increased, admittedly only by 1% in 2019[14] over the previous year, but that is from a reasonably high base of 95% of Australian children enrolled for 15 hours or more per week.

The following 2019 figures are important and encouraging:

-   The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 4 or 5 years old enrolled in a preschool program increased by 9.4% compared with 2018 (up to 19,954 children);

-   Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children made up 5 % (18,243) of total who enrolled;

-   Almost 40% of children enrolled in a preschool program in remote/very remote areas were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; and

-   21% of all children enrolled in a preschool program resided in the fifth SEIFA (Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas) quintile (least disadvantaged) while 17% resided in the first quintile (most disadvantaged).[15]

Let me give you one more statistic – and one more observation. 

Researchers in Spain who examined the reading habits of 40,000 10-11 year old students found that reading a book – as opposed to a comic or magazine – daily, raised school results by the equivalent of as much as 3 months extra schooling.”[16]

The Australian children’s author Mem Fox – author of the Australian classic Possum Magic, in her speech to open the conference for the National Education of Young Children in 2016, said:

“Reading aloud (to young children) cultivates the essential enchanting engagement with books, stories, rhymes and songs that every child has to experience before the formal teaching of reading can begin.”[17]

United Way’s belief is that the best way to address the identified gaps in childhood literacy is to work in collaboration with community, business, philanthropy and government. This is why we are here tonight: to support childhood literacy so as to future- proof adult literacy.  

Congratulations UWA.  You have brought onboard over 50 community partners, enrolling over 10,000 children and delivering over 220,000 books to children across Australia.

[3] The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy, April 2012

[4] Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, 2012 – in United Way Early Literacy Discussion paper V2 – Provided paper

[6] These stats also used by UWA – UWA Early Literacy Discussion Paper

[8] Fielding, L., Kerr, N., & Rosier, P. (2007). Annual Growth for all students, Catch-Up Growth for those who are behind. Kennewick, WA: The New Foundation Press, Inc.

[9] Catts, H. W., Fey, M. E., Zhang, X., & Tomblin, J. B. (2001). Estimating the risk of future reading difficulties in kindergarten children: A research-based model and its clinical implementation. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 32, 38–50


The official national statistics used by the Commonwealth Government to track early childhood progress indicators across a range of dimensions is the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC).

[12] The World Literacy Foundation has found that more than one third of the world’s population struggles to read or are illiterate. Some 120 million children or young people were currently not able to attend school.

[14] Statistics: 50 per cent of preschool program enrolments were in centre based day care centres, 42 per cent in preschools and 8 per cent across both providers.

[15] ABS 2019 figures:

SEIFA stands for Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas

[16] Reading a good book is the best way of boosting literacy — but magazines and comics don’t help, study shows

Lead researcher Luis Alejandro Lopez-Agudo of the University of Malaga, Spain

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