Australian National Early Literacy Summit 2016

Summary of the event

More than 130 participants from the government, not for profits, charities, libraries, early childhood, health, speech therapy, education, indigenous literacy, publishers, booksellers, social enterprise and other stakeholder groups gathered in Canberra on 7 and 8 March 2016 for the two-day National Early Literacy Summit.

Organised by the Australian Library and Information Association, in partnership with the ALIA  Australian Public Library Alliance, National and State Libraries Australasia, Early Childhood Australia and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, this was the first such gathering in more than a decade and the program of 14 speakers and 12 expert panellists prompted intense debate and discussions.

Coincidentally, the results of the Australian Early Development Census 2015 were announced on the first day of the summit and showed an improvement in early literacy since the introduction of the survey in 2009. In 2009, 23% of five-year-olds were at risk of not developing the literacy skills they need to succeed later in life. In 2015, the figure had fallen to 15%. This was a welcome improvement but showed that there was still a need for early literacy to be a national priority.

Note: Video of the event and speaker presentations are available to summit participants. These will be made available to ALIA Members through the Member portal in June 2016.

Outcomes: early years language and literacy coalition + strategy + national conversation

In summary, the participants agreed to form a coalition with the purpose of developing a national conversation around early language and literacy.

The coalition would be supported by the broad scope of stakeholders in this area and would take into account their diverse perspectives. Its focus would be on the scoping and development of a National Early Language and Literacy Strategy for Australia. A core group would be identified to lead the initiative and manage the mechanics going forward.

The national conversation would be both a political call for concerted action at a federal, state, territory and local level, and a public education campaign targeting parents, caregivers, early childhood agencies and the community.

Download the feedback from participants.

View the results of the pre-summit consultation.



Below you will find presentations from the Australian National Early Literacy Summit which took place 7-8 March 2016 at Hotel Realm, Canberra.

Professor Edward Melhuish, University of Oxford - Global thoughts on early literacy

Dr Dianne Jackson, ARACY - The nest - a national plan for child and youth wellbeing

Samantha Page, Early Childhood Australia - Policy issues - the big picture

Jane Cowell - First 5 forever

Debra Rosenfeldt, State Library Victoria

Kevin Robbie, United Way

Dr Cate Taylor, Telethon Kids Institute & The University of Western Australia Faculty of Education - Longitudinal Study of Australian Children

Dr Emilia Djonov, Macquarie University’s Institute of Early Childhood


Highlights from the discussion

1. What do we mean by ‘early’?

The focus of the summit was 0-5 years, although some speakers referred to 0-8 as ‘early years’. The discussion was about factors affecting children before they started school.

2. Various definitions of literacy

The Early Years Framework definition was felt to encompass the breadth of meanings:

Literacy is the capacity, confidence and disposition to use language in all its forms. Literacy incorporates a range of modes of communication including music, movement, dance, storytelling, visual arts, media and drama, as well as talking, listening, viewing, reading and writing.

3. Diverse range of stakeholders and programs

There are many government departments, agencies and organisations working in the sector, and there is interest from a broad range of stakeholders including those involved in business, education, health, family and social services. An advantage is the volume of capable organisations working in the field; a disadvantage is that local initiatives don’t have the impact and presence of a major national push.

4. Where early literacy sits in the political landscape

Early literacy is vitally important to Australia’s long term economic prosperity, yet because it crosses all three levels of government and various departments (education, family services, health), it is easy for it to fall between the cracks. It will be important to find federal politicians that understand the long term social and economic implications, and who will champion early literacy as a priority for the Australian Government.

5. Early learning provision

Existing early literacy policies and initiatives are bearing fruit. The government has put in place 600 free hours of pre-school for four year olds. Research has shown that there would be significant benefits to extending this to three year olds. We suggest that, through increased support for families as first teachers, outcomes could be improved further.

6. Co-located services

Families who need them most are not accessing services. Research highlighted the potential for co-located services to have a greater impact on outcomes for children. The Children’s Centre model, implemented in the UK, Norway and Denmark, was seen as a possible solution for Australia, bringing together health, family support, library, childcare and early education.

7. Public awareness

A participant said, ‘parents have forgotten that sitting down with children and reading a book is essential for their development’. There is a need for a national awareness campaign with a strong, consistent message about the importance of early language and literacy activities, and to promote understanding of how crucial the very early years are to later literacy outcomes.

8. Professional development

There was concern about the education, language skills and ongoing professional development of people who work in the early years sector. Grants to local government could be used to develop the confidence of people working in early childhood roles. We need to work with tertiary educators to ensure that an understanding of child development and early literacy is included in pre-service training in a number of related professions.

9. Research and data

There was a clear statement about the need for a strong evidence base. The Australian Early Development Census provides a valuable snapshot of five-year-olds every three years but we also need longitudinal studies following the development over time of a specific cohort. The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children is providing some excellent local understanding, but there is still a need for more detailed tracking and measurement. Sharing of data is also an issue, to reduce replication and improve national understanding of how our children and programs are tracking (not only for children at risk of neglect and abuse).

A few days following the Summit, we were pleased to learn that the Productivity Commission announced an inquiry in to the early childhood education evidence base. A great first step!

10. National Early Years Language and Literacy Strategy prompting a national conversation

There is a need for a National Early Language and Literacy Strategy for Australia. This would be the focus for a coalition of organisations involved in the early childhood sector. Arising from this, the national conversation would be both a political call for concerted action at a federal, state, territory and local level, and a public education campaign targeting parents, caregivers, early childhood agencies and the community.