by Gail Mulcair, Chief Executive Officer, Speech Pathology Australia

Speech Pathology Australia is the national peak professional body for speech pathologists (speech-language pathologists) in Australia and represents just over 10,000 members. Speech pathologists study, diagnose and treat communication disorders, including difficulties with speech, language, fluency and voice, as well as difficulties with swallowing, termed dysphagia.

Speech Pathology Australia has a strong advocacy role in the area of speech, language and communication disorders and swallowing difficulties, as emblazoned through its vision – “Effective communication and safe swallowing for all throughout their life”. Underpinning this, is the assertion that communication is a basic human right.

Not only is communication a human right, it is the essence of what makes us human. Communication enables the right to social participation, inclusion in education and employment, equal justice, civic participation, and to enjoy a quality of life.

The right to communicate effectively is well expressed within the United Nation’s Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD). It can also be viewed that in order to work towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals around Poverty, Health, and Education, there must be specific efforts to address the needs of those with communication disability.

An essential component of being able to communicate is having good oral language skills (including speaking and listening skills) which in turn underpins the ability to read. Children learn to read, so they can read to learn.

The OECD recently found that more than one in five Australians can at most complete very simple reading or mathematical tasks, such as reading brief texts on familiar topics or understanding basic percentages.

More than 20 per cent of Australian adults have very low literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving skills. These Australians are far less likely to participate in education and training than those with high-level skills. Only 23 per cent of low-skilled Australian adults are engaged in education, compared with 48 per cent of all adults.

It is with this literacy challenge in mind, that Speech Pathology Australia strongly advocates and conducts initiatives in the area of Literacy. Literacy has also been identified as a basic human right (UNESCO, 2019). When we use the word ‘literacy’, this refers to traditional literacy, which comprises reading, spelling and writing.

Learning to be literate is largely founded on oral language competencies at the word, sentence and text-level, (e.g. vocabulary, syntax, narrative skills), skills that are acquired in the early years prior to school.

Speech pathology organisations around many parts of the globe (including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA) are unified in the statements regarding the role that speech pathologists have in the literacy domain. This is driven by theoretical principles regarding the intimate relationship between oral language communication and literacy.

While Speech Pathology Australia makes representations and submissions at government levels in the area of education and literacy, the Association also conducts an externally facing campaign to raise awareness of the importance of parents reading with their children and having access to good children’s literature which fosters pre-reading skills and literacy development.

To this end, Speech Pathology Australia conducts an annual Book of the Year Awards program. Now in their seventeenth year, these awards not only aim to promote children’s books as literacy tools but raise awareness of the role speech pathologists play in helping children develop language and literacy skills, as well as encouraging a love of reading.

The Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year awards are generously supported by the Australian book publishing industry. In 2020, a record 218 books were nominated by publishers, from independent publishers through to major well-known publishing brands. There are currently five award categories based on four age groupings and a dedicated award for Indigenous authors, where the content relates to indigenous stories and themes.

In total, the Association has awarded 63 awards over the 17 years. In addition, the initiative also includes a specific recognition of Australian children’s authors who have made significant and sustained contributions to quality children’s literature – the ‘Children’s Language and Literature Award’ (Hall of Fame). Over the period, there have been five Hall of Fame inductees 2018 (Morris Gleitzman); 2016 (Alison Lester); 2013 (Ursula Dubosarsky); 2012 (Graeme Base) and 2007 (Colin Thiele).

Speech Pathology Australia is very proud of the Book of the Year awards, and believes it contributes to a better understanding of the importance of supporting a child’s language, literacy and learning. Working with preschools, schools and families, speech pathologists can provide strategies that support a child’s oral language development and emergent literacy skills, acting as an essential member of the education team. Speech Pathology Australia more broadly advocates strongly for pre-literacy skill development in early childhood and evidence-based reading instruction in schools.

Research has consistently shown that getting help early for literacy problems can prevent problems becoming more severe and persisting into adulthood. Every child deserves the right to achieve their best potential.