The Symposium Communicating: The Heart of Literacy gathered an assortment of stakeholders ranging in life experiences, roles and backgrounds, all willing to acknowledge and discuss the complexity and difficulty surrounding literacy for many Tasmanians. I left the symposium relieved that it was not only the education sector willing and able to meet the literacy needs of many Tasmanians.
The symposium caused me to reflect on personal experiences of over twenty-seven years in the education sector in primary teaching, leadership roles, coordinating students with disabilities, and managing a state-wide role. There are some particular students’ stories I would like to convey that typify so many students and their circumstances.
Generational poverty can limit a student’s ability to reach their potential.
I have taught a number of students who are the first in their family to be able to read. I recall one student, the eldest in her family, who after she learnt some basics was able to read text messages for her mother. It seems inconceivable that an adult cannot read a text message; however, that is the reality behind 48% functional illiteracy. This parent could not read to her children, there were no books in the home, but there was pride in her daughter learning to read.
Another student I recall was provided with the basics of a synthetic phonics program and through determination and countless nights in the pub with her father, she read quietly in the corner to improve her proficiency. This student was intrinsically motivated, she not only gained pleasure from reading, but saw the potential for her future.
I was gobsmacked a few years ago when I had asked a student if he could tell me the ‘first’ sound in a ‘cvc’ word – those words that are made up of a consonant, vowel, and consonant sound. He could not tell me the initial consonant, nor the second or last sounds. It eventually became apparent that it was not that the student was unable to do the task but that he did not comprehend the meaning of the word ‘first.’ He just needed an understanding of the basic concepts and have the opportunity to apply them. We all too often assume students have the basics.
Schools have implemented great initiatives to improve literacy outcomes of the students in their care. Apart from some individual examples there are widespread literacy difficulties escalating in our young students, including an increasing number with difficulties in oral language acquisition. Educators understand that speech sound delays and disorders require early intervention. To address these difficulties requires significant resources, including personnel and financial allocations. If students fail to begin their school life without the basics, including speaking coherently, the trajectory for further language difficulties most likely will impede every aspect of the student’s education. The spiral effect for these students to ‘catch up’ – including tiers of intervention and quality evidence-based practices – creates an even larger strain on already limited resources.
The literacy symposium evoked numerous personal accounts of the importance of the teacher relationship with students. It is essential that teachers build trust, empathy and understanding. Disengaged and traumatised students have greater success and learning outcomes with caring teachers who give the time and understanding required to individuals and is paramount to student success.
Although educators have always acknowledged the vast importance of parents/carers in the education of students, the symposium made me realise that perhaps utilising the resource of the entire community requires further consideration. Using the African proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, where children are educated with positive interactions, have good experiences, and are supported in a safe environment, seems appropriate.
I look forward to potential solutions that a great collaboration amongst a diverse group of dedicated people can produce.
Cathrine Montgomery is Coordinator of Special Learning Needs Support within Catholic Education Tasmania; she was an attendee of the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium at Government House in November 2018.