Credit where credit is due

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
2 September, 2022

The New Zealand Initiative has been a trenchant critic of the way literacy is currently taught in New Zealand’s schools. The Ministry of Education has, for far too long, promoted manifestly ineffective approaches.

Today, though, we have occasion to be celebratory. But first, some background.

The currently predominant ‘whole language’ and ‘balanced’ methods don’t work for many children. The research evidence is clear: What works best for the greatest number of children, is structured literacy. This approach systematically teaches children to map spelling to sound. It also takes account of broader insights from the science of learning.

The New Zealand Initiative report, Reading with the Light Switched On, by Steen Videbeck, combines accounts from classroom teachers with a summary of scientific research on reading. The report, released late in 2021, presents strong evidence in favour of a structured literacy approach.

Lest our readers think that all we ever do is complain about what’s wrong, I’m delighted to say that we may be on the verge of a new era in New Zealand education. The Ministry has released an action plan for literacy, communication and mathematics.

Like most Ministry publications, the plan is long on buzzwords and short on detail. Still, it does signal a Common Practice Model for effective teaching in these three key areas. Associate Minister of Education Jan Tinetti was recently interviewed on Q&A. Importantly, she confirmed that the model will use a structured literacy approach.

Literacy education is not a party-political issue. Throughout the years of the Clark and Key governments, six successive Ministers of Education presided over declining performance in international literacy assessments.

Now, the incumbent government is embracing a new approach, based on what research tells us will work. It is working already in places like England and South Australia. National’s education spokesperson Erica Stanford has also argued strongly for this approach.

There will, of course, be devil in the detail. It will take a substantial investment in professional development to turn this ship around. But turn it we must. The investment will yield ample returns in educational success for young people.

The New Zealand Initiative will be vigilant as the new plan is rolled out. We won’t hesitate to call out any backsliding or watering down.

But for now, credit where credit is due. Congratulations to Jan Tinetti for heralding a much-needed change in direction for literacy education in New Zealand.

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