Dr Nina Hood, Founder of The Education Hub
Our webinar on the state of literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand has demonstrated the substantial interest there is in this topic, as well as the importance with which it is viewed. However, it has also highlighted the range of opinions that are held on literacy and the need for more thought around how we can engage constructively on this topic.
At The Education Hub, we were dismayed and deeply saddened by the nature of comments made by a minority of participants during the webinar, and the lack of respect they demonstrated towards other audience members and in particular the panelists. While The Education Hub believes in the need for rigorous evidence-informed discussion and debate, it does not condone some of the behaviour we witnessed during the webinar. It is evident that much more work needs to be done around how we, as a sector, engage in constructive and consensus-building ways with those who hold ideas and perspectives that differ from our own.
Our panelists embraced the ethos of the panel discussion, which was to engage in a productive conversation about what needs to happen to improve literacy levels in New Zealand. Despite holding some differences in perspective, they found much common ground. Firstly, an agreement that current literacy achievement among young people in New Zealand is not good enough. Secondly, that literacy achievement is a complex, multifaceted issue and addressing it will require a national strategy that encompasses the range of factors that influence literacy achievement. Thirdly, that evidence must inform any strategy. Fourthly, that such a strategy will only be successful if it finds a way to bring all stakeholders together. And finally, that alongside any strategy, there must be a clear implementation plan, which includes the necessary time and resourcing to fulfil its ambitions.
There also was recognition among our panel members as to the importance of early literacy and building foundational literacy knowledge and skills. The evidence suggests that this should incorporate both the systematic, explicit teaching of word recognition skills as well as building language comprehension skills through engagement with rich language across the curriculum. However, the evidence also clearly shows that this will not be enough. As our panelists highlighted, what comes before and after the first years of school also plays a critical role in literacy achievement. Therefore, it is essential that any literacy strategy considers the pre-school years, and in particular the importance of oral language and exposing children to rich language environments both in the home and in early childhood education. Any strategy must also address the need to build more complex literacy skills as students progress through schooling. This requires schools being able to support the development of critical literacy, disciplinary literacy, literacy for knowledge acquisition, and literacy for the effective communication of ideas and information, as well as ensuring that students are exposed to complex texts across the curriculum.
As a multitude of studies has shown, what happens in the classroom – that is the teaching and learning that occurs – is one of the most important influences on student learning and achievement. However, as our panelists articulated during our webinar, there are a range of factors – including the nature of school leadership, professional learning, initial teacher education, the curriculum, assessment frameworks (namely NCEA), as well as broader social factors – that influence the teaching and learning occurring in our schools. Consequently, it is imperative that any conversation about improving literacy levels takes a systems approach.
We also recognise that for many teachers there is a pressing need to know more about what you can do immediately in your own classrooms to support your students’ literacy. We have a range of resources freely available on The Education Hub website, and more in development, to help you with this. You might be interested in our resources on early literacy and oral language in early childhood education, our articles on theories of early literacy, the pedagogy of early reading, and our upcoming webinar on writing in primary schools, or our resources on literacy across the curriculum in secondary schools and working with marginalised adolescent literacy learners.
It was our hope in publishing our reports on the state of literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand to renew interest in the issue of literacy and to work towards building consensus around the key issues that need to be addressed in order to significantly improve our current literacy levels. This is going to require us, as a sector, to engage with one another in constructive ways. To listen openly to the views of others. To identify areas of common ground and connection and to use these as entry points to consensus building and forward momentum. Failure to do so will have significant implications for young people, both now and well into the future.