The state of literacy; how bad are things and why does it matter?

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The state of literacy; how bad are things and why does it matter?

By Dr Nina Hood

This week The Education Hub launched two research reports on the state of literacy among young people in Aotearoa New Zealand. The reports begin with a story recounted by a resource teacher of literacy (RTLit) describing her experiences working with a year 6 boy, who, when she first met him, could not read or write. In fact, during their first session together, he told her that he did not know his alphabet yet. While their progress together was slow at first, over time he developed an understanding of the relationship between sounds and letters, and became able to decode words. This particular story has a happy ending. By the time he finished year 6, not only could the boy read books, he had developed a passion for reading and was actively asking to read new books. Unfortunately, this is not the experience of many children in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The research we drew on to inform the reports paints a deeply concerning picture of literacy achievement.

  1. The performance of both primary and secondary school students has been declining in most reliable measures of reading achievement, especially since 2009.[i] What’s more, over the past decade, the proportion of children not reaching the minimum reading benchmark has increased from 14% to 19%, while at the same time the proportion of students achieving at the highest levels in reading has decreased significantly. Currently, only 60% of 15-year-olds in New Zealand are achieving above the most basic level of reading, meaning a staggering 40% are struggling to read and write.[ii]
  • Students’ achievement in reading and writing is decreasing over their time at school.  For example, in writing, 63% of year 4 students are achieving at or above the curriculum level, however, by year 8 this figure has dropped to just 35% of students.[iii]
  • Persistently large gaps remain between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and these gaps are greater than in comparable countries.[iv] Data suggest that there is on average a nearly two-year gap between student achievement in high and low decile schools in both reading and writing at the primary level.[v]
  • There remain persistently large gaps between the literacy levels of different ethnic groups, with Pākehā and Asian students consistently achieving, on average, higher reading and writing scores than Māori and Pasifika students. What’s more, since 2000, data show there have been statistically significant declines in reading attainment for ākonga Māori and Pasifika students.[vi]
  • There remain persistently large gender gaps in literacy, with girls achieving,

on average, higher reading and writing scores than boys. Data show that New Zealand has the 12th largest gender gap out of the 50 countries who participated in the 2016 PIRLS assessment. And while this gap has been narrowing since 2009, this is only because girls’ reading achievement has been declining at a faster rate than boys’ achievement.[vii]

It is important to note that the findings above do not yet reflect what could be described as the Covid effect. There is robust international evidence (and plenty of anecdotal evidence from New Zealand) to suggest that student achievement and rates of progress have, on average, been substantially impacted by disruptions to schooling over the past two years.

Why does this matter?

Literacy is essential for achievement across the curriculum. Ensuring that all young people are able to read and write will ultimately have flow on effects for achievement across all school subjects, enabling students to engage more deeply with the full breadth of the curriculum. Furthermore, research has demonstrated a significant relationship between literacy and the ability to reason efficiently and critically, particularly in the context of solving novel problems, suggesting that improving literacy levels will also improve the development of so-called soft skills and higher order thinking skills.

Being literate is also connected with greater employment opportunities and higher pay, better health and wellbeing, and significantly lower incarceration rates. This means that literacy is not just an educational issue. It is a social issue and it is an economic issue. It affects every single one of us (albeit in different ways and to varying degrees of magnitude).  As James Murphy explains, in a Literacy; An evidence-informed guide for teachersWritten information has become the foundation on which the information revolution is built. Without access to this foundation, full participation in our society is impossible. Indeed poor literacy is so strongly correlated with poor life outcomes that it should be impossible to ignore.

The importance of literacy across all areas of life led to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2012 releasing a unanimous decision recognising that learning to read is not a privilege, but a basic and essential human right.

Currently, in New Zealand, we are failing too many of our young people by not ensuring that they build the knowledge and skills required to be literate in the 21st century. That something must be done is imperative, not only for each young person but also for society more generally.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

[i] The most reliable insights into literacy achievement in Aotearoa New Zealand (and those that form the basis of this report) come from three sources: (1) the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is three-yearly international study conducted by the OECD into fifteen-year old’s ability to use

their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges; (2) the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), a five-yearly international study monitoring trends in the reading achievement of ten-year olds; and (3) the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA), which monitors student achievement across the New Zealand Curriculum, including in reading and writing, at Years 4 and 8 in English-medium state and state-integrated schools.

[ii] Medina, E. & McGregor, A. (2019). PISA 2018 Reading in New Zealand: Reading achievement & experiences of 15-year-olds. Ministry of Education.

[iii] Educational Assessment Research Unit & New Zealand Council for Educational Research. (2020). National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement: English 2019 Key Findings. Ministry of Education.

[iv] Ministry of Education. (2017). PIRLS 2016: New Zealand’s Achievement. Ministry of


[v] Ibid.

[vi] Medina, E. & McGregor, A. (2019).

[vii] Ministry of Education. (2017).

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