Urgent action needed to halt declining literacy
21 August 2020
Interventions across early childhood, primary and secondary education are urgently needed to address declining literacy levels and persistent inequality in New Zealand, according to a new report.
‘The literacy landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand’ by the University of Auckland’s Professor Stuart McNaughton, chief science advisor to the Ministry of Education, finds literacy, maths and science levels – as measured in standard international assessments at 15 years old – have been declining for years.
And disparities between students from low socioeconomic status communities, Māori and Pacific students, and other students, remain unchanged.
“We see disparities in Years 4-8 – for example, Māori students in English medium schooling typically have reading comprehension one to two years lower than Pākehā students,” says Professor McNaughton, "but the differences don’t start there, they emerge before school.”
The report identifies a number of key actions and interventions across a child’s educational life that can make a difference to their literacy.
These range from simple, everyday activities like reading and telling stories to preschool-aged children to large nationwide changes, like implementing literacy progress measures in early learning services.
Critical literacy in Years 4-8, especially for digital and social media contexts, is also especially important given the urgent need for students to counteract misinformation and develop resilience, the report says.
Also key are policies and teaching which promote wellbeing during the critical transition from primary to secondary school, a time when students are especially socially and emotionally vulnerable.
Other recommendations include: well-designed digital innovations in low-decile schools; formal and informal assessment tools at the beginning of primary school to provide detailed profiles of new entrants’ strengths and learning needs, and strengthening the three-tiered ‘Response to Intervention’ (RTI) model, especially interventions following ‘Reading Recovery’.
Fostering strong Māori identity, culture and language, as well as attending Māori medium schools or simply having Māori teachers, can increase achievement at secondary school for Māori students.
Professor McNaughton believes the effectiveness of these recommendations can be enhanced by better teacher preparation and further research in educational science, but says the news is not all bad.
“There are strengths in our system to build upon. For example, fostering strong Māori identity, culture and language, as well as attending Māori medium schools or simply having Māori teachers, can increase achievement at secondary school for Māori students.”
However, given the importance of language, culture and identity to achievement, he says it’s concerning that about one quarter of Year 8 students say they have never had the opportunity to read books that reflect their identities.
Structural inequalities and discrimination within society in turn contribute to literacy inequalities, says Professor McNaughton.
“The recommendations of the report would be more powerful if these encompassing conditions were also addressed.”
Professor McNaughton (ONZM) is the founding director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre at the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work, an internationally recognised research hub focused on improving educational success for Māori, Pacific and other diverse communities.
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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