Grassroots rebellions

Joel Hernandez
Insights Newsletter
4 December, 2020

Kiwi students are not learning the literacy skills they need and now some schools are paying from their own pocket in a desperate attempt to reverse the dismal trend.

Both domestic and international data show a major problem in New Zealand literacy levels. Back in 2000, Kiwi 15-year-olds ranked third out of 32 peer countries in reading competency, according to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). By 2018, New Zealand had dropped to sixth.

Another study by New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Commission in 2014 found 40% of teens holding a NCEA Level 2 qualification were functionally illiterate and innumerate.

And Year 5 primary school students ranked last for reading across English-speaking countries in the most recent Progress in International Literacy Study (PIRLS).

Schools are noticing the breakdown. But the Ministry of Education still refuses to fund alternate teaching programmes.

So now some schools are paying consultants tens of thousands of dollars from their own funds to upskill their teachers in structured literacy, which includes the explicit, systematic teaching of phonics.

Last week, RNZ reported that Wanaka-based principal Jo McKay was frustrated by the reading recovery programme because it waited for children to fail before doing something about it.

McKay said students who returned to structured literacy had already improved their reading abilities since it had been implemented. Those with dyslexia benefitted the most.

This grassroots rebellion could not come at a better time and will be crucial to fix New Zealand’s dismal literacy rates.

But to get there, the Ministry of Education must be willing to recognise that its “whole language” approach may not be working for all students and allow schools to choose which programmes are most effective.

Improving the literacy outcomes will require national testing data from all primary schools. The Ministry should be talking with concerned schools and watching the results of alternative teaching approaches to discover which ones work.

After all, a major reason these schools had to dip into their own pockets is because the Ministry refuses to gather any data that might cast its “whole literacy” approach in a negative light.

Such behaviour is intolerable. Rather than hinder testing, the Ministry should pay attention to these grassroots movements and look for ways to help. Until then, New Zealand’s literacy decline will continue.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates