The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) conducted an online survey and a series of interviews as part of a project commissioned by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO). The survey and interviews were focused on students in Years 7 to 9 who lack the foundational literacy and numeracy skills that are required to engage with a secondary curriculum, in schools where most students have these skills. These students will, throughout this report, be referred to as 'struggling students'. The students in scope are likely to struggle to engage in classes without significant differentiation on the part of classroom teachers, and the skill disparity may be so great that differentiating lessons for them is not feasible. The project sought to address the 4 questions below.
- What methods and/or assessments do schools use to identify students in this cohort?
- What frameworks do schools use to make decisions on how to support these students?
- What supports are provided?
- What confidence do school leaders and teachers have in the approaches currently used?
The survey was designed with 3 cohorts in mind: school leaders, teachers and external consultants who work with schools in literacy or numeracy. The survey was promoted by ACER through bulletins sent out to over 64,000 Teacher magazine subscribers on 11 May and 2 June 2022. The survey was also promoted by 3 literacy/numeracy organisations, on their websites and via newsletters. The survey closed on 24 June 2022.
In total, 382 viable responses were received: 280 to the literacy section and 245 to the numeracy section. Responses from school leaders were low (33 about literacy and 28 about numeracy), so enrolment items answered by school leaders only are unlikely to be representative. About 70% of responses were from teachers or leading teachers (197 about literacy and 175 about numeracy). School-based responses were distributed in similar proportions to teacher numbers across states and sectors, and by school size and geolocation. As such, while a sample of convenience, responses overall appear to be reasonably representative, with the caveat that respondents are likely to be biased towards school contexts with high proportions of students struggling with literacy or numeracy, or that are concerned about the support currently provided to these students.
There were some external respondents (34 about literacy and 22 about numeracy) who had a variety of roles consulting across schools. Responses by this group have been presented separately to those of school respondents, for comparison.
In addition, 28 survey respondents were also interviewed. Respondents represented a range of states, sectors, geolocations, and school types, and provided additional detail about the context in which literacy and numeracy support is provided.
Survey responses are presented in the body of the report following the structure used in the survey, with commentary based on the interviews where appropriate. Findings are summarised here under the 4 project questions.
1. What methods and/or assessments do schools use to identify students in this cohort?
The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) Year 5 results were commonly used as an initial means of identifying struggling students entering secondary school (Year 7), and was the most common assessment data received, though teacher judgement in the form of curriculum grades was also commonly provided as part of enrolment data. School leaders did indicate that struggling students in literacy and numeracy were flagged at least sometimes in enrolment data they received, but they were often not aware of the definition used to flag students.
Responses about definitions were low but it appears likely that the most common definitions of struggling students were those who were below minimum national standard in NAPLAN or had received a D or failing grade in their previous year as reported in teacher judgement data.
Nearly half of responding school leaders (44%) said that they identified students struggling with literacy based on enrolment data, and a further 44 per cent did so sometimes. Only one-fifth of school leaders (22%) identified students struggling with numeracy based on enrolment data, although about two-thirds (65%) did so sometimes. Most school leaders noted that they either used a local definition, or identified students based on a variety of assessments without setting any specific definition.
Most respondents said that their schools specifically identified and monitored students lacking foundational literacy or numeracy skills, using a wide range of assessments, and most undertook ongoing assessment. Among teacher respondents, NAPLAN, ACER’s Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT) and school-based assessment, including teacher judgement, were used by a majority.
2. What frameworks do schools use to make decisions on how to support these students?
In the absence of specific definitions and funding targeted to literacy and numeracy programs it was not clear that schools had a formal framework in place guiding specific decisions about this cohort. Most systems have allocated funding to interventions that indirectly support this cohort, but the approach taken to identify and support students ranged across systems and appeared to include a high level of school discretion. For example, Victorian government schools do have specific funding for students in Years 8 to 10 who are below the National Minimum Standard (NMS) in NAPLAN. The funding covers the time of teachers to work directly with these students, however, schools choose how they support the students, including mode (in-class, withdrawal), time per week, assessments, and pedagogy or programs.
As noted below, schools used many different methods of support. From interviews, it was clear that some schools have strategies in place and are quite targeted in how and why they supported students. For other schools, it seemed ad hoc, based on student preference, teacher availability and personal expertise, and what could be achieved around competing issues such as curriculum requirements, student wellbeing and attendance in other subjects.
3. What supports are provided?
Only about half of schools said that they provided specific additional support in literacy (58%), although a further third (34%) said they did so sometimes. Issues affecting the provision of support commonly included lack of funding (64%), lack of qualified or experienced staff (61%) and lack of available staff (59%). These issues tended to be more prevalent in government schools and in regional and remote areas. In interviews, teachers also noted a lack of funding for professional learning (PL), including a lack of time available to undertake PL.
In addition, factors that affected the provision of support included student engagement/behaviour (69%) and attendance (55%), student wellbeing (69%), and different cultural or language barriers (59%). In interviews, teachers noted that the lack of age-appropriate literacy resources (across all subjects, including numeracy) was a significant issue both in terms of student disengagement and in the time and effort required by teachers to differentiate in this way by creating or sourcing appropriate material.
Secondary trained English or maths teachers were most commonly providing literacy or numeracy support, and in both cases, about two-thirds had received intervention training. Support was also regularly offered by teacher aides (33%), of whom, only about one-third had received any intervention training (37%). In literacy, in-class support was most common (89%), and identified students received on average about 86 minutes of support per week. Withdrawal was less common (58%) and had a similar average time per week (89 minutes). Streamed or timetabled classes (41%), while less common, appeared to be more formal in terms of an allocation and provided considerably more support on average, at 199 minutes per week. Support outside usual school classes, such as before or after school, or at lunch time (32%) averaged about 60 minutes per week.
In-class support was also most common in numeracy (83%), with students receiving an average 80 minutes of support per week. Streamed or time-tabled classes (49%) were as common as withdrawal (48%) and again, streamed classes provided more support on average (172 minutes, compared to withdrawal at 66 minutes). Support outside usual class time was the same as for literacy (31%), although averaging slightly higher time per week (85 minutes).
4. What confidence do school leaders and teachers have in the approaches currently used?
Overall, about 2 in 5 respondents (41%) indicated that they were not really, or not at all confident in the approach their school was taking to support students. School leaders were less confident than teachers, and staff in government schools were less confident than their non-government counterparts. Similarly, teachers in rural areas were less confident than their colleagues in metropolitan areas.
In interviews, teachers were quite confident in the methods they used to identify struggling students, but were less confident that all students were getting the required support. One notable concern about the support provided, whether in-class, in separate streamed or timetabled classes, or by withdrawal, was the tendency for that support to enable access to at-level curriculum material rather than develop foundational literacy skills. Enabling access by use of age-appropriate low literacy materials improved student engagement and allowed students to participate in classes, but teachers were concerned that this would not result in growth in literacy skills.
Another issue noted by many, particularly in numeracy, was the rigour of the maths curriculum, which required teachers to teach a range of concepts in a very short amount of time. This made it difficult to cater for students who were behind, particularly in a mixed-ability class, in which the teacher had to maintain a steady pace of lesson delivery to ensure the full curriculum was delivered over the year.
Keywords: equity, student progress, student support, learning support