Australian Council for Educational Research

Language and Literacy

While Australia has no official language, English is the language spoken by the majority of the Australian population. Proficiency in standard Australian English is essential for effective social, economic, and cultural participation in Australian society. English is the language of instruction for the majority of school students.

Language diversity is a key characteristic of the Australian population; the 2011 census reported that almost 400 languages were spoken in homes across Australia.1 Close to 77 percent of Australia’s population spoke English at home, a decrease from 82 percent in 1996. The five most common languages other than English in 2011 were Mandarin (accounting for 1.6 percent of the population), Italian (1.4 percent), Arabic (1.3 percent), Cantonese (1.2 percent), and Greek (1.2 percent). Of these languages, Mandarin, Arabic, and Cantonese showed increases in the number of speakers since 1996 with 52 percent, 18 percent, and 8 percent growth, respectively. The recent growth of Asian languages and the decline of European ones reflect trends in the birthplaces of Australia’s foreign born population. Lastly, almost 62,000 people spoke an Australian Indigenous language at home (including Australian Creoles), totaling 15 percent of all Indigenous Australians and less than 1 percent of the total Australian population.

For the past two decades, the goal of improving literacy and numeracy achievement for all students has been central to the educational policies of the Commonwealth, state, and territory governments. The emphasis on literacy and numeracy can be traced through a sample of key policy statements and initiatives from 1997 to the present.

In 1997, all Australian education ministers agreed to a national literacy and numeracy goal: “Every child leaving primary school should be numerate and be able to read, write, and spell at an appropriate level.”2 A related subgoal states that “every child commencing school from 1998 will achieve a minimally acceptable literacy and numeracy standard within four years.”

In 2005, following an extensive national inquiry, the Teaching Reading report was released, offering best practices in effective approaches to literacy teaching and learning at the classroom level and in the training of teachers.3 Among the recommendations in the report was the assertion that teaching of literacy and reading should be grounded in findings from rigorous evidence-based research.

In 2008, the Australian education ministers agreed to the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, affirming that literacy, numeracy, and knowledge of key disciplines remain the cornerstone of schooling for young Australians.4 Following this, the Australian Education Act 2013 was passed, which contains a broad range of national targets to ensure that Australia remains a high quality and highly equitable system.5

At the end of 2011, all Australian ministers of education agreed to the progressive implementation of the first phase of a national curriculum to be known as the Australian Curriculum. The Australian Curriculum was reviewed in 2014 and, in September 2015, all Australian education ministers endorsed the revised Australian Curriculum in all eight learning areas for Foundation (the first year of schooling) to Year 10.