Around one in three (36%) Australian children grow up in families experiencing adversity. These include families where parents are unemployed, in financial stress, have relationship difficulties or experience poor mental or physical health.
Our recent study found one in four Australian children experiencing adversity had language difficulties and around one in two had pre-reading difficulties.
Language difficulties can include having a limited vocabulary, struggling to make sentences and finding it hard to understand what is being said. Pre-reading difficulties can include struggling to recognise alphabet letters and difficulties identifying sounds that make up words.
Learning to read is one of the most important skills for children. How easily a child learns to read largely depends on both their early oral language and pre-reading skills. Difficulties in these areas make learning to read more challenging and can affect general academic performance.
What are language and pre-reading difficulties?
International studies show children experiencing adversity are more likely to have language and pre-reading difficulties when they start school.
Language difficulties are usually identified using a standardised language assessment which compares an individual child’s language abilities to a general population of children of the same age.
Pre-reading difficulties are difficulties in the building blocks for learning to read. For example, by the age of five, most children can name at least ten letters and identify the first sound in simple words (e.g. “b” for “ball”).
Children who have not developed these skills by the time they start school are likely to require extra support in learning to read.
1 in 4 children in adversity had language difficulties
We examined the language, pre-reading and non-verbal skills (such as attention and flexible thinking) of 201 five-year-old children experiencing adversity in Victoria and Tasmania.
We defined language difficulties as children having language skills in the lowest 10% compared to a representative population of Australian 5-year-olds. By this definition, we would expect one in ten children to have language difficulties.
But our rates were more than double this — one in four (24.9%) of the children in our sample had language difficulties.
More than half couldn’t name alphabet letters
Pre-reading difficulties were even more common: 58.6% of children could not name the expected number of alphabet letters and 43.8% could not identify first sounds in words.
Families experiencing adversity may also have fewer resources (including time and books) to invest in their children’s early language and learning.
Why is this important?
It is really challenging for children starting school with language and pre-reading skills to catch up to their peers. They need to accelerate their learning to close the gap.
Put into context, if a child starts school six months behind their peers, they will need to make 18 months gain within a year to begin the next school year on par with their peers. This is not achievable for many children, even with extra support, and a tall order for many schools.
These can include struggling academically, difficulties gaining employment, antisocial behaviour and poor well-being.
What can we do?
These results should be concerning for us all. There are clear and extensive social costs that come with early language and pre-reading difficulties, including a higher burden on health and welfare costs and productivity losses.
These impacts are particularly worrying given the significant school disruptions experienced due to the COVID-19 lockdowns. School closures will have substantially reduced children’s access to additional support and learning opportunities, particularly for those experiencing adversity, further inhibiting opportunities to catch up.
Our best bet is to ensure as many children as possible start school with the language and pre-reading skills required to become competent early readers.
For example, ensuring all children have access to books at home has shown promise in supporting early language skills for children experiencing adversity.
We know which children are at greatest risk of struggling with their early language and pre-reading skills. We now need to embed this evidence into existing health and education services, and invest in supports for young children and families to address these unequal outcomes.
There’s nothing like being reasoned with by a 4-year-old girl.
“‘Stop it,’ ordered Beezus. ‘Stop it this instant! You can’t eat one bite and then throw the rest away.’
‘But the first bite tastes best,’ explained Ramona reasonably, as she reached into the box again.
Beezus had to admit that Ramona was right. The first bite of an apple always did taste best.”
The author of this scene is Beverly Cleary, who died on March 25, 2021, at the age of 104. The book is “Beezus and Ramona.” Most readers appreciate Ramona’s arguments, admiring the innocence, the free-spiritedness, the insight that inspires her to take a whole carton of apples and indulge in one first bite after another, only ever tasting “the reddest part.”
Many fans love Cleary’s work for a lifetime – first as young children, then as adults. As a mother of twin boys, I have been surprised at how her writing continues to resonate. But what is it that makes Cleary’s characters so enduring?
Though readers have, at least since the early 20th century, generally let go of this expectation for authors who write for adults, the expectation persists for those who write for children. With a writing career beginning in the early 1950s, Cleary directly challenged such a notion.
Cleary once told PBS that her fans love Ramona “because she does not learn to be a better girl.” She went on to explain what inspired her to create Ramona’s character: “I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood because children always learned to be better children, and in my experience, they didn’t.”
In fact, Cleary’s Ramona doesn’t just challenge the assumption that readers must learn “from” and “with” fictional characters; one of Ramona’s distinguishing characteristics is rebelliousness.
Take, for example, the time Ramona’s parents are disappointed by her report card:
“‘Now, Ramona.’ Mrs. Quimby’s voice was gentle. ‘You must try to grow up.’
Ramona raised her voice. ‘What do you think I’m doing?’
‘You don’t have to be so noisy about it,’ said Mrs. Quimby.”
The scene continues:
“Ramona had had enough. … She wanted to do something bad. She wanted to do something terrible that would shock her whole family, something that would make them sit up and take notice. ‘I’m going to say a bad word!’ she shouted with a stamp of her foot.”
Then, in the culmination of the scene: “Ramona clenched her fists and took a deep breath. ‘Guts!’ she yelled. ‘Guts! Guts! Guts!’ There. That should show them.”
So exactly where does Cleary’s Ramona fit? She doesn’t. She’s an outlier of school standards and gender expectations. Before there were terms like “gender nonbinary,” “gender nonconforming” or “genderqueer,” there was Ramona. Ramona defies categorization. Her friendship with Howie offers one of many examples:
“‘At my grandmother’s,’ said Howie. ‘A bulldozer was smashing some old houses so somebody could build a shopping center, and the man told me I could pick up broken bricks.’
‘Let’s get started,’ said Ramona, running to the garage and returning with two big rocks. … Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.”
This passage is from “Ramona the Brave,” which both is and isn’t of its time. Published in 1975, the novel may be seen as an expression of second-wave feminism, which sought to recognize gender as a social construct and to challenge how mainstream society kept women from fulfilling their potential. However, it also previews third-wave feminism by insisting that women need not abandon their femininity to claim equity for themselves.
Ramona, though quite boyish, insists on writing her last name, “Quimby,” with the “Q” shaped into a cat “with a little tail,” reminding the reader of her feminine side.
I see in Cleary’s writing a nostalgia for the time in childhood before gender is clearly defined. By looking back to that time, children and adult readers alike may imagine a future in which people are able to think beyond gender.
Most of Cleary’s books are set in the mostly white Grant Park neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, where she grew up. The lack of racial diversity in Cleary’s work is a likely consequence of her having followed the adage adhered to by many writers: “Write what you know.” However, current readers might wish that she had stretched herself and her abilities a bit further to have imagined a more racially or ethnically diverse cast of characters.
“I needed a friend like Ramona,” Watson said. “Cleary introduced to me this rambunctious girl, and I love her. … The power of her storytelling is the respect she had for young readers. She had a deep understanding that a girl articulating how she feels is an asset, not a flaw.”
As I’ve read Cleary’s books to my own Gen-Z sons, I have been particularly struck by how her writing has gotten them interested and invested in female as well as male protagonists. They love the books about Henry and Ribsy, but they love the Ramona books too. When it is so common for boys and men to ignore–or merely “glance” at–women’s writing about girls, this is significant. Through Cleary’s work, my sons can see that the big guys don’t always know best or win. Such perspectives can create new normals that are less, well, normative.
For many lovers of classic literature, opportunities to devour the works of undiscovered authors can be enough to make people’s eyes light up. For those who aren’t as keen on the genre, the appeal of these titles is a little less obvious. In fact, it’s one of the reasons museum professionals are running into issues when it comes to inspiring new generations to read such works.
Engaging young people is a challenge for museums and the traditional approaches that literary heritage museums take when dealing with classic authors is becoming a problem. This is because literary heritage museums usually focus on presenting the biographical story, personal effects or archival collection of an author. Relevant and interesting perhaps to those already familiar with an author’s works, but perhaps less successful at engaging would-be readers. The language of some of these authors can also be a barrier to new readers, as can the difficulty of reading “a classic” – which might be seen as irrelevant or out of touch with the modern world.
As the community, learning and engagement officer at Wirksworth Heritage Centre in Derbyshire, my role is to engage audiences of all ages with the local history of Wirksworth. A key element to Wirksworth’s heritage is its literary connections to writers (including George Eliot, DH Lawrence and Daniel Defoe) and the inspiration they took from the people and the landscape of Wirksworth. My PhD research considers how literary heritage is presented in museums throughout the country. I have a particular interest in Nottingham, which was awarded the Unesco City of Literature bid in 2015 due to its rich literary heritage, but also has some of the lowest literacy levels in the country.
Since COVID-19, finding new ways to share our literary heritage both inside and outside of museum walls has become incredibly important. So how should museums show that these authors remain relevant in the 21st century? Literary heritage museums are doing this in a whole host of ways, but here are the three examples of approaches I believe are particularly successful.
1. Retelling stories
From the Austen Project to the many graphic novel retellings and classic novels reimagined as text messages, retelling stories with a contemporary twist is a well-trodden (if not always well-reviewed) path. It’s also a method of interpretation that literary heritage museums are beginning to embrace.
Using new and creative formats can remove some of the barriers to young people wanting to experience these stories and can inspire them to try the “real thing”. As part of my own curatorial work with Dorking Museum, I wrote a book entitled Forster in 50 which accompanies the exhibition Forster at 50. The book provides visitors with an overview of five of Forster’s novels in only 50 words with illustrations, providing more of an accessible introduction to EM Forster’s work.
2. Using technology to draw audiences in
Technology and literature may have seemed like a mismatch once upon a time, but more and more museums are using different technologies to engage audiences with their collections. Before its closure in 2016, the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre presented the 1915 censorship trial of Lawrence’s The Rainbow through a series of Twitter posts in their exhibition No Right to Exist: The Rainbow and Other Books Which Shocked. This condensed the complexities of the trial into a series of 140 character posts, allowing younger audiences to explore the debate in a familiar format and go on to consider what we consider scandalous in literature today.
My own work has included the co-production of Walking with Lawrence, a digital walking tour written from Lawrence’s perspective which allows the listener to connect the author with the city they see today. The use of a creative narrative which is listened to rather than read provides a format that’s easier to understand, removing some of the barriers created by large amounts of text.
3. Collaborating with creative partners
Working with creative partners such as artists and writers can help museums to reach new audiences, providing more approachable information for younger generations in particular. Graphic novels and comic books are incredibly helpful in this respect. I’m working with Wirksworth Heritage Centre’s writer in residence Helen Greetham, who’s currently producing a graphic novel about the literary heritage of George Eliot in Wirksworth.
A similar project is underway in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, working with young people to produce their own Lawrence-inspired graphic stories. The Eastwood Comics project aims to engage “700 further young people (who) will learn about the author and his birthplace by taking part in activities inspired by the young writers’ research”. Here, participation in creative projects and reading new stories help new generations to connect with Lawrence’s heritage in more meaningful ways than regurgitating information about the author.
The pandemic has provided an unprecedented challenge to the heritage sector, but the closure of our sites doesn’t mean we can’t continue to connect people to our history. These new and innovative ways that museums have engaged and inspired younger generations can continue regardless of whether physical buildings are open. In the months ahead, I hope more buildings take similar approaches.
My research team and I recently explored 500 picture books created by authors or illustrators living in Canada and published since 2017 by Canadian publishers. I’ve also reviewed an array of modern titles that demonstrate the evolution of what Eliza Dresang, a professor of library science, called “radical change” in children’s literature.
Today, picture books appear in a variety of genres, fiction and non-fiction, and generally unfold in 24 or 32 pages. Many of these books rely greatly on images to create and deepen meaning, and image quality is therefore critical. Readers now have access to multi-media projects with tremendous artistic merit, as well as stunning projects without any words at all, such as Sidewalk Flowers, illustrated by Sydney Smith and authored by JonArno Lawson. This wordless picture book won the 2015 Governor General’s Award in the category for children’s illustrated books.
The following books are extraordinary in both text and illustration, grouped here as a snapshot of contemporary excellence that represents diverse communities, identity themes and artistic media. Include them in home and school collections or enjoy them from your local public library.
This allegory, presented in evocative narrative and watercolour, follows a young girl who moves to a country where she is free to be an artist. The author’s afterword discusses her childhood behind the Iron Curtain, arriving in Canada via Pier 21 in Halifax. For ages 5–12+.
Sami has escaped war-torn Syria and lives in a refugee camp. As he befriends four new birds, he begins to adjust to his new life. Poetic language pairs well here with stunning illustrations created through Plasticine, polymer clay and acrylics. For ages 6–10+.
This unique story, presented with retro-style collage, lists the various ways the narrator’s dad resembles their cat. A surprising twist at the end: the narrator is actually a bird. The message is that family is what you make it. For ages 3–8+.
Free-verse childhood memories, paired with evocative paintings, illuminate growing up in a small Arctic town. The text unfolds in two languages: Inuktitut (using both syllabics and transliterated roman orthography) and English. For ages 5–adult.
Africville, written Shauntay Grant and illustrated by Eva Campbell.
Groundwood Books, 2018.
A young girl visits the former site of Africville and imagines this historic Black Nova Scotian community while thinking about family stories. Textured oil-and-pastel-on-canvas illustrations extend the lyrical text. An author’s note provides more information about Africville’s development from an early settlement, and how the community was razed by the city of Halifax in the 1960s. For ages 4–8+.
When Seamus wears his mother’s high-heeled shoes, he can reach everything! But … there are definitely times to be tall and times to be small. This is a nuanced story about innovation, self-acceptance and love, presented with a bright palette of colour. For ages 4–8.
This warm-hearted story, enriched by Brandon Smith’s highly animated illustrations, encourages readers to follow their dreams. Zora is a well-developed and compelling canine character that audiences will cherish. For ages 3–8.
A girl gathers berries with her mother when she becomes lost in the woods. A wolf helps her use her wits and she finds her family. Later, she leaves tobacco in a red cloth as a gift of thanks. Julie Flett’s textured mixed-media images extend Katherena Vermette’s powerful text about finding courage and wisdom inside ourselves. The author’s note says this story was “inspired by traditional stories, yes, but in no way taken from one.” For ages 4–9+.
A young boy speaks on behalf of an outlaw returning to make amends in this story about redemption. The images use ink, watercolour and newsprint transfer, with newspaper clippings and fabric patterns from the late 19th century. For ages 5–9+.
England international footballer and child poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford has announced that he is launching a book club. The initiative will distribute books to children, particularly those from vulnerable and underprivileged backgrounds, in order to promote reading and literacy.
Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen has said these findings should act as “a wake-up call for the government”. And we already know that Rashford can cause a stir at Westminster. So his intervention could become a much-needed force for change.
It is important to stress that these numbers are still very low, particularly when we consider that 33.5% of school-age children in the UK are from ethnic minority backgrounds. There is a long way to go before representation in children’s books and publishing authentically mirror UK society. And it will take collective action to break down the systemic barriers that cause under- (and mis-) representation.
Reaching a wider audience
This is why initiatives like Rashford’s book club are very welcome. In light of my research, I support the book club’s focus on quality inclusive youth literature: books that are authentically representative of the society that we live in. “No matter where you grow up”, Rashford wrote in a statement, “talent should be recognised and championed”.
Books provide insight into a variety of different lives and cultures. They have an important role in holding up a mirror to the world or offering a window into another. What they reflect impacts how young readers see themselves and the world around them. Inclusive books are important for children of all ethnicities and from all socio-economic backgrounds.
This new book club, with Rashford at the helm, will bring inclusive books into the consciousness of a much wider audience. Rashford has already made strides in tackling inequality in the UK and this initiative will help bridge the cultural and educational divide.
Rashford can now add author and cultural gatekeeper to his list of accolades, and, by centring himself as such, will be a role model to aspiring writers and publishers – something my previous BookTrust Represents report highlighted as an enabler for young people of colour to join the industry.
Don’t forget about existing authors, books, and publishers
While this intervention by Rashford is exciting, it’s important to acknowledge the activists, authors, publishers, and booksellers that have been supporting inclusive youth literature for decades. Bookshops and supermarket bookshelves may be dominated by bestselling and celebrity books, but other books, with smaller marketing budgets abound. Here are five of my favourite books for young people (published in 2020), by British authors of colour, to tide you over until Rashford’s book club begins next year:
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, very remote areas, and Indigenous Australians are up to two times more likely to start school developmentally vulnerable than the national average.
In 2018, 21.7% of Australian five year olds (70,308 children) were not developmentally ready when they started school. And in Year 7, nearly 25% of students (72,419) didn’t have the required numeracy and literacy skills.
The statement aims for a quality education system for all young people, that supports them to be creative and confident individuals, successful learners and active and informed members of the community.
But our report finds students’ location and family circumstances continue to play a strong role in determining outcomes from school entry to adulthood.
Disadvantaged children missing out as school progresses
The Alice Springs declaration sets two ambitious goals:
the Australian education system promotes excellence and equity. In part, this is about ensuring all young Australians have access to high-quality education, inclusive and free from any form of discrimination
all young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community. This includes all children having a sense of self-worth, self-awareness and personal identity that enables them to manage their emotional, mental, cultural, spiritual and physical well-being.
The declaration was signed last year, and builds on previous ones signed in Hobart, Adelaide and Melbourne over three decades. It recognises the role education plays in preparing young people to contribute meaningfully to social, economic and cultural life.
Our report uses the best available data to paint a comprehensive picture of Australia’s performance against the above important goals.
It shows the gap in academic learning as well as other key areas, such as creativity and confidence, is clear from school entry and usually grows over time.
Analysis in our report tracked students’ learning from when they started school in 2009 to when they were in Year 5 in 2014. It showed that in literacy and numeracy for instance, the gap between the proportion of children from the most disadvantaged and advantaged families meeting relevant standards grew from 20.6 percentage points at school entry to 27.2 percentage points in Year 5.
The report also shows too many students in the senior years of school are not developing key skills. In 2018, 27.8% of 15 year olds (88,314) didn’t meet or exceed the international benchmark standards in maths, reading and science.
While some students receive the support they need to catch up to their peers, many don’t.
A lot of young people are also not developing the qualities needed to confidently adapt to challenges in adulthood and contribute to their communities.
The report shows that in 2017, 28.1% (110,410) of 23 year olds were not confident in themselves or the future and 29.9% were not adaptable to change and open to new ideas. It shows 38.1% (145,056) of 23 year olds were not actively engaged in their community and 33.2% were not keeping informed about current affairs.
Additionally, many young Australians are not being well prepared and supported to find and secure meaningful employment. Overall, according to the 2016 census, nearly 30% of 24 year olds (112,695) weren’t in full-time education, training or work.
Around half of all 24 year old Indigenous Australians, and one in three of the most disadvantaged Australians, were not engaged in any work or education, compared to 15% nationally.
This failure to address educational inequality reproduces and amplifies existing poverty across generations. It saps productivity, undermines social cohesion and costs governments and communities billions of dollars.
There are no quick ways to fix educational inequality, but there are several key improvements that will make a difference.
Closing gaps in participation and lifting the quality of early childhood education services — particularly in disadvantaged communities where services tend to be lower quality — should be one of our highest priorities. Early childhood education is critical to giving every child the best possible start. Evidence shows preschool raises children’s chances of being developmentally ready for school in key areas by around 12 percentage points.
Despite efforts through the Gonski reforms, there is still significant room to improve how Australia targets funding and support to schools with the highest level of need. We need to address the imbalance in resources between advantaged and disadvantaged Australian schools, which is the worst in the OECD.
Government projections show 90% of employment growth in the next four years will require education beyond school. This means we must prepare young people for an economy requiring higher levels of skill than ever. We need to rethink existing models of tertiary education to make it accessible to all students.
Addressing educational inequality is as much about what happens outside the classroom as inside. Nurturing every child’s development and well-being is best achieved through a partnership between schools, families, communities and other support services.
Australia cannot afford education systems that fail so many students. That’s not just in economic terms – because the cost of lost opportunity is even greater down the track – but also in human terms. We know the social and health costs of disengaging in education are significant.