Students' attitudes to school and reading achievement

Can student voice offer insights into how schools can improve reading achievement? A new Australian study examining the link between secondary students' attitudes towards school and reading performance has found that experiencing bullying has a strong relationship with how students perform on the NAPLAN reading assessment.

Thomas Cain, Assistant Principal of Monterey Secondary College in Victoria, and Professor John Hattie from the University of Melbourne, analysed a sample of more than 57 000 Year 7 and 9 students from 306 Victorian government schools and analysed two data sets – students' responses to the Student Attitudes to School Survey and their performance in NAPLAN (National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy) reading assessments in 2017.

Sharing the results in their Australian Journal of Education paper ­– Attitudes to school and reading achievement among secondary school students – Cain and Hattie say one purpose of the study was to identify the things that most strongly relate to student achievement. The six attitude factors they explored are:

  • Effective teaching practices: the extent to which students feel their teachers are effective at checking for understanding, building relationships, maintaining a productive classroom culture and providing cognitive challenge.
  • Learner characteristics and disposition: relating to teacher-student relations, student thinking strategies, learner confidence, engagement, and attitudes that influence how they engage with and persist with learning.
  • Advocate at school: the extent to which students can identify an adult at school who they have a positive or productive relationship with.
  • High expectations for success: students' perspectives on the expectations that their teachers have them to do their best at school.
  • School connectedness: students' feelings of safety and connection to their school.
  • Experience of bullying whether or not students have been bullied in the last term, how they were bullied and how often it occurred.

Cain completed this research as part of his Masters degree at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. The AJE paper says that while the idea that students who experience higher levels of bullying struggle with reading achievement is not a new finding, it is interesting to note that when averaged across Years 7 and 9, this factor had the strongest relationship with how students perform on the NAPLAN assessment.

‘Many schools embark on projects to improve reading achievement, but not all would consider an effective bullying strategy and actions as being an important component of their “must-have” list,' the authors say.

Cain tells Teacher that this could be a practical takeaway for teachers. ‘I think it encouraged me to go back into my school leadership practice with a bit more of a whole student approach,' he says. ‘So, how can I make sure students are feeling happy and safe and included in their learning environment, as well as giving them great access to curriculum teaching practices?'

Student voice and reading achievement

Cain says he was interested in looking at the Attitudes to School Survey – a state-wide survey completed by all students in Grade 4 to 12 at government schools in Victoria – because it is used in the performance evaluation of schools, as well as the performance management of school leaders.

‘We're often told in schools that this data is really important and I think that the data is very important, but it's not clear to me exactly which bit of the data matter most for student learning. So that was what I really wanted to understand.'

Cain says the overarching question the study was trying to answer was, if we want to improve reading achievement, which elements of student voice are likely to help us in achieving that goal?

‘We found a positive correlation between students' reading achievement and their reading growth and the attitudes that they had towards school,' Cain says.

The report says students who improved in their reading achievement were students who were bullied less, felt more connected to school and reported higher levels of motivation, resilience and other dispositional factors. These students also felt their teachers were effective, acted as advocates for them and their learning and held high expectations for their success.

‘…Those who made the greatest reading gains were those with more positive attitudes to school. Surveys of student attitudes are a measure of student voice and this finding reaffirms the relevance of student voice to achievement,' the authors say.

In their AJE paper, Cain and Hattie note that numerous factors – all complexly interrelated – affect student achievement and student attitudes to school are just one part of this ‘web'. Cain tells Teacher that while this research looked at correlations, there's still more work to be done looking at the causal relationships between attitudes and reading.

‘I think that's been another thing I've taken back to my practice is that student learning is not the result for the neat “this causes that” relationship. It's instead more of a dynamic, multidirectional, web of things causing one another and so it's certainly an interesting finding.'

Undertaking research as an educator

Cain says the experience of conducting research as an educator is something he'd definitely recommend to his colleagues in education. He says he learned a lot from John Hattie as his supervisor, as well as the editorial team at the journal.

‘I thought it was a really good experience to be conducting academic research into education at the same time that I was working on the front-line, in a school, teaching and leading teachers. And I'd encourage others to take it on if you can find the opportunity.

‘I'm certainly going to wriggle my way into other research opportunities if I can make it work. I think it's a great combination of someone working in a school and someone working in a university, partnering together and conducting research,' he says.


Cain, T., & Hattie, J. (2019). Attitudes to school and reading achievement among secondary school students. Australian Journal of Education, 0004944119890139.

The full paper – Attitudes to school and reading achievement among secondary school students – is free to access in the Australian Journal of Education until 24 February.

Thomas Cain and John Hattie say some schools wouldn’t consider an effective bullying strategy and actions as being an important component of their “must-have” list for improving reading. Is this something you think about at your school?

As an educator, have you considered conducting your own research project? Which area of education would you focus on? How do you plan to get started.

Thomas Cain writes a blog on issues in education. Click the link to read his writing.