New Zealand education has long held an international reputation for excellence, so why are many of our young readers struggling?
According to researchers, the literacy programmes in most New Zealand schools are decades out of date – and largely irrelevant to today’s learners. They are racist and classist, and our teachers are poorly trained for literacy instruction.
Professor James Chapman, Professor of Educational Psychology at Massey University, says the New Zealand education system is disabled by “white, middle-class assumptions” about learners.
“The reading instruction in most New Zealand schools assumes that kids come to school with a certain set of language experiences that will enable them to benefit from the way that language is taught. The reality, however, is that many kids don’t come to school with white, middle-class experiences,” says Chapman.
“As much as we talk about diversity in New Zealand, this is an area where we don’t respect diversity, we don’t respect that children come to school with different language experiences. We need to adopt instructional approaches that take those differences into account.
“As a system we’re failing, and generally speaking we’re failing the kids in lower decile schools with large numbers of Māori and Pasifika.”
And Reading Recovery, the programme used by 60 percent of schools to aid struggling readers, is not enough, says Chapman.
“Reading Recovery seems to work reasonably well at least in the short term for kids who are further along with their reading development, but those benefits tend not to last. And it is of no benefit to roughly 15 percent of the kids who go into the programme. Simply put, it is more of the same instruction that has already failed them in the classroom.”
Experts say the other flaw in the system is inadequate teacher training.
“Teacher training doesn’t actually cover how literacy develops, which means that they then don’t understand why some learners struggle,” says Ros Lugg, a specialist literacy teacher, assessor and education consultant.
“The underlying approach – ‘show them lots of words and books, and it’ll happen’ – is wrong. Consequently, kids fall through the gaps in the early stages and trying to get them to catch up is incredibly difficult.
“In many other countries, the UK for example, there is a literacy curriculum, a phonic-based progression that teachers can follow but here we don’t do that.”
Lugg says the work needs to begin in the early childhood education (ECE) setting.
“Pre-schools and nurseries seem to be very variable on their knowledge of early/pre-literacy development. I’ve come across a number of pre-school teachers who have no idea what phonological awareness is and how to develop it.
This is a real concern because there’s plenty of evidence about the importance of phonological awareness. There was a very important study in the 1980s (Bryant and Bradley), which identified that an understanding of rhyme in four to five-year-old pre-readers is the most accurate indicator of future literacy progress.”
Even primary teachers in New Zealand are confused about the meaning and value of phonological awareness, says Lugg.
“They think it is knowing what sound goes with what letter, but phonological awareness is actually the level below – being aware of individual sounds and sound patterns. It’s one of the main missing links in literacy development. There’s no point teaching a child what letter goes with a particular sound if he can’t identify the sound in the first place.
“The problem with the New Zealand system is that schools don’t have a structure for literacy learning, that every school is making it up from scratch. We need a structured literacy approach that every learner can work through at their own pace.
“The frustrating thing is that it’s not rocket science: we have all the research but what we’re not doing is applying it.”
Chapman says he’s been trying to get this message across for decades.
“We’ve known for 30 years or so that some kids benefit from a very explicit approach to reading, that is, understanding the sounds in spoken language, and the letters and letter patterns in our alphabet that represent those sounds. This is generally not done in New Zealand schools.
“All kids will benefit from explicit and systematic instruction in the relationship in the sounds in spoken language and the letters that represent those sounds, basically learning to decode a word by looking at the letters that make up that word.
“Some make progress very quickly, some – around 60 percent – will learn to read regardless of the instruction the teachers provide, but some kids won’t.
“If we want to level the playing field, it might be that not all kids in the classroom get that same approach; we call this differentiated instruction.
“There are clusters of abilities and clusters of what kids bring into school that would allow sensible grouping of kids when they start school. There are relatively easy assessments that teachers could use to help them form those groups. One of the strongest predictors of reading success is children’s knowledge of the alphabet and the letter names and sounds, and their vocabulary is a strong predictor.”
England, Wales and parts of Scotland adopted a more phonics-type approach in 2009, and subsequently recorded marked improvements in the latest (2016) Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Meanwhile, New Zealand’s results, which had flatlined for a decade, went down. The most recent PIRLS recorded New Zealand in 32nd place out of 50 countries, a slip of 10 places from the previous study in 2011.
In addition to this, teachers are reporting a decline in oral language skills of new entrants across all socio-economic groups, a trend blamed on the heavy dependence on digital devices.
Lugg says many kids are being entertained or “edutained” by iPad apps and games which parents believe are educational. “There are indeed some great apps out there, but there’s also a real place for face-to-face interaction. We’ve moved away from family board games and even, in some cases, family conversation. That’s one of the reasons we’re getting children starting school without the requisite language skills.”
At decile 10 Wanaka Primary School, Kit South is one of three teachers who work closely with struggling readers. South, a teacher of 35 years’ experience, says she has been noticing a decline in new entrants’ oral language skills for the past ten years. “We have more children entering school who are taking more time at acquiring early language skills and we think it’s because they haven’t had a chance to play at language in their early years.
“Parents have busy lives, and many are working when their children are very young. And while preschool is fantastic for children, there’s a big difference between a ratio of 1:10 in a preschool setting and that of a parent at home with one or two children. Some of the modelling of oral language is often not happening.”
It’s a worldwide phenomenon, not just in New Zealand, she says.
“We think parents are using screens as babysitters because they have such busy lives. Some of our parents are working two jobs just to stay afloat. When they get home from work they can’t just sit down with their kids, they have to get tea cooked and washing on.”
The school caters to learner readers by employing a variety of literacy instruction methods.
“Reading Recovery has been a very successful programme for remedial instruction, but it does not cater for all our children. There need to be alternatives.”
South uses a phonological awareness programme developed by Professor Gail Gillon of Canterbury University.
“We get in early; we look at children three to six months in who haven’t got away in their alphabet learning and I put them through the programme to help them recognise letter sounds.”
Another of South’s tools is StepsWeb, an online literacy programme suitable for all readers up to adult level.
“All our children use StepsWeb, it covers every part of learning to read and write and spell, and it’s computer-based so ideal for modern learning.”
Simply put, literacy instruction is about identifying segmenting and blending sounds, linking speech to print, phoneme blending and phoneme identity to help with decoding (reading) and encoding (writing), says South.
“Children need these fundamental skills developed alongside vocabulary and comprehension. Some just get it but others need a lot more time.”