Helping people with dyslexia: a national action agenda
Report to the Hon Bill Shorten, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities
and Children’s Services, from the Dyslexia Working Party:
Max Coltheart [Chair]
Submitted January 10 2010
During 2008 the Hon Bill Shorten, Parliamentary Secretary for
Disabilities and Children’s Services, met with representatives from
dyslexia interest groups who expressed concern that dyslexia is not
recognized as a specific disability under the Disability Discrimination Act
1992 and that the education and employment systems do not recognize or
support people with dyslexia.
Following these meetings the Parliamentary Secretary requested the
FaHCSIA convene a roundtable Forum to discuss these issues.
This Dyslexia Stakeholder Forum was held at Parliament House Canberra
on 16 June 2009. The Forum consisted of 24 people who were scientists
in the areas of reading or learning disabilities, technologists, people with
dyslexia, clinicians and practitioners, or representatives from DEEWR
and FaHCSIA. It was decided that a representative Working Party of 8
Forum members should be formed, charged with the task of writing a
report proposing a national agenda for action to assist people with
The Working Party consulted widely and in particular benefited from
comments on a draft report that were received from the following
authorities (all of whom have expressed very strong support for the
recommendations we have made):
• AUSPELD (The Australian Federation of Specific Learning
• LDA (Learning Difficulties Australia)
• ALDA (The Australian Learning Difficulty Association)
• Speech Pathology Australia
• The DDOLL (Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy)
network, which was established with funding from the Australian
• Sir James Rose, author of the Rose Report on Dyslexia
commissioned by the UK Government.
A draft report was also distributed for comment to members of the
Forum on December 7 2009.
The draft report was revised in the light of these comments and the final
version of the report (the present document) was submitted to the
Parliamentary Secretary on January 10 2010.
In this document we put dyslexia into context by first making some
remarks about general levels of literacy in Australia and why they are
currently a cause for concern. We then explain the difference between
dyslexia and other forms of difficulty in learning to read, and point out
the serious social, economic and personal consequences of dyslexia. We
then provide 19 recommendations, each of which if implemented would
reduce these social, economic and personal costs of dyslexia in Australia.
Is there a literacy problem in Australia?
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) believes so. Its report
entitled “National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development:
Baseline performance report for 2008”, dated 30 September 2009, made
the following points:
• Relatively high proportions of working age Australians have
literacy and numeracy skills below the minimum level COAG considers is
required to meet the complex demands of work and life in modern
economies—43.5 per cent for literacy and 49.8 per cent for numeracy.
• The proportion of the working age population with low literacy and
numeracy skills decreases as socio-economic status improves. At a
national level, 60.0 per cent of working age people in the most
disadvantaged socio-economic areas have low literacy skills compared with
29.3 per cent in the least disadvantaged areas. The figures for numeracy
are 66.2 per cent and 35.3 per cent respectively. The pattern is similar
across all States and Territories.
These conclusions are based on data from a national survey of literacy
standards carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in
2006. The ABS report of that survey specifically noted that 52% of
Australians aged 15-19 had a literacy level that “was insufficient to meet
the complex demands of everyday life and work”. Comparisons of the
results of the 2006 ABS survey with the results of the immediately
preceding survey (1996) revealed that literacy levels were lower in 2006
than in 1996.
There is independent evidence that literacy standards are currently
declining in Australia. Reading ability of Australian children was measured
in the OECD’s International Programme for International Student
Assessment (PISA) assessment rounds in 2000 and most recently in
2006. Between 2000 and 2006 Australia dropped 4 places in the
international ranking of literacy levels, being overtaken by New Zealand,
Canada, Hong Kong and South Korea (reported by the chair of the
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Professor
Barry McGaw, in his keynote address at the seminar Effective Reading
for All: National and International Perspectives conducted by Learning
Difficulties Australia (LDA) in Melbourne on 23 September 2009).
Why is there a literacy problem in Australia?
In 2004 the then Federal Minister for Education, Dr Brendan Nelson,
commissioned a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL)i
which reported to him in December 2005. Amongst the findings of this
report were the following:
• 50% of the 34 teacher training programs in Australia devoted
less than 5% of the curriculum to teaching about reading.
• 60% of senior teachers considered the majority of beginning
teachers were not equipped to teach children to read.
• The majority of beginning teachers reported that they were not
confident about their ability to teach reading.
• Many beginning teachers themselves had limited literacy skills,
and also lacked the metalinguistic skills needed for the teaching of
The NITL Report made 20 recommendations aimed at improving the
teaching of literacy. Unfortunately none of these was implemented. The
Education portfolio was taken over by a new Minister. The
recommendations of the report were put out to tender, which was won by
the Curriculum Corporation, which produced materials that were
distributed to schools. The Chair of the NITL, the late Dr Ken Rowe of
the Australian Council for Educational Research, publicly repudiated
these materials, pointing out that they did not incorporate a single one of
his committee’s 20 recommendations.
However, all is not lost. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and
Reporting Authority (formerly the National Curriculum Board) is drawing
up a national curriculum for English which includes a specific focus on
teaching reading and reading-related abilities in the early years of
schooling. Current drafts of this curriculum document show that it is
highly compatible with the recommendations of the NITL. For example,
recommendation 2 of the NITL was:
The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic,
direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the
essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational
reading proficiency. Equally, that teachers provide an integrated
approach to reading that supports the development of oral language,
vocabulary, grammar, reading fluency, comprehension and the
literacies of new technologies.
Consistent with this, the May 2009 ACARA document “Shape of the
Australian Curriculum” states (p. 7) “Many students when learning to read
need systematic attention to fundamentals like phonological and phonemic
awareness, and sound-letter correspondences as well as the development
of skills in using semantic and syntactic clues to make meaning”. And at
his keynote address at the LDA seminar (referred to above) the Chair of
ACARA indicated that the National Curriculum would emphasize the
teaching of phonological awareness, phonics and the alphabet in
kindergarten and Grade 1, just as recommended by the NITL
State Departments of Education are also beginning to take actions that
are consistent with the NITL recommendations. For example, NITL
Recommendation 16 included the following:
The Committee recommends that a national program of literacy
action be established to produce a series of evidence-based guides
for effective teaching practice, the first of which should be on
The NSW Department of Education has this year produced exactly these
kinds of guides to the teaching of literacyii.
The ACARA recommendations re initial teaching of reading, if
implemented right down to individual classroom level, will be of great
benefit to many Australian children who would otherwise have struggled
to learn to read. Improved curricula delivered in a structured, sequential
and explicit way, along with intensive intervention for those children
struggling to keep up with their peers, will address the needs of the vast
majority of students. But there will still remain a residue – perhaps as
many as 5-10% of all children - who will still struggle to learn to read even
if exposed in the classroom to best-practice evidence-based methods of
teaching reading. The remit of our Working Party is to make
recommendations about how best to help such children as well as the
adults who were once such children.
The difference between “instructional casualties” and “people with
A great deal of recent research has focussed on what happens when a
school that has been using methods for teaching reading based on
ideology rather than research evidence of efficacy switches over to
adopting evidence-based methods. Many studies have documented
rapidly-achieved and large increases in the reading competence of poor
readers in such schools; these children soon achieve reading abilities
commensurate with their grades. It follows that the reason why such
children were reading poorly prior to the adoption of the new teaching
methods in their classrooms was not something to do with the children
themselves, but was because of the kind of reading instruction they had
been receiving (the California State Taskforce (1999)iii reported that "a
significant number of children labelled learning disabled or dyslexic could
have become successful readers had they received systematic and
explicit instruction and intervention far earlier in their educational
careers"; That is why the term “instructional casualties” has been used to
describe these children.
But these studies have also shown consistently that a small but
significant proportion of children do not catch up in reading no matter
how sound and well-supported by evidence the teaching methods being
used in their classrooms are. Although these students are likely to make
some progress, they tend to improve at a much slower rate than their
peers, and must work very hard even to achieve this. So these children
are not instructional casualties, and therefore a different term to
describe them is needed. It is these children whom we will term “children
Identification of dyslexia via this approach is referred to as the
Response to Intervention Model (RTI). It has become widely accepted
practice in the UK, the USA, and Canada:
"A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties
can be gained by examining how the individual responds, or has responded,
to well founded intervention" (Rose, 2009).iv
The model requires a three tiered approach to literacy teaching,
intervention and assessment (see figure 1).
If the evidence-based literacy teaching approaches proposed in the
National Curriculum are implemented right down to classroom level, this
will be enormously beneficial to the children classified as instructional
casualties, and so one would expect to see substantial improvements in
the average literacy levels in Australian schools. But if that is all that is
done, the children with dyslexia will benefit only to a small degree. They
will continue to be left behind and the gap between these children and
their peers will widen even further.
Our Working Party’s job is to make recommendations as to what steps
should be taken to address the needs of these individuals and so reduce
the functional impact of dyslexia.
The economic, social and personal costs of dyslexia
Failure to learn to read despite receiving appropriate reading teaching
has serious consequences.
Research has shown that such children are at serious risk of mental
health difficultiesv especially depressionvi. Juvenile delinquency is
more common amongst such childrenvii as is dropout from schoolviii and
unemployment (Australian Bureau of Statistics data). People with poor
literacy are less responsive to health education and use of disease
prevention strategies, are less able to successfully manage chronic
disorders such as diabetes and asthma, and incur significantly higher
health care costsix. All these personal costs of dyslexia explain why a
significantly higher proportion of people with dyslexia are likely to
attempt suicide than adolescents with normal readingx. And these
personal costs of dyslexia explain why the final report of the National
Health and Hospitals Reform Commission has identified that
strengthening functional literacy is a key strategy to improving health
outcomes across Australiaxi.
These are just some of the serious personal costs of dyslexia. Dyslexia
has serious social and economic costs too.
The incidence of dyslexia is much higher in the prison population than the
general population: for example, a recent study reported that 53% of the
inmates of Chelmsford Prison in the UK were dyslexicxii
The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in its
report dated 18 December 2009 concluded that “the Government’s
position that early literacy interventions are an investment that saves
money in the long run is evidence-based”.
A report by Access Australiaxiii jointly commissioned by the Business
Council of Australia and the Dusseldorp Skills Forum to test the merits
of the economic case for increased policy emphasis on youth participation
in education, training and employment reported that:
• Student achievement and better pedagogies in literacy and
numeracy are fundamental to improving the learning capacity,
employability and positive participation of young people
• Boosting the proportion of young people completing school or an
apprenticeship to 90 per cent by the end of the decade would increase
workforce numbers by 65,000, boost economic productivity, and expand
the economy by nearly $10 billion (in today’s money) by 2040
• Measures to increase school retention rates would also result in
additional annual taxation receipts of $2.3 billion (in today’s money) by
2040, reducing Budget deficits and helping to defray the cost impact of
the ageing population.
In Australia at present, children and adults with dyslexia have no
specified pathways to achieve diagnosis and support. In the education
system there are few qualified to diagnose, and the wait time for school
psychologists is up to a year. For adults, there is no process through
Centrelink for support. Individuals therefore have to fund their own
diagnosis and subsequent support. On a user pays basis, only the
financially secure can afford this. This leaves pensioners, low-income
earners, students and the unemployed with nowhere to go.
Our recommendations are about both reducing the impact of dyslexia on
the approximately 5-10% of Australian children and adults who struggle
with its daily implications and about the ways in which assistance can be
provided earlier and more effectively (thereby preventing dyslexia from
becoming as serious a condition as it does when left unattended). These
recommendations are designed to improve both access and equity in the
everyday lives of Australian children and adults currently struggling with
this hidden disability. This can be achieved through:
o Officially recognizing dyslexia as a disability;
o Providing high quality literacy instruction;
o Providing school-based dyslexia resilience programs.
o Improving current teachers’ knowledge, skills and understanding of
learning to read and dyslexia;
o Improving training courses for future teachers;
o Enabling access to early assessment and identification;
o Providing appropriate support and accommodations, including the
establishment of an Accessible Instructional Material Centre
(AIMC) whose first task will be to facilitate the development of a
national Accessible Instructional Strategy (AIMS);
o Establishing dyslexia-friendly schools and workplaces; and,
o Increasing community awareness of dyslexia.
Implementation of these recommendations would have two highly
• It would maximise the probability of successfully learning to
• It would minimise the negative impacts of being unable to read.
DEFINING AND RECOGNISING DYSLEXIA AS A DISABILITY
Recommendation 1 - Definition of dyslexia
There should be adoption at a national level of a working definition of
dyslexia to allow shared language for productive discourse on the issue in
Australia. Our proposed working definition, consistent with the
definitions published by the British Dyslexia Association, the
International Dyslexia Association/ National Institute of Child Health
and Development, the International Reading Association, and the Rose
Report on Dyslexia, is:
Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability of neurological origin.
It primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word
reading and spelling. It is frequently associated with difficulties in
phonological processing. It occurs across the range of intellectual
abilities with no distinct cut-off points. It is viewed as a lifelong
disability that often does not respond as expected to best-practice
evidence-based classroom methods for teaching reading.
Recommendation 2 - Recognition of dyslexia as a disability
There should be legislative recognition at both State and Commonwealth
level of dyslexia as a disability as determined under the Disability
Discrimination Act (1992). Dyslexia should be included under the special
needs section of the Education Acts in each of the states as has now
been instituted in NSW. This will require that additional disability
funding becomes available.
Recommendation 3 - National Dyslexia Advisory Council
A National Dyslexia Advisory Council should be established. Its
membership should include people with dyslexia, representatives from
Australian peak dyslexia organizations, and national and
international experts on dyslexia and learning disability.
Recommendation 4 - Compliance with the Act.
Commonwealth funding of all educational institutions should be contingent
on demonstrated compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992
(Amended in 2008), and the Disability Standards for Education 2005.