Is reading being corrupted in NZ?

Is NZ’s literacy being corrupted?

Literacy researchers have highlighted a self-declared conflict of interest by the Chief Education Science Advisor (ESA), who recently reported on literacy in New Zealand.  The ESA, Professor Stuart McNaughton, is a trustee on the Marie Clay Literacy Trust, which teaches Reading Recovery in New Zealand at a cost of over $24 million per annum.  But the effectiveness of Reading Recovery has been questioned in New Zealand and overseas for many years.  As an evidence-based party, TOP questions why we’re still pursuing this programme?  

TOP researches deeply to develop policy based on evidence.  Our approach here is no different.

New Zealand’s literacy standards are slipping.  Yet, TOP has discovered that we’re still pursuing out-dated approaches to teaching reading in schools.  The evidence is clear.  The science is settledAll children benefit from learning to read in a structured, systematic, phonics-led way.  

TOP would move funding out of Reading Recovery programmes and into professional development and resourcing for all schools to teach literacy through a Science of Reading approach.  And here’s why.

The Science of Reading – what does it mean?

Our brains are hard-wired to learn to talk, but not to read.  Reading and writing were created by humans.  They are social constructs.  Therefore, they need to be taught explicitly.  The purpose of reading is to make meaning of text.  We can re-wire our brains to learn to read, but educational experts have been disagreeing on how best to teach reading.

The old-school, three-cueing system teaches children to make meaning by focussing on whole words and sentence structure, focussing on the first letter, and guessing using pictures or context.  This approach is based on theory and observational research conducted before brain scans were available.  However, neuroscience and brain scanning has created a body of evidence in recent decades that have explicitly discredited the three-cueing approach.  Research shows about 40% of children will learn to read regardless of how they are taught.  But they learn to read in spite of the three-cueing system, not because of it.  The science has moved on.  And so should we.

To learn to read, we need a combination of oral vocabulary, background knowledge, and an ability to decode or sound-out words (phonics).  A picture can help with meaning and context, but it should not be used to identify words.  Most New Zealand schools teach phonics, but they also teach the three-cueing system.  That’s the problem.  Phonics teaches sight words or to sound-out words specifically.  All other strategies are teaching guessing.  

Therefore, incorporating some phonics into a ‘balanced literacy’ or ‘whole language’ approach is ineffective.  It does not align with findings on how the brain learns to read.  We need to be taught explicitly, to ensure our brains use the best pathways for early reading success.  In fact, the three-cueing system impedes reading, because it draws the child’s attention away from the phonics process to the first letter, picture or whole word/sentence.  It assumes that the brain learns to read whole words and will memorise these through exposure to the words.  Whereas, the Science of Reading suggests that children should be explicitly taught in a conscious bid to build a reading network in the brain.  This means that as texts get more complicated, children may struggle to read, because they aren’t sounding out the words, but are guessing.  Explicit, systematic phonics instruction also helps with spelling and for children with literacy learning difficulties.  

What’s more, when children learn to read by sounding out letters first, their brains will learn to recognise words faster than it recognises pictures.  This is called orthographic mapping.  They recognise words not by memorising them as whole visual images, but by successfully mapping a series of sounds, which are now embedded in their memory.  This is what the brain scans show us is actually happening when we read.  When children learn with systematic synthetic phonics, their brain power can be freed up for comprehension and meaning, rather than word identification.  Although working memory is rarely considered a trainable skill in reading programs, it actually can be developed intentionally.   

To address New Zealand’s literacy challenges, TOP would move funding out of Reading Recovery programmes and into professional development and resourcing for schools to teach reading through a Science of Reading approach.  Reading Recovery currently costs $24 million per year.  If an average school spent $20,000 in professional development and $10,000 on decodable texts to implement a Science of Reading programme, with 2000 primary schools in New Zealand, the programme would pay for itself within two and a half years.  In the meantime, TOP would require the Ministry of Education to update its Effective Literacy Practice Handbooks in line with the Science of Reading.  We would also encourage schools to look at instructional materials and remove practices such as evidence of the three-cueing system and use of levelled readers.  

How would TOP address other issues that affect literacy?

TOP agrees that exposure to early literacy is important.  But let’s stop blaming busy parents for our literacy problems.  Kiwi parents are working in a daily grind.  TOP has ways to ease their load.  In the meantime, let’s fix the system.  Rather than waiting for children to fail in reading, let’s implement teaching approaches and supporting resources that align with current research and evidence based findings.  

There are massive literacy gaps between children starting school, but pre-school targeted reading intervention programmes are not the answer here.   TOP argues the literacy gaps relate to breadth of vocabulary rather than exposure to books per se.  A child that has learnt waiata, rhythm, oral stories and a range of vocabulary, for example, will still advance in reading, despite less exposure to a variety of books.  So, let’s stop blaming parents in low socio-economic areas.  Let’s not remove those children from their homes to attend often sub-standard early learning facilities.  

Instead, let’s support whānau and communities to engage with their children in a variety of ways and contexts, to enrich their early learning experiences.  Let’s get multiple adults in children’s lives building relationships, connecting and telling stories to children.  It takes a village to raise a child.  But that doesn't mean taking the child away from its primary caregivers to be raised by others.  It means wrapping the support of the village around the child and its whānau.

Children need to be supported emotionally and socially before cognitive development can occur.  This is best achieved with warm, reciprocal, one-to-one, consistent relationships.  Let’s create a system that values integration between early childhood education (ECE) and families.  Because ECE has the potential to develop whole communities.  Let’s also forge collegial relationships and pathways from ECE to primary so that there is an understanding of the child during this transition.

Most importantly, we need to lift families out of poverty.  This is best achieved by a universal basic income (UBI), which isn’t taken away from families as they work.  TOP’s UBI is set at $250 per week per adult and $40/child.  No questions, no conditions. Forever. 

TOP agrees quality is a fundamental problem in ECE.  Hence, TOP’s Early Years Learning policy; the only detailed ECE policy by any party contending the 2020 election.

In conclusion, New Zealand’s literacy is being corrupted by politicians who don’t investigate thoroughly or ask pertinent questions, by literacy teaching practises based on out-dated observational theories rather than neuroscience, and by poor investment in the professional development of teachers over decades.  Let’s not leave the educational changes that are needed to chance in 2020.  Vote TOP.

Dr Naomi Pocock is TOP’s Education Spokesperson and Hamilton East Candidate.


TOP’s other education blogs include:

TOP's take on the last 3 years of Education in NZ

Education & Identity - Crucial For Māori Student Success

Post-Covid-19 ECE in NZ – what could it look like?

ECE budget 2020. A drop in an ocean of need.

Does the Ministry of Education Even Understand Children?

How can we fix education in New Zealand?

Will participation in early childhood education actually reduce future crime in NZ?

Nature play in schools – A mainstream option?

National & Labour – Both tinkering around the edges of education