Deciphering the decline

From the rise of social media to dramatic change in the education system, many reasons are offered to explain New Zealand’s decline in international literacy assessments. Stuart McNaughton says a single cause is very unlikely.

Professor Stuart McNaughton researches curriculum and pedagogy.
Professor Stuart McNaughton researches curriculum and pedagogy.

Reversing the slide

Inside the 'Reading Wars' is the first in a three-part series. In the second part, Deciphering the decline, Professor Stuart McNaughton canvasses the multiple potential reasons for the decline in literacy and the final part, Literacy needs a life course revolution, outlines an evidence-based approach to reversing the decline in literacy.

The international studies suggest an overall downward trend in excellence as measured by levels of achievement, and overall, limited changes in disparities. There are a number of possible explanations for the overall trends, levels and the specific drop – some more reasonable than others.

But the most noticeable drop in international achievement occurred from 2009 to around 2012 in reading, mathematics and science literacy needs a more specific explanation. It is seen in both country ranking and in terms of overall scores.

The 2012 15-year-old cohort would have entered school in 2002 and would have been the first of later cohorts to experience conditions associated with the drop. A variety of single-variable explanations have been proposed. It is unlikely that there is a single explanation for the drop and perhaps a combination of each of the major explanations is the most reasonable approach to take.

The standard programme, criticised as not teaching phonics, was largely put in place around the 1960s. The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and early PISA results established very high literacy achievement in nine-year-olds, 14-year-olds (both in 1992) and 15-year-olds (in 2000), presumably reflecting this well embedded programme. There is no reason to assume that the teaching of phonics in foundational literacy suddenly and markedly changed in 2002.

National Literacy Strategy

However, starting in 1999 with a Literacy Task Force Report followed by select committee hearings, and then adopted by the National Literacy Strategy, a change to more direct teaching of aspects of decoding began.

The national guidelines, Effective Literacy Practice Year 1-4 (2003) which had extensive professional development and resourcing, recommended teaching of phonics, phonological knowledge and phonemic awareness. The increases in reading accuracy at Year 4 from 1996 to 2010 established by national monitoring suggest this focus did have an effect.

This is not to say we shouldn’t teach phonics systematically. Apart from examples in the resources of ‘deliberate acts of teaching’, there is little direction of how best to do this, and evidence shows there are now variable practices in systematic phonics instruction. But a sudden lack of phonics teaching with an ongoing absence of phonics teaching is not a reasonable explanation by itself for the drop in 15-year-olds’ achievement in 2012 and thereafter.

The assessment of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) was changed significantly in 2002-2004. The 2009 cohort of 15-year-olds who were still relatively high in achievement would have experienced the new assessment. But modifications were being made between 2008-2010, for example to moderation and to standards.

The changes were well in place by 2012 and were being coupled with a high-stakes environment in which media outlets published league tables. In 2012, a Better Public Service Goal was set to meet a target of 85 percent of school leavers having NCEA Level 2. This explanation puts the fragmented and idiosyncratic pathways students could take through NCEA, together with the high-stakes context to explain a reduced focus on integrated complex learning and a greater focus on compartmentalised topics.

We don’t know if a student uses social media more that they necessarily read and write less; or where cut off points might be.

Social media

In 2009, a quarter of students chatted online daily. This increased to three-quarters in 2018. There are several explanations offered for an effect on literacy achievement. One might be that the greater use of social media for communication competes with reading and writing extended texts outside of school.

This would be consistent with the drop-in reported rates of reading and interest in reading, but the current evidence doesn’t establish a direct link. We don’t know if a student uses social media more that they necessarily read and write less; or where cut off points might be.

Writing and reading achievement can be increased in digital environments which include digital usage for non-school purposes outside of the classroom, with deliberate and comprehensive in-school programmes.

There are also claims that the use of social media changes the focus of reading and writing practices: from being able to process and comprehend extended texts at a deep level, to reading at a surface level with punctuated or ‘bite-sized’ texts and this would reduce high-level cognitive processing.

Again, direct causal evidence is missing, and the frequency and duration of effects are not known. The relationships are complex and likely not to be linear. For example, in terms of digital usage more broadly, the OECD estimates that screen time of six or more hours per day may be an extreme tipping point for a range of achievement and well-being measures.

National Standards

These were introduced in 2010 across reading, writing and mathematics, from Year 1 to Year 8. Because of their public and relatively high-stakes purposes, they could have impacted the cohort who entered school in 2002 and experienced them as upper primary students. National Standards would have been more extensively experienced by subsequent cohorts. The international evidence is very clear on the side effects of high-stakes assessments, and they include a narrowing of the curriculum and opportunity costs (what isn’t being taught because of the test).

The evidence is unclear as to whether National Standards had these untoward effects. They may have narrowed the curriculum focus and teaching resources may have become more focused on getting as many children as possible to achieve expected levels.

The consequence of this may have been less focus on high levels of achievement through challenging and complex curricula. There may also have been a subsequent effect on those children traditionally not well served at school because of a reduction in the full range of curriculum experiences, which would be compensated for others by having access to the cultural capital associated with higher socio-economic status (SES) and living in ‘mainstream’ communities.

But the major evaluations note positive effects as well, and how schools co-opted the standards for other more effective purposes, such as being clearer about expected progress.

An edited excerpt from “The literacy landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand: what we know, what needs fixing and what we should prioritise” by Stuart McNaughton, Chief Education Scientific Adviser and Professor of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

Research that responds to the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Research that responds to the UN Sustainable Development Goals