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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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The Accelerated Literacy Program in the Northern Territory

The literacy levels of Indigenous students continue to raise serious issues for educators. Nationally, in the year 2000, approximately 7 out of 10 Indigenous students achieved the Year 3 reading benchmark, compared to an overall average of 9 out of 10. In Year 5, just over 6 out of 10 Indigenous students achieved the reading benchmark, compared to the national average of 8.5.

However, the challenges are even more apparent for Indigenous students in the LBOTE (Language Background Other Than English) category. In the Northern Territory in 2002, less than 2 out of 10 students achieved the Year 3 benchmark, while in Year 5 the proportion was just over 2 out of 10. Learning outcomes for this group of students are significantly lower than for any other cohort, demonstrating a strong case for measures to address their specific literacy needs.

The Accelerated Literacy program in the Northern Territory

Accelerated Literacy is a highly supportive approach to English literacy teaching. It was developed by Associate Professor Brian Gray and Wendy Cowey at the University of Canberra, where the program was known as Scaffolding Literacy. The approach, which aims to improve literacy levels for all students who are currently not achieving national benchmarks, has demonstrated significant improvements in education outcomes for Indigenous LBOTE students.

The program was run as a pilot in the Northern Territory from 2001 to June 2003, involving six primary and secondary schools, in urban and remote contexts, in Darwin, Alice Springs and the Katherine region. The demonstrated success of the trial phase has led to considerable interest in expanding the program to other schools.

In 2004 thirteen remote schools have joined the program, with further expansion planned for the next few years.

The teaching approach

The teaching approach allows students to work with texts that are age appropriate.

Quality texts, which have literate features to teach about language meaning and function, are selected. Teachers carefully manage and provide support for students to work intensively on these texts at an equivalent level to their mainstream peers. The teacher works mainly with the whole class, rather than managing small groups or providing work for individuals.

The core program is built around a systematic and progressive approach to literacy development. The approach leads learners through intensive exploration to high-level text comprehension. It pays careful attention to understanding the complex grammar that is encountered in literate text, as opposed to everyday speech.

Teachers orient students towards the text by identifying assumed knowledge and teaching this knowledge specifically. They explain the cultural context of the text, and teach about the specific words and the meanings behind the words. Students are also taught about the author's purpose, the techniques employed and the inferences made.

As students begin to engage successfully with reading, the emphasis shifts to the development of high level decoding, spelling and, eventually, writing strategies. Development across reading, writing and spelling is highly integrated. Children learn to spell and decode words they can already identify, following intensive comprehension work. Furthermore, they learn to use the literate choices they have studied in comprehension activities in their own writing.

Student outcomes

Throughout the pilot, there was a fourfold increase in the average rate of students' reading levels. These students improved from a pre-pilot average reading rate level of 0.42 per year to a rate of 1.78. This means that students previously deemed 'at risk' progressed at a rate that would allow them to attain mainstream expectations.

By the end of the pilot phase, target students who had been more than two years below benchmark literacy levels demonstrated significant gains in literacy competence.

Monitoring of students' literacy development is rigorous. An initial assessment of each student's reading level is done to establish base-line data. Regular assessments of students' reading accuracy on texts studied in class are completed at the end of each term, and after 12 months in the program, students are assessed on their ability to read texts they have not seen before.

Expanding the program nationally and building capacity

With the support of the Territory and Commonwealth governments, the program is being developed and expanded widely in the Northern Territory, and in other jurisdictions currently deploying this approach, which has a strong emphasis on remote area education.

With the wide recognition that this program has achieved, current efforts will focus on moving Accelerated Literacy from a small action research trial to an accessible program.

This will involve a major investment not just in program expansion in more schools, but also in developing systems and resources to ensure the approach can thrive in schools beyond the original research pilots.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Aboriginal students
English language teaching
Language and languages
Northern Territory
Socially disadvantaged
Teaching and learning