Paddy Gower Has Issues: New Zealand schools falling behind international literacy rates

As a parent of a preschooler and a toddler I am guilty of trawling through screeds of information - social media posts and stories, blogs, websites, reports, you name it - in order to make sure I'm giving my daughters the best start I can. 

But as the first day of primary school nears for my eldest, I've been paying more attention to what other parents have been saying about their child's education.

I had presumed when my daughter went to primary school that she would learn to read and write but it turns out that's not the case with all children. 

In a global study of 400,000 children in over 60 countries - known as PIRLS - New Zealand has fallen from 13th place in 2001 to 27th place in the data released last week.

This paired with the fact that an NCEA pilot in September last year found only 58 percent of year 10 students passed the reading assessment.

Mahurangi College principal Tony Giles said by the time students reached his school, many were still struggling with the basics of reading.

"We probably have around 5 percent who can't decode, which is the first stage of reading, and then on top of that probably around 30 percent who we would classify as poor readers," he said.

In New Zealand, schools have a high level of independence which means each school, or even each teacher, can decide how to teach reading. And when it comes to the approach there are two main camps - balanced and structured.

The 'Balanced' approach came from methods created by Dame Marie Clay - the famous Kiwi who invented Reading Recovery. 

Part of the method is that teachers make sure students are familiar with the topic of the book and understand the premise so when they come to a word that they're unsure about they can use cues to figure it out. 

Clues include thinking about what would make sense, looking at the picture, and looking at the first letter of the word.

Structured literacy teaches sounds in a certain order and uses books to reinforce the learning of the sounds that letters and groups of letters represent. 

When a child is unsure about a word they are directed to look at the letters of the word and sound it out or "decode" the word.

Most scientific studies back the structured approach because more students learn to read with this method. 

The approach is also endorsed by the International Dyslexia Association as the gold standard for teaching those one in ten children who have dyslexia.

The Ministry of Education does not keep a record of how many schools or classes teach either approach, but anecdotally it's understood around 40 percent of schools teach reading using the balanced approach.

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Tony Giles has called it out: "It's essentially malpractice".

"We wouldn't build a bridge that had a 30 percent chance of failure. Balanced literacy, so-called balanced literacy, has a 30 percent chance of failure," he said.

"We need that mandate from the top to ensure that teachers and schools aren't doing things that are so disruptive to the chances of students."

Some schools have made the switch themselves. Linwood Avenue School in Christchurch introduced a structured literacy programme three years ago and has seen huge changes.

"We've had this one girl who was a year five and was told that she had an IQ of 65, which is incredibly low," said deputy principal Jo Mauger.

"Within the three terms of her being in that [structured literacy] programme, she's nearly caught up to where she should be and that's incredible for her, for someone who we've seen has always struggled in life and she's not going to struggle any longer."

She said the school had to find tens of thousands of dollars to buy the books and upskill the teachers, but it has been worth every penny.

"I get quite emotional about it because it is incredible for these kids. We can change their lives." 

There is now a free option for schools too. The Government has funded Better Start - a structured literacy programme developed at the University of Canterbury with books and resources targeted to Kiwi children. 

"When we look at our data, it shows that it serves all children well," researcher Brigid O'Neill said. 

"When we've looked at the response of our tamariki Māori, our Pasifika learners, and our learners who might be starting school with more needs in their communication, they're doing better under this approach than other approaches," she said.

"That's not to say that this approach is going to mean that there's no more literacy difficulties in New Zealand, but what it will mean is that there's a much smaller percentage of children that need that specialist support for their literacy development and that means as a country we can resource that so much better."

At the moment about half of our primary schools use the Better Start programme. Experts are also developing a 'common practice model' for teaching reading and writing - and elements of structured literacy are part of it but it's still unclear when it will be introduced.

In the interim Education Minister Jan Tinetti could make a directive for schools to make the switch and she said she would "if it came down to it". But she indicated she wants to get teachers on side first.

She said in the past ministerial directives had not worked.

"They haven't gone down so well and we've had a lot of people that have worked very much against those directives."

But she said she was completely convinced by the science that backed the structured literacy approach.

"I've always been an evidence-based practitioner," she said.

"That's what I'm doing now as Minister is bringing the best evidence that's sitting out there and the best scientific approach that's sitting out there."

Teachers will need support to make the change, and as a parent I really hope they are looked after in the process.

As parents and caregivers we can Google and read reports to our heart's content. But when it comes to your child's fifth birthday we place a lot of expectations on our teachers and I want them to be thriving at home and at work so I know our tamariki are getting the best education - which they all deserve. And that includes learning how to read. 

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