You turn up, read a poem or short story, and write about it. Exam done. Easy.

Or is it?

Data shows a paper asking students to respond to "unfamiliar texts" was the most unpopular of all three English exams on offer at NCEA Level 2 last year, even among high-achieving kids.

Teachers say the exam is often seen as more difficult than the other two options, which test knowledge on texts studied during the year, because students were unable to prepare essays in advance.


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However, experts are concerned at the effect the low uptake might have on reading comprehension, the essential skill the exam sets out to test, particularly among disadvantaged kids.

The "unfamiliar" paper was most unpopular among Pasifika students at decile 1, with only 1.3 per cent of those students' English entries attributed to the paper, compared to 12 per cent of entries in a "studied text" paper.

Generally, the exam contains a poem, and story excerpts, usually from New Zealand authors. Last year at Level 2 one excerpt was from Mandy Hager's Singing Home the Whale, about a boy called Will who protects a baby orca.

The exam asked students to "analyse how the writer shows Will's changing emotional state throughout the passage" using literary techniques such as similes.

Data shows a paper asking students to respond to
Data shows a paper asking students to respond to "unfamiliar texts" was the most unpopular of all three English exams on offer at NCEA Level 2 last year.

Baradene College deputy head of English Heather Robertson said some students struggled with the "metaphorical" aspects of the task, while some simply didn't like it because they hadn't seen the text before.

"Some students are quite literal. And there's those who don't like it simply because of the word 'unfamiliar'," she said.

Jo Morris, president of the New Zealand Association for the Teaching of English, said because non-readers tended to struggle with the paper, often they would decide not to sit it at the end of the year.

"Just because it's not being assessed doesn't mean it's not being taught," she said.

However, a recent Auckland University paper "Opportunity to learn about disciplinary literacy in senior secondary English classrooms in New Zealand" raised concerns about the link between assessment and teaching in two standards,including unfamiliar texts.

It found poorer schools not only had lower entry rates in the exam, but their students also had lower exposure of the kind of content it would assess.

For example, students at poorer schools read shorter, less-complicated texts; while those at schools with wealthier students read longer texts more likely to be read by adults.

"The gap ... provides one stark illustration of the limited and at times absent opportunity to learn afforded these students," it said.

The most popular English standard of all, including internal assessments, was one asking students to "produce a selection of crafted and controlled writing".