The Literacy ‘Reset’

Steen Videbeck
Insights Newsletter
18 June, 2021

There are many ways a Minister can communicate with their Ministry. From an email from an advisor to a quiet word with officials (or sometimes a not so quiet word). Some are discrete, while others are meant to send a signal.

This is what makes a Minister’s handwritten notes on briefing papers so interesting. Ministers know they will be publicly released at some stage, meaning that, for shrewd ministers at least, they are meant for a wider audience.

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Education proactively released a ministerial briefing on Primary-Level Literacy. On the briefing note from 2020, Chris Hipkins jotted “… prepare the ground for a literacy ‘reset’”. This was followed by “with a scaling up of initiatives that are working and a scaling down of ones that aren’t”.

To make things even more interesting, the proactive release also contained a refreshingly frank Ministry of Education report from late 2020 that includes a preliminary paper called “Shifting the dial on literacy”. In this paper, they acknowledge that “[o]ur current system for literacy learning is clearly not working for a reasonably large group of students.” The phrase “systematic failure” even appears.

Both Minister Hipkins and the Ministry of Education should be applauded for their candidness. A ‘Literacy Reset’ is long overdue as the way many New Zealand schools teach reading and writing is based on an outdated belief rather than science or evidence.

But resets also come with some trepidation. All too often, a reset is followed by the same problems or even makes things worse. Twenty years ago, New Zealand faced a similar decision and unfortunately chose the wrong path.

So, what would a true ‘Literacy Reset’ look like?

Over the last six months, I have visited some amazing schools and got a glimpse into what is possible for all New Zealand children. These diverse schools have changed to an evidence-based approach called Structured Literacy, which is based on the science of how children learn to read. The teachers involved are part of a growing movement. The Structured Literacy Auckland Facebook group, started last year, now has over 3,000 members.

The Ministry of Education has also been sending some encouraging signals. This year, they produced a Dyslexia guide that promoted the use of Structured Literacy (although the evidence shows this approach is best for all learners, not just those with dyslexia). The Ministry also has released decodable books, that align with Structured Literacy. While these books are not perfect, they are a step in the right direction.

A ‘Literacy Reset’ provides an exciting opportunity to look closely at the reading research and re-evaluate our current practices. Moving towards the science of reading will benefit all New Zealand children for years to come.

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