A growing crop of super spellers is emerging in Australian primary schools but high achievers are becoming harder to find at secondary level.

New analysis of NAPLAN data shows the proportion of Year 3 students in the top bands for spelling has grown across every region of Australia from 2008 to 2019.

At the same time, just eight out of the 25 regions under the NAPLAN spotlight saw growth in Year 9 students making the top bands.

Literacy expert Dr Jennifer Buckingham said improved teaching of spelling was beginning to pay off at lower year levels but was yet to flow to older students.

"The improvements in Year 3 are largely due to better teaching in the early years of school," said Dr Buckingham, a phonics advocate and the director of strategy at literacy program provider MultiLit.


Australian students are being urged to enter the PM’s Spelling Bee.
Australian students are being urged to enter the PM’s Spelling Bee.


"There's a greater awareness of the need for phonics instruction in particular and much more specific teaching of the sub-skills of reading and spelling that lead to growth in those foundation skills.

"We're not seeing that improvement yet up in Year 9, that's still a problem area.

"But as long as teaching quality remains good and those foundations continue to be built on, then those early years improvements will be translated into improvements in the upper years as well."

The analysis, tracking spelling progress from the first NAPLAN tests in 2008 to the most recent in 2019, also shows 12 regions saw comparatively small increases in the proportion of Year 3 students not meeting the national minimum target for spelling in the 11 years of testing.

But all 25 regions recorded an increase in the percentage of kids in the top bands (band 6 and above), with the biggest gains in metro areas of Queensland and Western Australia.

Metro Queensland's Year 3 super spellers grew from 6.8 per cent in 2008 to 24 per cent in 2019, while metro WA's almost doubled from 12.6 per cent to 24.8 per cent.

Metro NSW had the biggest bunch of top spellers in Year 3 at 32.6 per cent, up from 24.6 per cent, while metro Victoria had 29.3 per cent in the top bands, up from 20.8 per cent.

In Year 9, the highest proportions in the top bands (band 10 and above) were in metro NSW, at 8.4 per cent, and metro WA at 6.4 per cent.


Spelling is a key learning area in Australian schools.
Spelling is a key learning area in Australian schools.


A rise in the top bands in Year 5 was seen in 20 out of 25 regions and in 16 regions in Year 7.

The data also revealed a deep divide between city students and those in remote and very remote areas, especially by the time they reach Year 9.

Dr Buckingham said remote areas often struggled to attract experienced teachers and had a high turn over of teachers. Student attendance and language barriers also contributed to poor outcomes for students.

Three of the five areas that saw an increase in Year 9 students failing to meet the minimum standard were in remote or very remote regions.

Their ranks rose from 78 per cent to 83.1 per cent in very remote areas of the Northern Territory, from 21.6 per cent to 31.5 per cent in very remote NSW and from 18.3 per cent to 24.3 per cent in remote Tasmania.


The Prime Minister’s Spelling Bee registrations are open until March 24.
The Prime Minister’s Spelling Bee registrations are open until March 24.


Queensland and WA got gold stars for progress on spelling, the only states to see an improvement in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the minimum standard at all year levels across all regions.

Education expert Rachel Wilson described the progress in the Year 3 top bands for spelling as a "little bright spot" but said NAPLAN had failed to deliver significant improvements.

Associate Professor Wilson, from University of Sydney's Centre of Educational Measurement and Assessment, said NAPLAN should be reformed to give teachers responsibility for the testing, better reflect what is being taught in classrooms and broadened to cover more areas of the curriculum.

"If we do that we could have better breadth of curriculum valued in schools and we could have, I would think, improvements in the learning and student outcomes," she said.

Time is running out for teachers to sign up to the Prime Minister's Spelling Bee. Registrations for the free online competition for Year 3 to Year 8 students close at 11.59pm Wednesday, March 24. Register at kidsnews.com.au


Originally published as Aussie school 'super spellers' revealed