Roadblock on literacy's pathway to prosperity

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
1 December, 2021

Written language came to humanity relatively recently. Modern homo sapiens have walked the earth for at least 100,000 years. But not until about 5,000 years ago in what is now Iraq and Kuwait did the earliest writing system emerge. Through a combination of cultural diffusion and independent discovery, writing spread to much of the ancient world over the next three millennia.

Yet until a century or two ago, reading and writing remained the preserve of the chosen few. In Renaissance Europe, literacy was a privilege enjoyed only by the nobility, clergy, officials and a small minority of merchants.

The development of the printing press in Germany in the 15th century marked the end of the elite’s stranglehold on reading and writing in Europe. The subsequent population-wide spread of literacy coincided with the enlightenment, egalitarianism and the spread of democracy. And with a remarkable period of human flourishing.

Few today could doubt the value of being able to read and write. As former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan put it, “[l]iteracy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories.”

Kiwi literacy in decline

And yet. Over the last 20 years, successive New Zealand governments have condoned an alarming decline in literacy rates among Kiwi school leavers. Once, our education system was the envy of the world. Today it is barely mediocre.

The results from the most recent Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study in 2016 are concerning enough. New Zealand’s Year 5 students placed last among all English-speaking countries. And they ranked 24th out of all 26 participating OECD countries.

A survey conducted by the Tertiary Education Commission in 2014 of 800 Year 12 students is even more alarming. All 800 students had successfully achieved NCEA Level 2. Yet, 40% of them failed to meet an international benchmark for functional literacy.

The New Zealand education system is also now one of the most unequal in the world. The gap between the educational ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ eclipses all our English-speaking OECD peers. And the slide has happened despite Government spending per child increasing in real terms by more than 30 per cent since 2001.

What has gone wrong?

The New Zealand Initiative’s latest report sheds some light on New Zealand’s education system’s literacy failure. In Reading with the light switched on, report author and educationalist Steen Videbeck identifies a disconnect between well-established science and educational practice.

New Zealand’s education establishment favours a so-called ‘Whole Language’ approach to teaching reading. According to the Whole Language theory, the best method for children to learn to read and write is one in which children are not taught the relationship between sounds and letters (as older readers may recall from primary school classrooms in the mid-20th century).

Instead, primary school students are expected to learn reading and writing holistically. Surround them with picture books with words, and they will learn to read and write in the same way as they naturally learn an oral language. Or so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, science has now proved this theory is wrong. Cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, author of Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, explains that the brain does learn to speak its first language naturally. That is because evolution has led to specialised circuits for spoken languages. But because written language is such an evolutionarily recent invention, the same circuits do not exist to support the natural development of literacy.

Some children do effortlessly learn to decode the meaning of the squiggles on pages that make up a written language. But for most, the task is harder. To ensure those children do not fall through the cracks, the science reveals reading and writing have to be taught.

Science also sheds light on the most effective teaching methods: an approach called ‘Structured Literacy.’ Structured Literacy explicitly teaches phonics - the sounds of the letter chunks that make up spoken language. It does this systematically and cumulatively. And it uses decodable texts, which contain only letter and sound relationships that children have been taught.

Videbeck argues that New Zealand’s education system must change its literacy strategy. The system must scale down what does not work and scale up what science shows does work.

Chief among the culprits is the establishment’s Whole Language dogma.

But the Initiative’s report goes further, taking aim at what the Ministry of Education calls ‘Balanced Literacy’ and at the New Zealand-invented (and Ministry of Education funded) Reading Recovery programme.

Videbeck argues neither are supported by the evidence, and both are incompatible with the science. In combination, he concludes that Balanced Literacy and Reading Recovery create a “cascade of failure” in the form of more struggling readers than if schools followed the science of reading.

The way forward

Fortunately, some signs are emerging that the Ministry is facing up to the education system’s systemic literacy failure. A report released by the Ministry earlier this year acknowledged that the current system “is clearly not working for a reasonably large group of students.” And Education Minister Chris Hipkins has asked the Ministry to “prepare the ground for a literacy reset.”

Yet New Zealand’s education system has faced “resets” before. As Videbeck notes, “All too often, a reset is followed by the same problems or makes things worse.”

To avoid this trap, Videbeck’s recommendations fall under three themes – levelling the playing field, educating teachers, and transparency. On the first, Videbeck recommends the Ministry end its preferential funding for Reading Recovery. This would allow schools to adopt science-based Structured Literacy programmes for their students at no additional cost.

To improve teacher knowledge, existing teachers should have access to training materials covering the science of reading. For aspiring teachers, the science of reading should become part of the teacher training curriculum.

On transparency, Videbeck calls for what economists describe as sunlight regulation to end the “opaqueness at every level of the [education] system.” What is taught in Initial Teacher Education programmes. The information parents get from their schools about the curriculum. And the feedback parents receive on the performance of their children. The school system is so wrapped up in its own ideologies it is hard for outsiders to evaluate it. More transparency on these issues is needed to help outsiders evaluate the education system’s performance.

No public policy challenge is more important than reversing our decades-long literacy decline. An education system that fails to teach students to read is setting them up for future failure. Returning to the words of Kofi Anan, “literacy is the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realise his or her full potential.” 

For the sake of future generations of Kiwi children, an effective literacy reset cannot come soon enough.

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