Here’s a shocking statistic:

It’s courtesy of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, or ALNF, a Sydney-based charity that promotes literacy development among under-privileged groups, in particular Aboriginal people in remote Australia. To garner support for their cause, the ALNF has fantastic marketing and PR, with a seemingly endless line of celebrities who ‘raise their hands‘ and successfully appeal to concerned public to part with their cash and fund their programs. Statistics like the one above are a great hook. They appeal to the guilt that many non-Indigenous people feel about Indigenous disadvantage and it gives them a way to feel like they are part of the “solution” without having to leave their urban locales. Here’s another example from a couple of years back of just how impressive (and lucrative) their strategy – and that statistic – can be:

Someone like me who’s worked in remote communities for years and is passionate about ‘closing the gap’ would be right behind the ALNF, right? Sadly, no. There are many aspects about the ALNF that irritate me considerably. But today I’m just going to tackle one: the “4 out of 5 kids can’t read” statistic.

See, that statistic is just plain wrong. I’ve queried its accuracy with the ALNF a couple of times on social media and their response has been to point me to the NAPLAN website, the supposed source of their information. I hunted around the published NAPLAN results and here’s what I actually found:

The NAPLAN website provides various figures and results of their tests, such as the percentage of kids that are reaching national benchmarks at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. But rather than saying that 4 out of 5 Aboriginal kids in the bush can’t read, the NAPLAN site gives us the following results, the 2012 results of the Reading tests for Indigenous students in “very remote” areas:

There’s no question that these results leave a lot to be desired – no-one is arguing against that. But do they prove, as the ALNF suggested, that their shocking statistic is accurate? No, they don’t. I looked further, checking over results from 2010 and 2011 as well as the results of other literacy-based part of NAPLAN – writing, spelling and grammar/punctuation. They all showed very similar patterns to the results shown above.

So this is what’s wrong here:

If 4 out of 5 – or 80% – of kids can’t read, then the table above should be showing scores of around 80% for all levels. But they don’t. None are at 80%. Two are close, but the Year 3 and Year 7 kids’ results are closer to 50% than 80%. Is the ALNF just conveniently picking the worst scores and ignoring the better ones?

Regardless of the actual figures, the ALNF is implying that below national minimum standard means can’t read. This is quite a leap, and an unreasonable one. If kids aren’t making benchmark, it does not mean that they can’t read. It merely means that they didn’t reach a benchmark level. And NAPLAN results are not without controversy mind you. They’re the product of a controversial test administered under strict conditions with well-known problems, such as the fact that that it doesn’t account for cultural background or the fact that many or most kids out bush are learning English as a second language.

Concepts of literacy, illiteracy or “can’t read” are complex. This UNESCO report gives a great overview of the varying ways in which “literacy” is understood and defined around the world. To say kids that “can’t read” or are illiterate because they don’t pass a NAPLAN test, is taking an extremely narrow view of what literacy is. Reading is a real-life activity. It’s part of our social practice and relates to our lives and interests. Sitting a standardised test under strict conditions in a classroom misses so much of what “literacy” actually encompasses. If we expand our view of literacy as more than the stuff of standardised tests, we start to see that Aboriginal kids are resourceful young people who do in fact use literacy in many ways that are suitable and relevant to their lives. You only have to look at the astonishingly fast take-up of social media like Facebook by young people in the bush. For some excellent research on how young Aboriginal kids are engaging with literacy and technology, check out this recent publication. Without doubt, remote students are lagging behind non-Indigenous urban counterparts, but it makes no sense to claim that only 1 in 5 kids in the bush can read when most of them use Facebook regularly.

Lastly, NAPLAN is an English-medium test and so any data stemming from NAPLAN actually refers only to English literacy and ignores literacy practices in any language other than English. It is true that literacy levels in Aboriginal languages are low, especially since bilingual education has been virtually abandoned. But people in the bush do still write in their own languages. Again, just look at Facebook – if you know where to look, you’ll see plenty of young people expressing themselves in languages other than English.

But why does it matter if they keep promoting a false statistic? If the ALNF are using it for a good cause, then isn’t that the main thing? The problem is that they are making out that Aboriginal kids in the bush are dumber than they actually are. This does nothing for the collective self-esteem of Aboriginal people and does nothing to foster an accurate understanding among non-Indigenous people of the lives of Aboriginal people. With the ALNF so effective with advertising and PR, thousands and thousands of Australians are being exposed to their marketing. (They posted this statistic to their 25,000+ Facebook followers as recently as two weeks ago and it got shared so much that would’ve appeared on hundreds of thousands of Facebook feeds). As I and others have pointed out before, the negative stuff that Aboriginal people are constantly exposed to in the media does have a detrimental effect, so it’s really disappointing that the ALNF contributes to that.

In addition to negative social impacts, there is surely a regulatory issue if they are fundraising with a false statistic. The AANA Advertiser Code of Ethics says that “Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not be misleading or deceptive or be likely to mislead or deceive.” (Section 1.2). The ALNF receives a significant amount of public donations in addition to the many people – celebrities and regular folk – who symbolically support them. Aren’t some of them being misled by the ALNF who continue to promote this shocking-but-misleading statistic? I know that I’d be annoyed if I donated $1000 to a charity that used false advertising.

Still, it’s difficult to openly criticise the ALNF when, like them, I’m passionate about Aboriginal issues, especially language issues. Their marketing is so effective that they’ve engendered a feeling of “if you’re not with us, then you support Indigenous disadvantage”. The truth couldn’t be more wrong. It’s precisely because of my concerns about how Aboriginal people in remote communities are treated and understood, that it disturbs me that a major charity that attempts to raise awareness of an important issue is actually promulgating misunderstanding with a misleading statistic that makes Aboriginal people look dumber than they actually are, all for their fundraising purposes. Not cool.

This is an edited version of a post originally published on that munanga linguist.

Update (5/7/2013): For a response from the ALNF, please see comment 3 below. A follow-up reply from the author is on comment 8.

Update (16/7/2013): Following the publication of this post, it appears that the ALNF has adjusted its marketing strategy and started to use the statistic discussed above in more accurate forms (see for example here). This change is appreciated and thanks go to the ALNF for being open to adapting in the face of criticism.

It’s time to book your next dose of Crikey.

Through the week, news comes at you fast. Every day there’s a new disaster, depressing numbers or a scandal to doom-scroll to. It’s exhausting, and not good for your health.

Book your next dose of Crikey to get on top of it all. Subscribe now and get your first 12 weeks for $12. And you’ll help us too, because every dollar we get helps us dig even deeper.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.