Low literacy standards and technology… what’s the link?

In the online, technology-dominated world we now live in, and with Australian Literacy Standards slipping and NAPLAN just around the corner, it is worth exploring the questions: What is the impact of technology on literacy… and how can it help improve learning levels?


The 2017 NAPLAN results show that standards have slipped since 2011:


“…a staggering 16.5% of Year 9 students across Australia were below benchmark in writing. Back in 2011, when those students were in Year 3, only 2.8% of them were below benchmark.”



The 2017 results reveal that literacy problems across the country are starting around Year 5, dramatically deteriorating in Year 7. These are the years when demands on students’ reading and writing increase significantly, and the NAPLAN test questions reflect that. As cited in the above article, for example: in Year 5 students need to use inferential reasoning skills developed from a range of reading and in Year 7 they need access to an extensive vocabulary to pass test questions. These are also the years in which students access a greater amount of technology within educational settings.


When it comes to using technology, the argument could go both ways as to whether it is a help or a hindrance to literacy. Young people are accustomed to quick access to information, but haven’t always developed the patience to read thoroughly to find the relevant content they need. The availability of vast amounts of information from every imaginable source means that students need to learn specific skills in discerning what is quality information and what is unreliable – but this is a skillset often left lacking. Perhaps our education system and our personal daily practices are still catching up to the world we now live in.


On the other hand, the fact remains that a technology-rich, online and fast-paced world is now our reality. Whether it has been a boost or a roadblock to literacy in the past, the need to harness the power of this reality and to work constructively within it is part of our present and our future.


“They can read – but only simple books with simple vocabulary, simple grammatical structures and simple messages. They can write – but they write the way they speak.”



A great many teachers and parents can relate to the above statement when it comes to the children and teens within their care. But using content that technology provides, in critical and reflective ways, can help to change this pattern.


Ironically, combining ‘old school’ methods with new technology may help: A priority can be made of providing students with exercises in summarising the main messages from a variety of online texts, both written and spoken. Traditionally referred to as ‘précis writing’, the requirement to paraphrase content means students must fully engage with and understand what is in front of them in order to translate it. While these sorts of exercises are found in secondary school, they are not practiced anywhere near enough (such as on a daily basis!) in the upper primary years – when they are most needed. But the access to technology means that this is a transportable exercise that can be practiced anywhere – in the car on the iPhone, in an aeroplane on your tablet!


Students can also be given critical thinking exercises where they need to search for and locate online examples of texts in a range of subjects and forms that demonstrate formal writing versus conversational language. This helps them to develop an awareness of the differences in how language is constructed, and how to switch from one to another depending on content, context and audience.


Other examples of technology to enable literacy development include the provision of computer-based pre-reading and post-reading tasks and games to develop deeper comprehension, and audio-visual or virtual experiences that enhance understanding and appreciation of a topic or context.


If technology is to be an enabling force, teachers must have access to professional training and resources to assist them to use technology in new ways and to navigate education in our new world. It will be interesting to see how the changes to the Australian primary curriculum scheduled in the next few years will reflect this need.

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