Becoming (il)literate

Steen Videbeck
Insights Newsletter
5 February, 2021

It was both distressing and inspiring. In 2015, while I was a part of a small delegation to a small rural school in Northland, I met a student with an intriguing story. Despite attending school all his life, the 15-year-old boy in front of me had just learnt to read.

His pride in describing his achievement was obvious, as was his gratitude to his new school and teachers. I admired his bravery. It can’t have been easy sharing his story with us - an MP, a Ministry of Education official, and me, an advisor. However, my persistent thought was ‘How could a high school student be illiterate in New Zealand?’

This experience is one of many that have reinforced my passion for education and my drive to find solutions. My journey to the Initiative has been somewhat unusual. I studied economics in New Zealand and the United States and worked as an economist. I then left my comfortable government job to retrain as a primary school teacher.

My first teaching job was at a low-decile rural school. However, I sadly became a teacher-retention statistic, as I quickly realised that my teacher training hadn’t given me the practical evidence-based tools that I needed to succeed.

Next, I worked on a high-profile school choice policy and then travelled halfway around the world to teach at one of Scandinavia’s most progressive schools. Throughout my journey, the importance of literacy has been underlined, and I am excited that it will be my research focus at the Initiative.

International assessments of New Zealand’s reading performance paint a worrisome picture. Both PISA (for 15-year-olds) and PIRLS (for 9-year-olds) scores have fallen, and our long tail of underachievement has persisted. Troublingly, the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey shows New Zealand’s literacy problems continue into adulthood with 14% having very low literacy. The results were even worse for the oldest age group (55 to 65), which points to this being a long-standing issue.

Behind the statistics, it is essential to remember that our failure has a human face. The 15-year-old boy I met is a stark example, but there are many more students suffering unnecessarily. Kids who label themselves as being ‘dumb’ because they are struggling to learn to read. Kids who withdraw from learning. Kids who face lowered expectations from their teachers. Sadly, many of these students never catch up. There are also the, often overlooked, flow-on effects on families – parents worried about their children and exhausted from searching for solutions.

Despite the challenges, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Every year the evidence base on effective reading instruction grows. I look forward to sharing my research findings with you.

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