Script for a reading revolution

A hard-hitting report has shaken New Zealand's complacency about the way our children learn to read. ANDREW LAXON explains.

Not many Government reports fall into the "must read" category for parents of school-age children.

Yesterday's inquiry by Parliament's education and science select committee on the teaching of reading could be an exception.

If its main recommendations are adopted by the Government, schools and the Ministry of Education, it would mark a sea change in how reading is taught, and how teachers are trained to teach it.

The report, Me Panui Tatou Katoa - Let's All Read, says children need to be taught how to decode words according to the sounds within them - the so-called phonics approach, now out of favour.

It also recommends that teachers should not be allowed to graduate from training college unless they meet a nationally agreed standard in teaching reading, which would include phonics for primary teachers.

The cross-party committee - whose members range from Alliance MP and chairwoman Liz Gordon to Act's education spokeswoman, Donna Awatere Huata - is at times scathing in its criticisms of the system and the excuses made for failure.

Submissions claimed that at least one in five third-formers could not read properly when starting secondary school. In the poorest areas, more than half were "functionally illiterate".

An international adult literacy survey in 1996 found 42 per cent of working New Zealanders scored below the minimum, meaning they could not cope in the workplace.

The committee said it had not intended to enter the long-running debate over the rival merits of phonics and the more favoured whole language approach (which teaches children to read largely from context), but it became inevitable.

"The evidence suggests that current literacy strategies are effective for most of our students," the report says. "However, there is compelling evidence that these strategies do not work for certain groups of poor performers, which may together number up to 20 per cent of students.

"In particular, we are concerned that Maori and Pacific students, and students whose first language is not English, continue to perform at a lower level ... with significant social and economic consequences for themselves and this nation."

The report says New Zealand has gained an international reputation since the 1970s for its whole language-based approach.

Whole language teaching should not be thrown out as the two approaches work best together, it says. However, schools and the Ministry of Education must take more responsibility for tackling reading problems through phonics, and teachers must be better trained in how to use the method.

Some key recommendations are:

1. A national research project, incorporating a stocktake of reading strategies used in the classroom and their relative success with particular groups, the availability of instruction in decoding strategies (phonics), particularly for those children with poor oral language skills, and teaching methods used for 5-and 6-year-olds who are not progressing at a rate of reading equal to their peers.

The report says the gap between good and poor readers here is the widest in the OECD, based on scores for 14-year-olds in an international 1990-91 survey.

Many submissions argued that this was because of schools' failure to teach effective sound-letter combinations to children who enrolled with poor oral skills. Others disagreed, drawing the committee into the phonics-whole language debate.

The report says the official position, outlined by the Ministry of Education, is that New Zealand takes a balanced approach which includes teaching phonics.

Some submissions agreed, but others rejected this view and reported "major resistance" by some teachers to using high-quality phonic materials to improve the reading skills of low-performing students.

The committee found a lack of reliable information on how reading was actually taught at classroom level.

"The few studies that have been undertaken suggest that the amount of phonics teaching is far smaller than decision-makers understand it to be."

2. That the ministry provide advice and support to schools to incorporate successful phonics programmes into the classroom.

The report says it does not endorse any particular reading method, but "we strongly affirm the position that at the earliest stages of reading development children need to be systematically taught word-level decoding skills".

It adds that this works best when students gain meaning from what they read (the whole language approach).

"Research into why large numbers of children had problems learning to read has identified a number of issues. The first issue is to ensure each child has phonemic awareness, or the ability to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words. Many come to school with this ability, but many do not.

"The second issue is to ensure that each child understands phonics - that is, that sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet that can then be blended together to form words."

It says few people want to go back to old-fashioned phonics drills, but there are many other options.

Don Buck Primary School, in the west Auckland suburb of Massey, uses a commercial system which gives each of the 42 sounds in English an action, which in turn forms part of a story. The school boasts that its rate of reading problems has dropped from 40 per cent to zero.

Professor William Turner and Professor James Chapman, of Massey University, found slow readers caught up with classmates when they used a "fun" phonics programme but fell behind when they did not.

A 1997 research paper found that using fun phonics "virtually eliminated the gap between Maori and Pakeha children by the middle of the first year of schooling" and closed the gap by the end of the second year.

One of the biggest shake-ups to come out of the report could be a downgrading for the national reading recovery scheme.

The internationally acclaimed programme, started by Dame Marie Clay, takes slow readers out of the classroom for one-on-one instruction and is a prime example of NZ's success in teaching reading.

But the report criticises such "second-wave interventions", particularly reading recovery. It says more than 600 schools do not use it, either by choice or because they lack the resources, and there is strong anecdotal evidence that children who make progress slip back once the programme ends.

The Government spent $18 million on it last year but it is used more widely in the richest schools (classed as decile 10) than the poorest (deciles 1 and 2).

The report recommends that the money used for reading recovery should be made available for other programmes that may better suit children's needs.

It also urges the scheme to put greater emphasis on phonetic skill building, particularly for Maori, Pacific Islanders and children who do not speak English at home.

The report questions the whole principle behind widespread second-wave schemes, saying ideally children should learn to read the first time around.

3. No one should be able to graduate from a course of teacher education until he or she can establish high levels of competence in teaching of literacy measured against nationally agreed standards.

"Few programmes seem to offer detailed skill development for beginning teachers, and there is little focus on how to teach those children to read who have little oral language experience," says the report.

It describes as haphazard the response from teacher training colleges that students could see phonics or other methods being taught during their training in schools.

It concludes that many teachers are simply inadequately prepared by their courses to teach all children to read.

The report describes the axing of reading advisers in the former Department of Education under the 1989 Tomorrow's Schools reforms as disastrous. It recommends the establishment of a high-profile national literacy service, drawing these experts together again and providing support for teachers throughout the country.

Read the full report

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