Literacy needs a life course revolution

Professor Stuart McNaughton on how a life course approach to literacy and learning would support our children to be confident readers, writers and critical thinkers.

Learning needs to acknowledge the key changes in young people.
Learning needs to acknowledge the key changes in young people.

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 canvases 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 analysis of literacy patterns in Aotearoa New Zealand starts with a simple question: What are the most reasonable explanations for our problems in excellence and equity in literacy?

What are the plausible hypotheses for: the overall drop in literacy achievement in successive cycles of international assessments; and the limited impact of efforts over decades to change the distributions of achievement for Māori and Pacific students and those from low socioeconomic communities?

This seemingly simple question turns out to be very difficult to answer – or at least difficult to generate reasonable hypotheses for, as distinct from explanations that are unreasonable or unable to be supported by the evidence.

There are two difficulties in particular. One is the complexity of the phenomena and the second is the tendency to approach the evidence from one perspective or within one limited period in development. Together these mean that proposed explanations often reflect a confirmation bias or – in the familiar metaphor of the blind men and the elephant – each of us only seeing one part of the whole.

By 15 years of age (when one of the international assessments occurs) there are multiple potential causes, some remote and some far closer.

Answering the question requires a life course approach. This is because education is a comprehensive form of socialisation, in which almost all our children and young people participate, across many years of their lives.

Looking at development across the years is necessary because of the complex networks of influences. Some influences are constant while others come into play at different times, each one dependent on and interacting with the other. We must also consider how children’s development occurs in various contexts – with some very close to learning and teaching and others more encompassing.

These embedded systems of influence – from the immediate interactions between a teacher and a learner through to policies enacted by a system – require consideration, taking into account immediate causes and the wider conditions that enhance or constrain learning and development.

The evidence from research points to four sensitive stages in a young person’s learning journey and three crucial transitions, where specific actions will improve literacy, adding to or making more consistent those features that already powerful. These require guaranteed targeting and compensatory resourcing for those students and communities the system has typically not served well.

These stages and transitions are identified for English medium schooling. There are parallels for Māori medium, which require further descriptions. But one system intervention is clearly needed: the rapid expansion of high-quality Māori medium schooling.

Life-course approach to reverse the decline
Stage 1: Emergent literacy (before school)
  • In early learning centres frequent high-quality reading of stories, talking about stories and shared reading.
  • Telling and re-telling stories; extended language exchanges
  • Progress and quality measures to monitor progress, inprove learning and support teacher guidance and instruction
Stage 2: Years 4 to 8
  • Focus on critical literacy (including media /digital literacy) and collaborative reasoning in and across all content areas.
  • High literacy ‘diet’ exposure to traditional and digital texts that reflects social and cultural identity
  • Summer learning programmes to counter the summer learning ‘decline’
Years 9 to 11
  • RTIs (Response to intervention) in place that are culturally appropriate, for early identification of low progress with systematic interventions to lift learning collaborative reasoning and critical literacy become even more important, in addition to developing high-level subject-specific literacy skills
  • Summer learning programmes
  Three key transitions
Transition to school and beginning instruction
  • Systematic and frequent high-value activities such as reading to children, and telling and re-telling stories, purposeful writing, instruction which integrates the foundational skills with complex language skills
  • A nationally consistent formal School Entry Assessment tool to identify learning needs and professional development of teachers to use assessment to inform their teaching.


Year 4
  • Screening to enable teachers to tailor learning for those making lower than expected progress
  • Research and development across English and Māori mediums to put in place evidence-based interventionsYear 8 to Year 9 (Primary to secondary school)
Year 8 to Year 9 (Primary to secondary school)
  • Student records that show achievement and progress across the transition years for teachers and family/whanau
  • School wide focus on well-being based on social and emotional learning programmes, for engagement and
  • Summer learning programmes

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