A Deep Origin of Illiteracy

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
1 November, 2019

Too many children pass NCEA without being functionally literate. Minister Hipkins committed, in his 2019 NCEA change package, to address this by raising the bar.

Officials are grappling with the technicalities, but the real challenge will be for schools. If they cannot raise literacy, vast swathes of students who previously achieved NCEA no longer will.

If you are someone who does not believe that most children can be functionally literate, this looming change is a cruelty, set to consign our less able learners to failure at NCEA.

On the other hand, if you are someone who believes that with the right teaching almost all children can become functionally literate, you will welcome the change because it sends a clear message that schools can and must do better; that illiteracy is not ok.

But what then is this ‘right teaching’? And how can all children succeed?

In his seminal book on American education The Knowledge Deficit, Professor E.D. Hirsch explained why “the reading problems of middle school do not lie in middle school at all, nor those of high school in high school”.

Kiwi secondary school principals often agree.

Rather, Hirsch showed that the reading problems of middle and high school lie in the early years of primary when cumulative, knowledge-oriented modes of schooling can accelerate literacy.

Because as well as word-reading (decoding), reading relies on comprehension, which relies on knowledge of words and the world. Take a newspaper headline as an example. It is only thanks to background conceptual knowledge that Arms for the Saudis does not conjure images of body parts crossing oceans in the same way as does Desperate Kiwis look overseas for organs.

The best way to develop knowledge is through a well-sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum. For many children this process starts young when their parents introduce them to nature, noises and poems, atlases, art and ideas. And since knowledge builds on knowledge, the more they gain the easier they find it to gain yet more.

However, by devastating contrast, if they come from knowledge-poor childhoods, they will find it harder to acquire more. Without intervention, children who start school behind in knowledge invariably fall further behind.

Addressing the on-entry knowledge gap is educators’ greatest challenge. Yet, in New Zealand, knowledge-oriented teaching is disparaged, especially in the early years.  

The Minister is right to raise the literacy bar for NCEA, but there remain no shortcuts to comprehension. Regardless of curricula fashions, our need for knowledge will not go away.

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