Teachers not to blame for Kiwi kids' falling literacy skills - principal

Kiwi kids' literacy skills aren't falling because they're spending too much time on screens or have bad teachers - it's the way they're being taught, one principal says.

But don't blame the teachers - they're just doing what they're told, says Kaiapoi North School principal Jason Miles.

Miles is also spokesperson for Lifting Literacy Aotearoa, a group formed earlier this year to advocate "for the acceptance and adoption of evidence informed literacy instruction methodologies in New Zealand".

"Our teachers across New Zealand are world-class - they cannot work any harder," Miles told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"But the methods we've been encouraged to use over a number of years are no longer working. We've got research into the science of reading about how our brain works, and how our brain needs to be wired to learn to read. The current methods are not cutting it." 

In August Stuart McNaughton, Chief Science Advisor to the Ministry of Education, released a report which detailed how far Kiwi kids have fallen since 2012, after setting high scores between 2000 and 2009.

"Among 15 year-olds, literacy achievement levels have been dropping and wide disparities remain unchanged," the report - titled The literacy landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand - said, noting some disparities emerge before kids are even old enough to start school. 

Problems with reading and literacy impact on other subject areas as children progress through their school years, particularly maths and science "due in part to an increasing need for subject-specific literacy skills".

Miles says the report doesn't focus enough on what he thinks is the solution - a new approach to teaching reading which focuses on decoding individual words and letters, rather than link meanings to pictures. 

"Decoding words in a systematic, explicit, sequential way is essential to build those early foundation skills for our children," he told The AM Show on Wednesday, saying three decades of research backs this up.

"The letter-sound relationships leading onto blends and syllables... at the moment there's too much focus on language comprehension... We've been asking children to have a cue on meaning only, rather than looking at the actual structure of the word, looking at letter-to-sound relationships and making sure that our children come to a word in a story and they have the skills and the knowledge and the confidence to solve that word, no matter what context the story is in." 

He says this approach has worked wonders at Kaiapoi North School - raising literacy achievements from 70 percent to an "incredible" 94 percent.

Jason Miles.
Jason Miles. Photo credit: The AM Show

Presently he says the decoding method of learning to read is taught in private institutions. Miles wants it to be taught to trainee teachers so they can use it in the classroom. His school spent $30,000 training its own staff, TVNZ reported

The report notes early progress in learning to read and write is "causally dependent on decoding skills".

"This means the building blocks of decoding such as phonemic awareness need to be taught well and learned early and fast." 

But while decoding teaching systems had "rapid" success in closing disparities between students, the long-term gains were minimal at best.

"A more 'literature-based' programme focused more on comprehension and complex writing across genres in the early stages showed fewer marked gains initially, but was more successful in the later grades at reducing disparities in comprehension," the report said.

Perry Rush, national president of the New Zealand Principals' Federation, told Newshub in August there was no need to fix the system - kids just needed to put down their screens.

The critical concern is around the amount of time that young people are spending on screens and the amount of time that is taking away from other really important things like literacy, like language, like the ability to enjoy a good book."