Stealing fire from the gods: Keynote address to Canberra Early Literacy Conference

On 13th September, I spoke in Australia’s Parliament House at the inaugural meeting of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Early Literacy, followed by a keynote address to the third annual Paint the Town REaD Early Literacy Conference.

Paint the Town REaD (PTTR) is the Australian initiative which encourages families, carers and the wider community to ‘read, talk, sing and rhyme with your child from birth.’

Paint the Town REaD's Reading Bug

I tend to give speeches the same way I used to prepare my classroom as an infant school teacher: research the topic, put loads and loads of resources into place, then allow free play across the interests and needs of the audience. Today’s blog post captures a few highlights from the conference’s keynote discussion, assembled under the hashtag #occupyliteracy.


Speaking to an early literacy conference, there’s always the urge to rehash the science behind early brain development and talk up the need for adults to be good role models as readers. Our increased knowledge about brain development is vital in refining the work of educators, and making the case for effective government policy on early childhood – but I don’t want to patronise an audience of early years professionals with information that you already have.

I also have a nagging concern that, for all the good that the neuroscience and sociology of early childhood does in the policy arena, it will not persuade the families who don’t already support their child’s literacy skills. I suspect that parents who do not read, sing and rhyme with their children from birth are not overly concerned with the state of their infant’s dendrites.

Paint the Town REaD was first and foremost a grassroots movement, formed by a local community in rural New South Wales. 2012 has brought PTTR a much-needed focus on accountability and financial stability, but alongside the sensible stuff, you must also maintain your unstinting commitment to giving every Australian the best possible start in literacy from birth.

This put me in mind of Occupy Wall Street and the protests against economic inequality which have spread around the world since September 2011.  Could we promote the cause of reading and writing with the same grassroots passion that Occupy protestors have shown in speaking out against economic inequalities?

I broke down #occupyliteracy into three topics: community, history and subversion.


Kaija Hyrkäs-Lyytikäinen and pupils at the Taivallahti school in Helsinki
Kaija Hyrkäs-Lyytikäinen and pupils at the Taivallahti school in Helsinki (City of Helsinki Education Department). Photo: Pertti Nisonen / City of Helsinki Media Bank

Last year, I was invited to visit Helsinki to find out about Finnish education. Teenage Finns rate among the highest achievers in PISA, a survey of student attainment across the member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

A great deal of credit for this achievement owes to the Finnish school system, which offers free, comprehensive state education. Finns are committed to teacher independence and autonomy, minimising testing and performance assessment, and investing in proper provision for special educational needs.

However, it’s also true that the Finnish public have a strong sense of trust in their teachers, and belief in the right of every child to achieve their full potential through education. Researcher Samuel Abrams of New York’s Teachers College, who has spent time exploring educational provision across Scandinavia, told me: “The first step towards equality is buy-in from the whole community.”

The educational success of Finland is built on a nationwide commitment to children’s education and wellbeing. Such is the Finns’ trust in their children’s safety, it’s not unheard of for parents to confidently leave children unattended in prams outside cafes.  Australia has a way to go before it achieves Scandinavian levels of commitment to child wellbeing, and you won’t see babies being left outside a Gloria Jean’s any time soon – but this is exactly the kind of social capital which Paint the Town REaD seeks to create in Aussie communities.


Cathy Freeman lights the Olympic Flame, Sydney 2000Back at the University of London I used to teach on an undergraduate course which explored the myth of Prometheus. Forget about the duff Alien prequel – Prometheus was the Greek god who gave humans the secret of fire in order to save them from Zeus’ wrath. Fire stood, in the myth, not just for warmth and light but also the secrets of craft, cookery, civilisation, art and technology.

That includes reading and writing, the technologies which comprise literacy.

The myth of Prometheus reminds us of two truths which don’t often get mentioned at early literacy conferences:

Reading and writing are not natural.

Literacy is not a birthright.

Literacy, unlike speech, is a technology rather than an innate human capacity.

Put a healthy human infant among a community of native language speakers and they will develop competency in that language. Writing, and reading, must be taught – they are more akin to skills like juggling, tying shoelaces, or flying an aircraft, than the abilities for which we are hard-wired.

In different places and different eras, literacy has been the trade of scribes, the privilege of the wealthy, or the business of the clergy. Indeed, one of the reasons for Finland’s high rates of literacy comes from a historic church mandate that everyone in the nation should be able to read before they got married!

When we campaign for every child in Australia to get the best possible start in literacy, it is a political move – calling for everyone to have equal access to the powerful technology of reading and writing.

I’m not being fanciful when I say that campaigning for literacy is a political battle. Moving down from Mount Olympus to the rather more prosaic world of Australian politics, we find Queensland premier Campbell Newman betraying his own commitment to the 2012 National Year of Reading (NYR) by cutting funds to an effective adult literacy scheme.

Campbell Newman - National Year of Reading Ambassador
Campbell Newman at the National Year of Reading website

Newman and two other Queensland ministers had taken on roles as Ambassadors for the National Year of Reading, offering platitudes regurgitated on the NYR website, but went on to cut funding to the Skilling Queenslanders for Work initative, despite independent evidence that the scheme is cost-effective. You can find out more at the website of Aussie author Nick Earls, who originally broke the story.

2012’s National Year of Reading has been like a great party, a celebration of literacy to which every Australian was invited – but Newman’s actions reveal the limits of literacy work that focusses more on marketing than doing the hard yards. It reminds us that campaigning for literacy is a political battle for universal access to technology, not just a bunch of do-gooder schemes and a photo-op for politicians.


Given that literacy is a political battleground, and nice-guy lobbying can only take us so far towards a culture where child wellbeing and education is a commonly held priority – what can we do to make progress in early literacy?

Here’s where that #occupyliteracy hashtag comes in. If happy talk about brain development is not going to reach families as yet untouched by the early literacy message, and marketing schemes like National Year of Reading have their limits, how are we really going to weave a commitment to literacy and child development into Australian culture?

Guerrilla tactics. Pop culture. Aiming unashamedly low blows, and courting a mass audience.

Sid Vicious reading - from
Subversion and literacy! Sid Vicious reads.

High quality interventions are important to ensuring every Aussie has the best possible start in life, and it’s important for literacy professionals to court the favour of government, but I’m always on the lookout for grassroots approaches that bring community partners into the business of getting kids to read.

  • The first Paint the Town REaD initiative I ever heard of came from Holroyd in Western Sydney. They introduced literacy-themed placemats onto the trays in fast-food restaurants. Instead of lecturing the community about brain science, they put rich literacy activities under the noses of ordinary families out enjoying themselves with a burger or a beer, in McDonalds franchises and RSL clubs. If you have to become “the McDonalds of early literacy” to spread the message far and wide, there’s no shame in doing so.
  • Paint the Town REaD also has a pilot project with Driver Reviver and the Kids and Traffic road safety unit at Macquarie University, bringing literacy activities and storybook corners into the roadside rest stops manned by volunteers across Australia. Driver Reviver is an Australian icon – the free cup of coffee and biscuit provided to reduce fatigue and improve road safety on the long journeys which many  undertake every holiday weekend. What if every Driver Reviver also included a place for children to read and enjoy literacy activities?

At the Canberra literacy conference, there was a great deal of emphasis on collecting data and making the case to government for early childhood investment – but you mustn’t only lobby for top-down intervention. You must also spur on the grassroots movements which call all Australia to the cause of early literacy.

Paint the Town REaD is a neat pun, but it can be so much more than that. Red is the colour of passion. The colour of a tango dancer’s dress. The colour that the streets run with in a revolution. The colour that you bleed when you take a bullet for something you believe in.

None of us believe the world of library cuts and low literacy standards will lead to a shooting war, but the job of an early literacy professional should never be cosy, or bureaucratic, or routine.

If you work in children’s literacy, then like Prometheus, your true mission is to steal fire from the gods – and share it with every child in the land.

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