Literacy and learning difficulties groups are calling on education ministers to commit to ensuring no student finishes primary school unable to read, warning school systems have grown used to an unacceptable rate of failure.
Last year, more than 15 per cent of year 7 students in NSW were at or below the national reading minimum standard, leaving them struggling to follow the high school curriculum. Principals say some year 7 students have the reading skills of an eight- or nine-year-old.
Campaigners warn too many students struggle to read when they leave primary school.Credit:Craig Sillitoe
Three organisations on Thursday launched the Primary Reading Pledge campaign, calling on education ministers and the heads of public school systems to commit to more rigorous intervention throughout primary school so that number can be drastically reduced.
Critics of the campaign say teachers are already working hard to help weak readers, but there is no magic bullet because students struggle for myriad reasons.
The organisations behind the campaign are Five from Five, which advocates a phonics-focused approach to teaching students to read; AUSPELD, the Australian federation of SPELD (Specific Learning Difficulties) organisations; and Learning Difficulties Australia.
Five from Five's Jennifer Buckingham said Australia's minimum standards were "extremely low" compared with those of other countries, so the estimate of struggling readers was conservative.
"We do know for sure that children who are at or below that standard are barely reading," she said.
The campaign calls for students identified as falling behind in assessments such as the year 1 phonics check or years 3 and 5 NAPLAN to be further assessed, then given group or individual instruction using approved, phonics-focused methods to close the achievement gap.
Dr Buckingham said most existing intervention was targeted at students in the first few years of school.
"The expectation is that intervention will happen early, and problems will resolve, but that's not the situation at the moment," she said.
"[Intervention] is happening in most schools, it's just not always an effective intervention, and it's not always enough, and it's not always appropriately targeted."
Unless students were identified early and helped quickly, they would appear again in the year 5, year 7 and year 9 statistics, "and then in the statistics we don't want to see - the students who are truanting, who end up unemployed down the line".
But Robyn Cox from the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA) said teachers across primary school already used many strategies to help students read by the time they transitioned to high school, but there was no silver bullet.
"The assumption they are making is that no teacher has tried to intervene," she said. "But there would likely have been much intervention for those students, and none has worked. That's probably to do with the individual learner, not the intervention.
"It's unfair for [the organisations behind the campaign] to say they've got some kind of elixir to fix all of this, and we've been sitting on our hands. The [students] may have other things going on, [such as] they can't speak English or have a hearing impairment."
Ms Cox said schools should be celebrated for giving 85 per cent of students the reading skills they need for high school.
Pauline Jones, the president of PETAA, said many students went backwards in year 7 because of the discipline-specific language they encountered.
They also struggle with the emotional transition to high school, "another factor that's often overlooked in much of the discussions about what's perceived to be a literacy emergency", she said.
A spokesman for NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said: "Reading and writing is the foundation of our children's education. We are committed to improving how both are taught to improve outcomes for students across NSW.
"Using evidenced based approaches to teaching reading in the early years is essential."