English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead.

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension, prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

Equating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

This article was co-written by:
Sally Baker – [Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle] and
Rachel Burke – [Lecturer, University of Newcastle]

 

How do we learn to read?

 The aim of all reading is comprehension

The sign on the public car park in the tiny Tasmanian town of Wynyard reads,

Egress from this carpark is to be via the access lane in the rear.

“Egress?” I wondered.

As my 21-year-old son quipped, perhaps the council had called in the local duke to write its signs. Or at least the local lawyer.

I could say all the words on the sign with very little effort, and with impressive fluency.

That is called decoding.

I had to work a little harder to understand what the sign was saying.

That is called comprehending.

The aim of reading is, of course, comprehension.

In essence, debates around how to best teach reading have been about which comes first, the decoding or the comprehending.

Research concludes these debates are redundant because comprehension and decoding are codependent.

The federal government’s recent proposal, however, for a Year 1 Phonics Screening test – which tests a child’s ability to decode made-up words – appears to support the view that decoding comes before comprehension.

Comprehension, therefore, is deemed irrelevant – at least initially.

So who is right? The researchers or the politicians?

Let’s take a look at what the research tells us about how we learn to read.

Tackling unknown words

It was the first word in the car park sign that threw me. “Egress.”

I used my knowledge of how sounds map on to letters in English to decode it. However, because I couldn’t remember ever hearing the word said out loud, I wasn’t sure if I was decoding it correctly.

It might be EE-gress or ee-GRESS, EGG-ress, or egg-RESS. It is the first, apparently. I Googled it later.

In any case my decoding efforts didn’t help me understand what the word means. In order for decoding skills to be of any use in reading, children need an excellent vocabulary to which they can cross reference as they attempt to decode.

Tip 1: teach phonics through words already in the children’s vocabulary.

Building children’s vocabularies

Before we rush out and start teaching children lists of vocabulary, words in lists are not enough.

If someone had shown me “egress” by itself on a flashcard, I might have guessed it was a bird.

Luckily, “egress” was in a full sentence on a sign in front of a car park, and all of that context helped me comprehend the word.

Without context, words are just letters on a page. This is because all words in English are polysemic – they have multiple meanings depending upon the context.

The wind in my hair. My baby has wind.

And some words keep their spelling but change their pronunciation as well as their meaning.

I’d like to wind you up. I need to wind my clock. Why do I always **wind **up doing the dishes.

Tip 2: build your children’s vocabulary by talking and reading to them so that they encounter words in all their many and varied guises. Seeing a word in many different contexts is more important than just seeing the word flashed at you many times.

Grammar matters

The grammar of the parking sign in Wynyard also helped my comprehension.

I had figured out from the context that “egress” meant either entry or exit. I hear a lot of language so I understand how words “collocate” in English – that is, how some words always hang out together grammatically. My experience with the language meant I knew that we exit “from” and enter “into”.

The more we hear and read real language, the more we learn about how word order works in English.

Tip 3: teach reading through real books with real language so that children learn the rhythm and patterns of English grammar.

Experience counts

I relied on my experience as a driver to look around and see that a median strip in the road would make “egress” from the front of the car park tricky. Life experience helps us read too.

If I write I live in a studio apartment in San Jose, your interpretation of where I live will depend upon whether you understand a studio apartment to be a basement bedsit, or penthouse bachelor pad. It will depend on whether you understand San Jose to be an affluent tech hub or an working class industrial city.

The words alone cannot carry all the meaning of my message. You bring your life experience to the task of reading my words.

Tip 4: give children lots of real life experiences and talk to them about what they see. Trips out and about, and chats about things beyond their everyday environment are important.

Are we giving poor readers the help they need?

Good readers have a full repertoire of skills, each dependent upon the other.

  • They have excellent oral language and a wide vocabulary. They know what words mean and this helps them decode.
  • They can decode and this helps them locate the word in their existing vocabulary.
  • They know the structure of English through exposure to authentic complex written and spoken language.
  • They use rich life experiences to support their comprehension of written texts.

Poor readers need all of these skills too. Yet our interventions for poor readers typically only address one skill – decoding.

Our declining results in international tests of literacy show us that our 15 year olds can decode but they can’t comprehend.

Until we pay full attention to all the other reading skills, the decline will continue.

This article was written by:
Misty Adoniou – [Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra]

How animals can help autistic children

 And they call it puppy love

Daniel the “emotional support duck” is a pretty big deal, both in the animal and human world. His 15 minutes of fame began after he was spotted on a flight in the US – from Charlotte to Asheville, North Carolina – waddling around the plane in a nappy and some stylish red shoes.

He is said to help his 37-year-old owner, Carla Fitzgerald, battle the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she has had since an accident in 2013.

The use of “emotional support animals” has become big business recently – particularly in the US – and it’s not just ducks like Daniel that humans have claimed make a helpful addition to their day-to-day lives.

There have also been reports of emotional support pigs, cats, turkeys, chickens and even miniature horses. It seems that all types of animals are increasingly being used to assist patients – in the belief they can help people with autism, PTSD and other conditions function in their everyday lives.

But of course, despite this new wave of popularity, interacting with animals has long been considered to be good for people. There has also been issues raised with the number of animals used in this way – with some animal researchers raising animal welfare concerns. Therapists have also expressed their concern at the rise of “emotional support animals” – with many in the profession feeling not all of the animals used are legitimate “support animals”.

Loving pets

“Emotional support animal” or “pet” aside, it is maybe obvious that one of the main benefits that comes from a friendship with animals is that they are a source of “non-verbal” and “non-judgmental” companionship for both adults and children. These are friends who will be there for us day in day out. Friends who will always be up for a walk or a chin rub, or a game of fetch.

Many pet owners also describe the “social lubricant” effect of their pet – reporting lower incidences of loneliness and depression.

Dog owners typically – but not always – have higher levels of physical exercise than non-owners. And animal contact is often associated with exposure to the outdoors and natural stimuli – which is considered to be beneficial for human health and welbeing.

Novel situations and experiences also often result from animal interactions – which can create enjoyable and motivational learning opportunities for children.

Fiver

Contact with animals is also widely regarded as an essential and natural part of childhood. I still remember my very first pet rabbit with deep affection. That rabbit “Fiver” – yes, I was a Watership Down fan – represented my first real responsibility for another living being. She was also a great friend and confidant.

And it is this realisation, that animals can be good for children’s development that explains why so many recent studies have focused on animal and children interactions.

This has led to animals increasingly being viewed and employed as useful partners in the educational and emotional development of children. There are now, for example, many schemes where children read to dogs to develop their reading skills with a canine “listener”.

Dogs can be great listeners and play pals. 

But while dogs and horses are the most commonly used species for therapeutic and educational interactions, a range of other animals – ducks and miniature horses aside – have also been used successfully.

A recent study, for example, examined how interactions with classroom guinea pigs impacted on children with autism. And it was shown that for these children, spending time with the guinea pigs resulted in significantly improved social skills and motivation for learning.

Animal attributes

There are also other identified developmental benefits for children interacting with animals. Evidence suggests that children exposed to animals may have improved immune systems and a reduced incidence of allergies.

Therapy animals have also been shown to reduce pain in hospitalised children. And animals appear to enhance the social, emotional and cognitive development of children and aid the development of empathy. Exposure to companion animals has additionally been shown to boost levels of responsibility, self esteem and autonomy in children.

And then she said what? 

But of course, despite the benefits to both children and adults, the welfare of animals used in therapeutic, educational or other interactions, is also important.

Swimming with dolphins and direct encounters with other exotic species has previously attracted attention for therapeutic value – especially for children with physical and intellectual disabilities – though recent gudielines now strongly advise against the use of such species. This is both due to animal welfare concerns and concerns for human participants.

This is why any animal involved in such interactions needs positive and ethical training, along with high health and welfare standards. All of which will help to make sure that the animals people are engaging with in these environments are happy animals – which can then in turn help to create happy humans.

This article was written by:

Can a four-year-old be sexist?

 Children are exposed to gender differences and expectations from the moment they are born

The Victorian government has announced it plans to teach its Respectful Relationship program to preschoolers as a way to target and prevent sexist behaviour among children aged three and four years old.

The program – which is taught to teenagers in schools – more broadly aims to tackle issues around family violence, and also to develop young people’s social skills and promote respectful relationships.

The justification for extending this program into preschool settings, according to the document released by the state government, is that

as young children learn about gender, they may also begin to enact sexist values, beliefs and attitudes that may contribute to disrespect and gender inequality.

But can children at that age be sexist? When is it that children are aware of gender differences – and what makes them act on it?

When do children become aware of their gender?

Researchers have shown that by age one (and in some studies, as early as three months old), children show clear preferences for gender-consistent toys (eg trucks for boys, dolls for girls). This occurs even if they have only been exposed to gender-neutral toys, or had equal access to both “boys” and “girls” toys.

So, does this mean that kids as young as three months are aware of their gender?

No. It’s not until about age three that children have a basic understanding of gender identity – but even then, it’s pretty tenuous.

At this age, it’s not uncommon for kids to still be confused regarding gender – for example, a girl thinking she will grow up to be a man, or a boy referring to his mum as “him”.

However, the emergence of basic gender identity helps us to explain why by age three children prefer to play with same-sex peers and engage in gender-stereotyped play.

Researchers have suggested that this shows children understand the differences between genders and are aware that they “fit” better with one gender than the other.

Gender constancy – that is understanding that being male or female is a fixed personal attribute – does not develop completely until around age six to seven.

Gender constancy develops as a result of cognitive development (so children are able to understand more abstract concepts like gender), as well as learning about social expectations for their behaviour. Psychologists refer to this as “socialisation.

By age three, children prefer to play with same-sex peers. 

…and of gender differences and expectations?

Few people would think they encouraged gender-stereotyped play and behaviours in children. But remember the old saying “do as I say, not as I do”? It’s pretty apt here.

Kids imitate the behaviours of important role models in their lives: parents, caregivers and teachers alike.

This is particularly strong when the role model is of the same sex – girls are more likely to model the behaviours of adult females and boys of adult males.

So, even if we tell them that “girls can do anything boys can do”, if they only ever see dad but never mum doing vehicle maintenance, the words may not have much impact.

It’s not like parents wake up one day and decide “today is the day I make my gender expectations clear to my child”. It’s much less dramatic than that.

The reality is that we reinforce gender differences and expectations every day without even meaning to, through observational learning processes.

Think about your own life. Are there chores and activities that seem to fall along gender lines? Taking the bins out, doing the ironing and cooking, for example.

I doubt there was a discussion in which you divided up the chores based on gender. It probably just “became habit”. As such you never really questioned it – much like gender expectations in children.

Children are exposed to gender differences and expectations from the moment they are born. Over time this information is internalised to inform their understanding of how the world works – with early understandings about gender differences and expectations emerging by age three.

Helping this process along is the way we (often indadvertently) reinforce gendered behaviours, by providing approval for those behaviours that are gender-consistent (eg, praising a boy for not crying when he is hurt), and disapproval for those that are not (eg, discouraging rough-and-tumble play for a girl).

This means that by the time they achieve the concept of gender constancy by around age six to seven, their understanding of gender differences and expectations are also well established.

Kids are incredibly fast learners – even when we don’t realise that teaching has taken place.

Complicating this is that children filter information according to what their brain can make sense of.

Pink bike = girl’s toy? 

At age three to four, children demonstrate very “black-and-white” thinking – things are good or bad, right or wrong. What this means about gender is that they think in terms of “girl or boy”, and categorise their world (eg toys, clothes, activities) accordingly.

If this type of thinking was shown in an adult, who has more flexible thinking patterns – they can see shades of grey – it would be considered sexist. In kids of this age, it’s normal.

In and of itself, this is not a problem. It’s a normal developmental process. The problem arises when expectations about gender and gender differences lead to gender inequality.

Gender inequality has been shown to increase the risk of gender-based violence.

Proponents argue that this is where the Respectful Relationship program comes into play.

By providing an environment in which gender equality is both taught and modelled, it is argued that beliefs about gender and gender differences can be changed to support more respectful relationships with others from a young age, and decrease the risk of sexist and violent behaviour in the future.

If we’re talking about educating four-year-olds about this issue, it’s really more about what they see than what we say.

They don’t need to know what sexism is – the fact is, they won’t understand it if you try.

What is important is that we promote respect for all, without pathologising normal developmental processes. It’s okay that young boys like to play with boys, and girls like to play with girls; that boys like to play with trucks, and girls like to play with dolls. It’s not sexist, it’s a normal part of growing up.

So, can young children knowingly be sexist?

The fact that a four-year-old has a basic understanding of gender differences and expectations, and behaves according to this knowledge, is not the same as deliberately engaging in sexist behaviour. It simply reflects what they have seen, and what they are able to understand.

Their intention is to make sense of their world and how they fit in it – not to hurt or disempower others.

In a world where actions speak louder than words, it is not what you say but what you do that will shape your child’s gender expectations. Model and promote gender equality.

They may not know what sexist behaviour is at four, but this way they’ll be less likely to demonstrate it at 14.

This article was written by Dr. Kimberley Norris [Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Tasmania]

 

Does bad weather affect student performance in school?

All schools were closed throughout south-east Queensland due to severe rain. 

All schools in south-east Queensland, and many in northern New South Wales, have been closed following tropical cyclone Debbie, which hit the area this week causing large-scale destruction.

An increase in extreme and unpredictable weather events in Australia continues to occur, which often disrupts students’ attendance at school.

In July 2015, over 40 schools were closed in the Blue Mountains and Southern Highlands of NSW due to a snowstorm.

In June 2016, around 12 schools closed in New South Wales due to a weekend of storms.

Power outages due to severe weather in South Australia in September 2016 forced schools to shut.

Bushfires across southern Western Australia in November 2016 caused several schools to close.

In Tasmania, schools have even had to close due to high winds and heavy rainfall.

Despite these examples, there is little statistical information on the number of unplanned closures that take place in Australian schools.

So are students losing out from school closures?

It’s obvious, but to get the most out of education, students should go to school every day. In cases of extreme whether, students don’t always have that option.

However, research shows that authorised absences from school (such as during extreme weather) are less problematic for students than absences that are not authorised (no explanation or reasoning).

This is because unauthorised absences tend to reflect patterns and behaviours of student disengagement, or the possible negative attitudes of parents towards education that students adopt and carry with them through schooling.

The level of impact on students’ educational performance is all to do with the length of time that a student is absent from school and how regularly this occurs.

Missing school on a regular basis is a problem though

Research shows that absence from school on a regular basis has a negative impact on numeracy, reading and writing performance.

Students who miss more than 10% of school days across a school year or 10 days per term are at risk of poorer academic achievement.

In New South Wales, the average absence rate for public school students in 2013 was approximately 7%, which suggests that additional days off can be placing students at educational risk.

Little research on impact of unplanned school closures

Until 2014, there had been little international evidence of the frequency, causes, and characteristics of unplanned school closures, despite the impact of extreme weather events on students and their school communities.

The research that investigated school closures was largely based around the prevention of contagious illnesses such as influenza.

In the US from 2011 to 2013, it was revealed that there were almost 21,000 unplanned school closures – 16,000 of these resulting from extreme weather (this affected around 27 million students).

And reports show that state-wide assessment results in the US tended to be lower in areas where schools had to make unplanned closures to snowfall, compared to other years when schools didn’t have to close.

Wet weather

Even if the weather isn’t bad enough to spark closures, it can still disrupt the school day.

Wet weather, in particular, means that students are less likely to take part in or enjoy, physical education and recess time activities, for example.

If such weather occurs on a regular basis, it makes it harder for school students to meet the national physical activity guidelines, which are designed to ensure kids are keeping sufficiently active.

It’s important, then, for the schools to cater for these situations and provide spacious, well equipped indoor school spaces to ensure kids can still take part in physical education and recess time activities.

Wet weather can also be stressful for teachers in primary schools who have to keep children safe while they play outside on slippery surfaces.

Learn at home instead?

Similar to the online learning platforms used for rural/distance teaching programs in Australia, there are online school learning programs in place in the US for students to learn at home during school closures.

During this time, teachers can communicate with students and parents and provide them with updates, and also set students work to do.

This article was written by – Brendon Hyndman [Academic in Health and Physical Education, Southern Cross University]

 

Forget quinoa and kale, these basic foods for your kids’ lunch box will give them the nutrition they need

Nutritional lunches can be achieved with simple core foods such as bread, fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat, fish or egg

 

With the start of another school year upon us, parents are preparing themselves for the constant task of making lunch boxes.

Many parents feel pressure to include superfoods in the lunch box, which can be costly and impractical, especially if their child doesn’t like them! Yet while superfoods are hyped everywhere as being essential items, nutritionally they are not that different to other fruit and vegetables.

For many families, just getting something into a lunch box is super enough.

Australian children are going hungry more frequently than you or I would like to believe. In 2013, 15% of Australian children went to school without breakfast. And almost one in 10 children will not eat for an entire day on a regular basis.

Hunger in children has numerous psychological and behavioural consequences, and can have a lifelong impact on learning. Children who skip meals are more likely to be overweight, have a lower intake of fruit and vegetables, and can be more inactive.

Lunch box stigma

There is also a lot of social stigma attached to what does (or doesn’t) go in the lunch box.

Children can be embarrassed as they are seen as different; parents too are embarrassed when schools do not understand their situation, leading to children staying home from school.

Teachers must often negotiate the minefield of school lunches; it’s a tricky task when what is in the lunchbox may be the culmination of complex factors including food insecurity, socioeconomic and cultural factors and family dynamics.

Teachers are called on to inspire health in their students and implement policies that do not consider all of these complexities.

Super school lunches can be achieved not by the addition of a quinoa salad with blueberries and kale, but with simple core foods such as bread, fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat, fish or egg.


Lunch boxes don’t have to be fancy to be healthy.

A lunch box consisting of a Vegemite sandwich on brown bread, a banana, biscuits and cheese, and a carrot (in the context of some meat or fish at dinner), while not as glamorous or apparently super, can fulfil a child’s nutritional needs at school and keep them energetic and alert.

What super lunches do need is both preparation and planning.

The myriad of snack foods in supermarkets are confusing as many are labelled as healthy choices but in fact contain large amount of sugar, salt or fat and have minimal fibre.

Supposedly healthy choices can also result in inadvertent but significant boosts to daily calorie intake. For example, a large smoothie (while a better choice) can contain as many calories as a Big Mac.

Other considerations when packing a lunch box are ease and speed of eating. Young kids in particular are keen to get out to the playground and won’t appreciate the time it takes to eat large salads or chia seed puddings.

It’s worth planning ahead when making lunches.

Food safety

Food safety is also important as hot Australian summers will turn your beautiful chicken or green smoothie into something very unpalatable (and potentially dangerous) by lunchtime. An ice brick in the lunch box will help, but some foods just aren’t good to send in the lunch box over summer.

If you are struggling for ideas, lots of websites offer suggestions, including KidSpot, Better Health Channel and the Raising Children Network.

If you are able to provide a nutritious breakfast each morning, send a lunch box with mostly non-processed fresh foods to school. Provide a snack and an evening meal along similar lines, and you are doing a super job.

This article was co-written by:
Evelyn Volders [Adv APD, Senior Lecturer/Course Convenor in Nutrition and Dietetics, Monash University] and
Zoe Davidson
[Lecturer / Research Dietitian, Monash University]

What languages should children be learning to get ahead?

The languages children learn in school might not be the most useful for their future

There are 7,099 known languages in the world today. Choosing which of these to teach our children as a second language is an important decision, but one that may be based more on feelings than facts.

There are several different ways of thinking about what languages we should offer at school. Research suggests that Australian school children may not be studying the right ones.

The world’s most commonly spoken languages

If sheer numbers of speakers is our primary consideration, and we want our children to learn languages that have the most speakers, then – excluding English – the three most commonly spoken languages are Mandarin (898 million), Spanish (437 million) and Arabic (295 million).

The languages of emerging economies

If the focus of language learning is to improve business prospects, then one strategy would to be to select those that are spoken in the fastest-growing emerging economies in the world.

At the beginning of the millennium, the four big investment countries were seen to be Brazil, Russia, India and China.

The mood seems to have swung, however, and a recent report of top emerging economies now lists the top three as India, Indonesia and Malaysia. Thus the top three would be Hindi, Indonesian and Malaysian.

The languages for travel

English remains firmly at the top of the list of languages useful for travel (spoken in 106 different countries). Other than English, the languages spoken in the highest number of countries are Arabic (57), French (53) and Spanish (31). This is the only list on which French, a popular choice with Australian students, is included in the top three.

The languages of Australia’s trade partners

Australia’s top two-way trading partners are China, Japan, the US and South Korea. Excluding the US – a predominantly English-speaking country – the top three second languages from a bilateral trade perspective would be Mandarin, Japanese and Korean.

The languages of other Australians

Another way to consider importance is to think about the languages most commonly spoken as second languages where we live. This can be measured at various levels. The top three second languages in Australia are Mandarin, Italian and Arabic.

Comparing ‘the best’ with what Australian school children actually learn

So how does our list of possible “best” second languages line up with the languages that are actually studied in Australian schools?

Of the ten “best languages” we have identified on our various lists, seven are in the top ten languages studied in Australian schools. However, three – Hindi, Malaysian and Korean – are not studied widely. And three of the most commonly studied languages in Australia – German, Greek, and Vietnamese – are not on any of the top three lists.



Why the difference?

There are a number of historical reasons that may explain this disparity between the two lists.

Greek and German, for instance, were historically important second languages in Australia. Now the communities that speak these languages in Australia are much smaller in number in comparison with communities that speak Mandarin and Arabic. Our languages education has not kept up with changes in demography.

Japanese is another interesting case in point. It is the most commonly studied language in Australia. The push for Japanese in schools began in the late 1970s, gaining momentum with strong government funding in the 1980s. During the years that have followed, South Korea has moved up into fourth position in bilateral trade.

Despite government funding in 2008 to promote learning Korean, along with Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian, this has not resulted in strong numbers studying Korean at schools in Australia. Again, languages education seems to be having trouble keeping up.

Who decides what languages to offer?

In Australia, each state has jurisdiction over which languages to offer in their schools, and so the regulations differ slightly.

In Queensland, for example, the Department of Education and Training instructs principals to make decisions about the choice of language, in consultation with their school communities.

Part of the complexity around making these decisions is that it takes many years to train school teachers who are capable of teaching languages. Therefore it is difficult to respond quickly to changes in demand for different languages to be taught at schools.

Some innovative strategies

One innovative Australian project addresses this issue by recruiting elderly migrant language tutors with local school students, meeting the need for competent language tutors, and having the added bonus of providing these migrants with the opportunity to feel they are making meaningful contributions to their new communities.

Another project which began in the US uses digital technology to pair up students as peer tutors: each student is a fluent speaker of the language the other is trying to learn. The effectiveness of this, and other digital strategies, have not yet been fully investigated in the Australian school context.

Where to from here?

Given the rapid changes in the status of languages across the globe, it is critically important to regularly review the languages that are offered and promoted to students at schools, and to explore innovative approaches to these languages.

In this way, we can maximise the opportunities for children to learn languages that will be of practical advantage to them into the future.


This article was written by Warren Midgley [Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland]

It’s not what sport children play, but how they play it that matters

Are we in fact lost the meaning of sport when it comes to our kids?

Sport is massive and it’s everywhere: on TV, in videogames, and on the streets. As a consequence, myths about the inherent greatness of sport have grown. One such myth is the belief that sport itself is ideally suited to help disadvantaged young people develop “socially” and “psychologically”. And that sport is capable of teaching “teamwork” or “leadership”.

It is frequent to hear phrases such as “rugby teaches discipline”, or “football teaches teamwork”. And what these sentences have in common is the assumption that there is an inherent, almost magical, quality in both rugby and football.

On the basis of this assumption, disadvantaged young people are encouraged to join youth sport programmes which use sport as an educational tool. The goal of these programmes – which are frequently run by charities– is to develop young people into “good citizens” by teaching them “life skills” – like teamwork or discipline.

Unfortunately though it isn’t quite that simple.

The value of sport

While hearing someone say “rugby teaches leadership” does not sound jarring, if one of your friends were to suggest that “finger painting teaches leadership”, you would stare at them in disbelief.

The source of this disbelief stems from what have become commonsense understandings about the value of sport. These understandings are that sport “naturally” teaches “leadership”, “teamwork”, or “critical thinking”.

In turn, these commonsense understandings have become deeply entrenched in the way society values sport. Though there is evidence that sport – when delivered appropriately – can help young people develop, the picture is more complex.

Can hockey really improve children’s leadership skills?

For instance, one of the most popular perceptions about the value of team sports is that they teach “teamwork”. But what about when young players become frustrated at teammates for having inferior technical and tactical skills?

It may well be that not a great deal of teamwork is being learned when these proficient players make less skilled teammates feel inadequate and unwelcome because of their limited ability. And this is why we should be cautious about the assumed educational value of rugby (or any other sport) over any other activity – like finger painting.

I respect you, you respect me

But despite all this, charities frequently document cases of young people developing life skills such as confidence and determination through sport. The voluntary sector are certainly not making these results up, so as part of my PhD research I wanted to explore this link between sport and young people’s development. I interviewed coaches and young people (aged 12-15) at a youth sports charity as well as observing coaching sessions.

The young people I spoke to, highlighted their devotion for their coaches because they felt these adults cared about them as human beings. Coaches established a relationship summarised by a young girl as:

It’s not you respect me. It’s an I respect you, you respect me thing.


It was clear that the young people also loved the activity they did. They loved playing a particular sport, alongside a particular coach. Young people also expressed why having a sense of belonging mattered to them. They liked the environment of their coaching sessions and felt welcomed in it. It was a space where they could participate in an activity they enjoyed, with people they liked, all while feeling part of something bigger.

The hidden variable

Through observing and talking to young people and their coaches, I found that while sport itself does not improve young people’s development, the “hidden” variables of passion, relationships and a sense of belonging, genuinely do. So when it comes to young people’s social and psychological development, the focus should not be on which sport to play, but on how sport is used.

Create meaningful relationships and foster a sense of belonging.

If a youth sport programme focuses on unlocking young people’s passion, developing meaningful relationships and fostering a sense of belonging, these programmes can be extraordinarily powerful.

What this means is that sport can be a great educational tool, but so can many other interests or pursuits. And instilling passion, relationships, and a sense of belonging is something any activity – such as finger painting or stamp collecting – can achieve. As the saying goes “it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, and that couldn’t be more apparent.

This article was written by Ioannis Costas Batile [PhD Researcher in Education, University of Bath]

‘I don’t want to be teased’ – why bullied children are reluctant to seek help from teachers

Students are more reluctant to seek help from teachers than from friends or parents

In Australia approximately one student in five is bullied at school every few weeks or more often. Many of these students suffer serious emotional and psychological harm, such as persistent anxiety, depression and suicidal thinking, and are unable to concentrate on their school work. It is clear they need help.

Teachers routinely inform students that if they are being bullied at school they should seek help from a trusted adult, such as a teacher or school counsellor.

A new two-part ABC documentary, Bullied addresses the question of how victimised students can receive help from their school.

Part one of the documentary describes the intense suffering of an adolescent victim and the frustration and anguish of his family in finding that the school is not taking any effective action to deal with the case. They do however allow the documentary makers to gather help and support for the unfortunate student through a group meeting with his peers.

This approach proves to be successful. But why did the school fail to provide such help? One possibility is that students are reluctant to go to teachers for help. Another is that teachers lack the skill to stop the bullying from going on.

Students seek help from peers over teachers

Some new research, based on an online survey of 1,688 students in Years 5 to 10, provides data on how many bullied students actually do seek help – and from whom.

Of the 631 students who reported that they had been bullied at one time or another at school, over half (53%) said they sought help from other students in the first instance. Slightly fewer (51%) went to their parents. But what is revealing is that only 38% said they would go to teachers or counsellors for help.

Students appear far more reluctant to seek help from teachers than from other people.

Given that school authorities are strategically placed to observe what happens between their students, and to work with students who are being bullied, – including perpetrators, victims, bystanders and others – it is surprising that they are not the first port of call for distressed students.

Why don’t students want to approach teachers?

The survey provided some explanations from students who were bullied and did not seek help from teachers.

Here’s a summary of the themes that emerged, and a few quotes from the students themselves:

  1. Uncertainty about the role of teachers in addressing cases of bullying.

    “It is none of their business.” “They are here to teach us.”
  2. Bullying is a personal matter.

    “I don’t feel comfortable telling someone I don’t really know.”
    “There is no-one in the school I can trust.”

  3. Lack of belief that they would take the bullying seriously.

    “They might laugh. I have seen them brush off students’ problems.”
  4. Fear of repercussions.

    “I don’t want to be teased because I told a teacher.”
  5. Not wishing to get others into trouble.

    “The people (the bullies) were my friends and I don’t want to lose them.”
  6. A sense of personal inadequacy.

    “I would feel weak and embarrassed.”
  7. Having a preferred option.

    “I can get help from friends and parents.”

So should teachers intervene to stop bullying? According to the survey, telling a teacher produced no better outcomes than telling a friend or a parent.

In approximately 70% of cases – where students sought help from a teacher – the bullying continued, though in some cases at a reduced rate. According to students, telling a parent or a friend has fewer potential drawbacks.
These findings point to the inadequacy of pre-service and in-service training provided to teachers to counter bullying.

Research shows that teachers often rely too heavily on:

  • anti-bullying policies that are not adequately implemented
  • the teaching of social and emotional skills to all students, a desirable initiative but hardly the solution for what to do when bullying actually occurs
  • the use of discredited methods of intervention, such as the use of punishment, sometimes repackaged as “consequences”.

As revealed by the Australia study, teachers are generally unacquainted with more effective problem-solving approaches to bullying which involve working closely with perpetrators, victims and other students.
A few approaches that could work for teachers

Although restorative practices have in recent years been increasingly adopted and employed in some schools, other demonstrably effective intervention methods such as the Support Group Method and the Method of Shared Concern are virtually unknown.

Rather than just passing on tips to teachers on how to handle cases of bullying, systematic teacher education is needed to inform teachers of the different intervention methods now available and how each can be effectively applied.

Recognising that bullying is a problem of dysfunctional relationships is the starting point.

The solution, often overlooked, lies in helping students themselves to think about the difficulties they may encounter in relating to each other and especially the agony experienced by victims of bullying – and then to reach a collective agreement on how to act to ensure that no-one is harmed.

Trust issues

There remains the problem of students often finding it inappropriate, futile or counterproductive in telling a teacher or counsellor.

This is due, in part, to the quality of the relationships that students typically have with school staff, especially in secondary schools.

Students commonly report it is hard for them to find teachers they can trust and with whom they can share their personal concerns. Arguably relationships would improve if more teachers were seen as actually having the skills to provide effective help.

Teachers almost unanimously told us that the training they have received to address bullying was far from adequate, especially in providing little or no help in how to handle actual cases.

But cases of bullying are often far from easy to resolve. They may have their roots in the darker side of human nature and frustrations experienced in the home and in the wider community.

What teachers can do will always be limited – but can be far less limited than is the case at present.

This article was written by Kenneth Rigby [Adjunct Professor, University of South Australia]

Children prefer to read books on paper rather than screens

Children may actually prefer reading books the traditional way

There is a common perception that children are more likely to read if it is on a device such as an iPad or Kindles. But new research shows that this is not necessarily the case.

In a study of children in Year 4 and 6, those who had regular access to devices with eReading capability (such as Kindles, iPads and mobile phones) did not tend to use their devices for reading – and this was the case even when they were daily book readers.

Research also found that the more devices a child had access to, the less they read in general.

It suggests that providing children with eReading devices can actually inhibit their reading, and that paper books are often still preferred by young people.

These findings match previous research which looked at how teenagers prefer to read. This research found that while some students enjoyed reading books on devices, the majority of students with access to these technologies did not use them regularly for this purpose. Importantly, the most avid book readers did not frequently read books on screens.

Why do we think children prefer to read on screens?

There is a popular assumption that young people prefer to read on screens. This was mainly driven by education writer Marc Prensky who in 2001 coined the term “digital natives”. This term characterises young people as having high digital literacy and a uniform preference for screen-based reading.

But young people do not have a uniform set of skills, and the contention that screens are preferred is not backed up by research.

Despite this, the myth has already had an impact on book resourcing decisions at school and public libraries, both in Australia and in the US, with some libraries choosing to remove all paper books in response to a perceived greater preference for eBooks.

But by doing this, libraries are actually limiting young people’s access to their preferred reading mode, which in turn could have a detrimental impact on how often they choose to read.

Young people are gaining increasing access to devices through school-promoted programs, and parents face aggressive marketing to stay abreast of educational technologies at home.

Schools are motivated to increase device use, with Information and Communication Technology being marked as a general capability to be demonstrated across every subject area in the Australian Curriculum.

The drivers toward screen-based recreational book reading are strong, but they are not well-founded.

Why are students more likely to prefer paper books?

Reading on devices through an application leaves more room to be distracted, allowing the user to switch between applications.

For students who already experience difficulty with attention, the immediate rewards of playing a game may easily outweigh the potentially longer-term benefits of reading.

Digital literacy could also be an issue. In order to use a device to read books, children need to know how to use their devices for the purpose of reading books.

They need to know how to access free reading material legally through applications such as Overdrive or websites such as Project Gutenburg.

Tips for encouraging your child to read

Research shows that reading books is a more effective way to both improve and retain literacy skills, as opposed to simply reading other types of text. Yet international research suggests that young people are reading fewer and fewer books.

While equipping children with devices that have eReading capability is unlikely to encourage them to read, there are a number of strategies, supported by research, that can help encourage children to pick up a book. These include:

  • Encourage regular silent reading of books at school and at home. Giving children time to read at school not only encourages a routine of reading, but it also may be the only opportunity a child has to read self-selected books for pleasure.
  • Be seen to enjoy reading. This study found that a number of students did not know if their literacy teachers actually liked reading. Teachers who were keen readers inspired some students to read more often and take an interest in a broader range of books.
  • Create (and regularly access) reading-friendly spaces at home and at school. Loud noises, poor lighting and numerous distractions will not help provide an enjoyable reading experience, and are likely to lead to frustration.
  • Teachers and parents should talk about books, sharing ideas and recommendations.
  • Continue to encourage your child and students to read for pleasure. While we know that children tend to become disengaged with books over time, in some cases this can be due to withdrawal of encouragement once children can read on their own. This leads children to falsely assume that reading is no longer important for them. Yet reading remains important for both children an adults to build and retain literacy skills.​
  • Find out what your child enjoys reading, and support their access to books at school and at home.


This article was co-written by:
Margaret Kristin Merga
[Lecturer and Researcher in Adolescent Literacy, Health Promotion and Education, Murdoch University] and
Saiyidi Mat Roni
[Lecturer, Edith Cowan University]