The New Zealand Initiative hosted a symposium on literacy education practice and policy yesterday. The attendees numbered about one hundred and included teachers, representatives of literacy advocacy groups and a representative from the Ministry of Education. Education spokespeople from all political parties represented in parliament were invited, and Erica Stanford (National) and Chris Baillie (ACT) were in attendance.
Emeritus Professor James Chapman (Massey University) opened the day with a history lesson. He explained that there has been a clear scientific consensus for more than two decades, that a focus on word-level decoding skills, including the systematic teaching off phonics, lays the strongest possible foundation for children’s literacy.
Professor Chapman’s colleague, Dr Christine Braid, runs professional development programmes for teachers across the country, training them to use literacy teaching methods based on the scientific consensus. She explained that ‘constructivist’ methods of teaching literacy remain dominant in New Zealand, leaving many children struggling to develop literacy. Dr Braid explained that it is often difficult for teachers to let go of these methods. “Unstitching, teaching practice is painful”, she commented, “but we need to start with the phonics”.
We were joined by two Australian guests, literacy expert Dr Jennifer Buckingham and John Gardner, who, until recently, was the Education Minister in South Australia. They talked about the political process of reforming literacy teaching. In South Australia, an approach emphasising phonics has been implemented, with national testing data now showing its benefits.
Dr Helen Walls, a consultant Cognition Education, spoke about the teaching of writing. She echoed the necessity of moving away from constructivist ideology in literacy teaching and argued for a stronger focus on technical skills in writing. “It’s a false dichotomy to pit a technical focus against the view that writing ought to be creative. Writing is a creative act, but without the technical skills, creativity cannot be expressed”.
Olwyn Johnston, Deputy Principal at Tawa School, and Jan Johnstone from the Southern Institute of Technology, spoke about research and practice with older students who have not successfully learned to read. They both emphasised the importance of strengthening understanding of phonics and showed data evincing the success of their approaches.
Finally, Helena McAlister from the New Zealand Graduate School of Education spoke about her methods of training new teachers to be effective in literacy.
The day added to a growing momentum for change in our approach to the teaching of literacy. There is a clear consensus amongst our experts that using ineffective methods would be both ignorant and unethical. The Initiative will be keeping up pressure for evidence-informed change for the sake of our young people.