How schools can improve literacy and numeracy performance and why it (still) matters

This report was originally published 20 September 2016.

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This paper examines evidence-based practices that can be implemented by schools to enhance literacy and numeracy performance. Educating students in literacy and numeracy is a key responsibility of schools as literacy and numeracy are ‘foundational skills’ that underpin the subsequent development of more complex skills. Literacy and numeracy skills also underpin workforce participation, productivity and the broader economy, and can impact on social and health outcomes. Individuals without these skills are at risk of not being able to participate in the workforce or engage fully in social and civic life.

Main findings

Intervene early and maintain the focus

Research shows that access to quality early childhood education programs makes a significant and long-term difference to children’s development in many areas, including their cognitive development. Early intervention needs to be followed by continued high quality learning experiences to maintain efficacy. The first three years of school are a peak window within which children develop the literacy and numeracy skills that they will carry into upper primary and secondary school.

Know what students can do and target teaching accordingly

There is a wide range of learning achievement amongst students in Australian schools. Targeted teaching can lift the performance of students who are many years behind and also challenge students who are already well ahead of year- level expectations. In order to implement targeted teaching effectively, teachers need accurate information about what students know and are ready to learn next. This information can be acquired through the use of formative assessment which has been shown to have a significant effect on learning across the spectrum.

Have clear and transparent learning goals

Research shows that having clear and transparent learning goals at both the school and classroom level leads to improvements in learning achievement. Evidence shows that students who experience explicit teaching practices perform better than students who do not. Explicit teaching practice involves teachers clearly showing students what to do and how to do it, rather than having students discover or construct this information for themselves. Well-defined learning continua or progressions support explicit teaching by enabling teachers to understand what is to be learned and to determine accurately students’ current learning achievement.

Focus on teacher professional learning that improves the teaching of literacy and numeracy

High-quality teaching is the greatest in-school influence on student engagement and outcomes. Quality professional learning increases teaching quality. Research indicates that professional learning is most effective if it deepens teachers’ content knowledge and knowledge about how students learn that content; is supported by the wider school community and is seen as part of achieving whole school goals; and is linked to clear and relevant goals that are related to student outcomes.

Purpose of resource

The How schools can improve literacy and numeracy performance and why it (still) matters resource examines evidence-based practices that schools can use to lift literacy and numeracy performance. It also examines the research on the importance of literacy and numeracy skills to individuals and society.

When and how to use

The resource is a review of research evidence. School leaders and teachers can read, reflect on, discuss and implement themes and strategies highlighted in the resource as part of school-developed High Impact Professional Learning (HIPL).

The appropriate time to use this resource may differ for each school, leader and teacher.

School leaders can:

  • unpack the resource as part of whole-school professional development and/or stage or grade team meetings
  • encourage teachers to share key findings during professional development
  • reflect on strategies, policies or practices currently in place to lift student literacy and numeracy performance
  • lead discussions with staff about areas to improve across the school – you may wish to refer to the Reading and numeracy guides and the Literacy and numeracy webpage on the department website
  • access NAPLAN Scout reports to support improvement strategies and monitor progress
  • support staff to find connections between What works best, the School Excellence Framework and the strategies contained in the resource.

Teachers can:

  • read the resource or summary and reflect on current practice
  • complete the How schools can improve literacy and numeracy performance MyPL course to engage with the literature on literacy and numeracy and connect it to their own practice
  • identify strategies in the resource to apply in the classroom to improve student literacy and numeracy outcomes
  • reflect on the impact of the applied strategies.


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Alignment to system priorities and/or needs: NSW Department of Education Strategic Plan 2018-2023 – Academic achievement outcomes:

  • ‘Increased proportion of public school students achieving expected growth in reading and numeracy’
  • ‘Increased proportion of public school students in the top 2 NAPLAN bands for reading and numeracy’

Alignment to School Excellence Framework: Teaching domain – effective classroom practice, professional standards (literacy and numeracy focus); Learning domain – curriculum, student performance measures (NAPLAN)

Alignment with existing frameworks: Australian Professional Standards for Teachers – Standard 2.5 (Literacy and numeracy strategies) NSW Department of Education Literacy and numeracy priorities

Reviewed by: Literacy and Numeracy team

Created/last updated: Originally published 20 September 2016

To be reviewed: CESE publications are prepared through a rigorous process. Resources are reviewed periodically as part of an ongoing evaluation plan.


  • Literacy and numeracy
  • Research report

Business Unit:

  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
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