Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Literacy Learning Difficulties in Australian Primary Schools: Who Are the Children Identified and How Do Their Schools and Teachers Support Them?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Literacy Learning Difficulties in Australian Primary Schools: Who Are the Children Identified and How Do Their Schools and Teachers Support Them?

Article excerpt


The National Literacy Plan outlined in Literacy for All (DEETYA 1998, p. 7) indicates that it is no longer accepted as inevitable that a significant proportion of students will not achieve literacy skills at the minimum level. The Plan sets the clear goal `that no child will be prevented from making progress in education at school because of inadequate competence in literacy' (DEETYA 1998, p. 17). To achieve this goal the National Plan focuses on the need for early identification of literacy difficulties, early intervention and other forms of support in order for all students to achieve successful literacy outcomes. It also recognises the difference in the student population across states, territories and systems; the diverse nature of schools and their communities; the differing needs of individual students; and the range of teaching and learning styles that can best serve a heterogeneous community.

In order to help schools cater for students whose progress could be impeded by limited literacy competence, the Mapping the Territory report (Louden et al. 2000) was commissioned by DETYA (now DEST). Its aim was to provide a national picture of how students with learning difficulties/disabilities are supported in their literacy and numeracy learning in regular school settings and to identify successful strategies for addressing the literacy and numeracy needs of these students. In meeting the project brief, the research team developed a template of key issues that included amongst others, identification and prevalence of learning difficulties and programs and strategies to support students with learning difficulties.

This paper is based on findings from the Mapping the Territory (1) study and a follow-up study Supporting Students with Learning Difficulties in a School of the Air (2) (Rivalland, Rohl & Smith 2001). We look briefly at issues surrounding the definition of learning difficulties, with particular reference to the Australian context, we provide a brief overview of the two studies, including methodologies, and we look in some detail at six students who were identified by their schools as having difficulty in learning literacy. In addition we examine what their schools were doing to support these students and draw some conclusions about how schools and teachers can effectively support the literacy learning of students who do not make expected progress.

Definitions: Learning difficulty or learning disability?

Defining and identifying those children who have difficulty in learning literacy is a vexed and confusing issue. Allington (2002) has described how in the United States, learning difficulties has been redefined as learning disabilities, for which there is no `commonly accepted definition' (p. 266). He explains this redefinition from a social constructivist perspective and attributes it to various factors within the US context, including the fact that identification of learning disability qualifies children for additional educational funding and excludes them from taking part in state education testing. It is therefore in the interests of schools who want to show improved performance in literacy for low achieving children to be identified.

Within the Australian context, where identification is not tied to funding or exclusion from state testing, the use of the terms learning difficulty and learning disability is quite different, but as we shall see, can still be confusing. Elkins (2002, this volume) has clarified the confusion at a general level as follows:

   In Australia the label learning disabilities is usually restricted to a 
   small group of students with persistent problems, whereas learning 
   difficulties describes the experience of a larger group of students who do 
   not respond well to their classroom programs. (p. 11) 

Nevertheless, the schools that took part in the Mapping the Territory project varied in the terms they used to describe students who were experiencing difficulty in literacy learning. …

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