From where I sit: Losing the power of concentration

September 10, 2009

There's been a kerfuffle in Australia lately over literacy levels, as old statistics are trotted out yet again to make sensationalist headlines.

This time it was the Australian Industry Group, which represents 10,000 employers on the country's east coast. Last month, it used figures from the 2006 international literacy study carried out by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada to launch a national project to improve standards. By the way, neither it nor any of the media organisations that covered the story noted that the figures were three years old and had been used before.

The information, sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' website, shows that only 56 per cent of Australians aged 15-74 have the prose literacy skills needed to satisfactorily carry out everyday life and work demands. People with a qualification do better and literacy levels rise significantly according to the number of years of formal education people have, so the universities must be doing something right. However, the levels of literacy that the study reveals are surprisingly low, even among university graduates.

From 31 August to 6 September, the Federal Government ran a National Literacy and Numeracy Week, with the theme "Getting the Basics Right". It was aimed at schools, naturally, although we are starting to teach basic grammar and writing skills at university because so many students appear to get through secondary school without them.

We have to start at the tertiary level to train future schoolteachers, writers, editors and business people so they in turn can teach others.

Of course, there's also a place for adult literacy education outside university, and perhaps more attention should be paid to this underfunded area, which often relies on the goodwill of volunteers (or people who agree to token payments) at community centres.

Literacy has become a complex issue. It seems too simplistic to say that half of Australians can't read well enough to understand a newspaper. I think it's more often a matter of attention and concentration.

For example, all my students can read. Yet a significant proportion of them - up to 40 per cent - in all the units I've taught over the past two years at two different institutions have had problems spelling my name. Some don't remember it at all, even after months of weekly classes. This is despite the fact that it is emblazoned on the front of my lecture slides, which are uploaded weekly online, and is featured on the unit guides. I also write it on the whiteboard and explain its origins and pronunciation to them, often to no avail.

This is not because they cannot read: they simply haven't concentrated hard enough to remember it. These days, with information a keystroke away, there is no need to remember most of it - we simply need to know how to source it.

But there is still a place for memorising information, as students' problems remembering teachers' names demonstrate. Reading to retain knowledge is still important, and paying attention to what you read is fundamental to understanding bus timetables, newspapers and instructions on medicine bottles.

So perhaps we need a National Concentration and Attention to Detail Week, too.

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