The Ministry of Education says it has not done a "U-turn" on how reading should be taught in schools.

It says a request for proposals for a revised set of Ready to Read books for new school entrants, reported yesterday as a "U-turn", is just "business as usual".

Ministry deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor-Reid said the ministry "has always supported a range of approaches to teach young children to read, including phonics (sounding out words), as well as comprehension and context".

"Teachers in New Zealand use a range of teaching methods. What the ministry does not support and has been consistent about is using phonics as the only approach," she said.

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"The Ready to Read series is a long-standing series that has supported generations of Kiwi kids to learn to read. We regularly update the series to make sure teachers and children have access to up-to-date engaging content.

"With this update we are looking to make sure that all the Ready to Read books include the full range of learning methods. It became apparent that some of the books in the current series did not do this well enough in relation to learning sounds.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor-Reid:
Ministry of Education deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor-Reid: "This is not a policy change, it is not a reversal of position, it is business as usual." Photo / File

"This is not a policy change, it is not a reversal of position, it is business as usual as we update and improve existing resources."

The request for proposals (RFP) says New Zealand has "one of the largest gaps in literacy learning outcomes among developed countries", and that the gap actually widens after children start school.

It seeks proposals to "enhance" the Ready to Read series by incorporating "a more deliberate and explicit progression of a phonemic/word-level learning", as well as content that is "engaging for ethnically diverse students".

"The intention is to build from research undertaken by Massey University and internationally that reveals that some early readers need explicit and sequenced instruction in the code of English in addition to accessing texts within rich language learning contexts," it says.

 John McCaffery believes the change will set back Pasifika children who use culturally appropriate bilingual texts developed by Auckland University. Photo / File
John McCaffery believes the change will set back Pasifika children who use culturally appropriate bilingual texts developed by Auckland University. Photo / File

Auckland University's Professor Stuart McNaughton, the ministry's chief education scientific adviser, said it was appropriate for the ministry to develop materials that could be used nationally as a "supplement" for those children who aren't picking up letters and sounds from the current reading books.

"I don't see this ministry RFP indicating that we should start with phonics only," he said.

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"The evidence supports a core programme which is meaning-based, motivating, appropriate to children's interests and language, and recognises some children will need more explicit phonics instruction."

Learning Matters director Carla McNeil said it appeared the ministry accepted that it was not sufficient to teach reading through context and meaning alone.

Carla McNeil says many people are excited by the new approach to reading. Photo / Supplied
Carla McNeil says many people are excited by the new approach to reading. Photo / Supplied

"There is a huge variety of people across the country that have been in touch with me today that are just so excited about this pending improvement," she said.

Principals' Federation president Whetu Cormick said closing the gaps in children's reading skills would need ensuring that reading books represented New Zealand's diverse cultures and addressing other social, economic and cultural issues, as well as revising reading strategies.

Whetu Cormick says revising reading strategies is only part of the answer to widening gaps in reading abilities. Photo / File
Whetu Cormick says revising reading strategies is only part of the answer to widening gaps in reading abilities. Photo / File

Former Auckland University literacy lecturer John McCaffery said the Massey research referenced in the RFP recommends screening children for their knowledge of letters and sounds, and then teaching letters and sounds explicitly to those who needed it before introducing books such as the existing Ready to Read series.

"It is expected that most children would begin in this phase because most children start school with low letter sound knowledge," the research says.

NOTE: An earlier story on the Ministry of Education's plans for the Ready to Read books, which described the changes as a "U-turn", has been amended. While there has been a change of emphasis in favour of phonics, the Herald accepts that this does not amount to a "U-turn".