By Dr Nina Hood
As our two research reports published this week clearly show, New Zealand is in the midst of a literacy crisis. Currently, 19% of fifteen-year-olds do not meet the lowest benchmark for literacy and a further 21% are achieving at only the most basic level. Given the importance of literacy for a wide range of life outcomes, it is imperative that the current situation dramatically improves.
It is apparent that children are experiencing widely different opportunities to learn. These differences start at birth, impacted by disparities in home literacy environments. They continue in early childhood education where differing levels of teacher knowledge, and different pedagogical practices and teaching philosophies influence both the opportunities and support children receive to develop age-appropriate early literacy skills.
Such differences in pedagogical practices and knowledge continue at primary school, influencing the opportunities students receive to develop the foundational literacy skills – including both explicit, systematic phonics instruction as well as building up their vocabulary, mental lexicon, and conceptual knowledge through engagement with rich language and knowledge building across the curriculum – that will set them up for ongoing literacy and broader educational success.
The variance in opportunities to learn continue as children proceed through primary school and into secondary school. The opportunity to engage with rich and challenging texts, the opportunity to read and write across the curriculum, and the opportunity to develop critical literacy skills all vary between schools, and at times within the same school. The opportunities to learn that some students, particularly Māori and Pasifika, receive continue to be negatively impacted by low teacher expectations. These in turn negatively influence the nature, breadth, and level of challenge present in the curriculum, the pedagogical approaches employed, and the level of support that they receive. Without changes to teacher expectations as well as changes to the nature of the curriculum and NCEA, it is unlikely that all students will receive the broad, diverse, and challenging learning experiences that they deserve and are critical for setting them up for success into the future.
For some students, opportunities to learn can also be enabled or constrained by the types, availability, and implementation of interventions. Establishing a sophisticated, fit-for-purpose, targeted national response to intervention approach that works across all year levels and in all schools will be essential.
These discrepancies in opportunities to learn represent a systemic failure. They cannot and should not be apportioned to any one group, organisation, or policy. However, they do provide clear indications of areas that need to be addressed. Perhaps most importantly, it is essential that all teachers hold the necessary knowledge and know-how to provide high quality literacy instruction and rich opportunities to learn for all students. Achieving this will require changes to initial teacher education and ongoing professional learning. It also will be necessary to ensure that teachers have access to the resources they need to implement a rich curriculum in ways that are pedagogical sound, and have the suite of assessment tools and processes to enable them to monitor the impact they are having on students’ learning.
Underpinning these efforts should be a national, multi-faceted strategy, which is coordinated across national-level, school-level, and societal-level contexts and actors, to drive improvement and reform efforts. However, strategy alone will not be enough. It is essential that the implementation of such a strategy is carefully planned and executed, with adequate resourcing and support sustained over time, and that the initiatives are evaluated and iteratively improved. Any such effort must be underpinned not only by the best available evidence on literacy development and instruction but also by evidence on effective education reform and school improvement initiatives
It also will be crucial to recognise the broader societal factors influencing our current literacy levels, including systemic racism and ongoing discrimination, and the impacts of poverty, which affect absenteeism, transience, and young people’s readiness to learn.
None of the above will be easy. Nor will it be quick. It will require multiple actors working both individually and in unison, united by a coherent, carefully thought through and evidence-informed strategy. However, failure to act can rightly be called a national crisis.