I have an almost 9-year-old son who throws the word "intriguing" casually (and correctly) into conversation, but he can't read. He can come up with amazing original story ideas off the top of his head, but he can't read. Our home is cluttered with books, he is read to every night, but he still can't read.
My son is not alone. A research report published by The Education Hub earlier this year revealed that by the age of 15, 35.4 per cent of teenagers struggle to read and write.
The declining literacy rate in New Zealand is not a new story, but it is a serious one. According to figures shared by the Ministry of Education, the percentage of students achieving the internationally recognised baseline for reading dropped from 86 per cent in 2000 to 81 per cent in 2018, while those considered "top performers" withered from 19 per cent to 13 per cent over the same period.
As a parent, I had made the assumption that my son would learn to read when he went to school. By the time he started, he could read and write his own name and I believed the rest would come. Everyone told me how clever he was, why wouldn't it? Time passed, I continued to read to him, but he rarely wanted to try himself, and when he did, he became frustrated and upset.
In his second year at school, my son was sent to recovery reading, or "rainbow reading", as it was referred to in order to take the sting of failure out of it. Those extra hours of reading made very little difference and soon he started getting into trouble and refusing to go to school. We were confused, frustrated, and utterly lost, and so was he.
Each school has an appointed SENCO, which stands for Special Educational Needs Coordinator - someone to support those kids that need extra help and support in learning and behaviour. The SENCO at my son's school is intelligent, passionate, patient and understanding, but every time I brought up the issue of literacy there was never any talk of next steps to help him. It took me longer than it should, but I finally realised that there was no next step for obtaining reading help for my son, at least not through the public education system.
The aforementioned Education Hub report revealed not only alarmingly low literacy rates, but that funding is also lacking. The Hub noted that a parliamentary select committee report found that "students with specific learning needs ... are not well served by the education system". The report also showed that "it was difficult to get children's needs diagnosed and that support for students with identified needs was typically poorly funded or non-existent".
Susan, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, is a special needs educator based in Wellington. She has been teaching for more than 20 years. Susan informed me that, in terms of funded reading support within schools, the recovery reading programme is currently the only option. And, in her opinion, it doesn't work.
"Reading recovery is a very flawed process because what they're doing is they are pushing them through," says Susan.
"They've done it, but they haven't actually succeeded," she continues. "Once that level of input, of that half hour a day, one-to-one is pulled out, they actually lose those skills and they go right back."
For many, including Susan, the "whole language" approach to reading adopted in New Zealand in the 1980s, based on the research of Marie Clay, is at the heart of the literacy crisis. Clay, a developmental psychologist from New Zealand, proposed that teaching phonics was actually discouraging children from wanting to read and put forward another method. Known in the US as "cueing", the approach encourages children to deduce the meaning of a word based on three factors - meaning drawn from pictures, syntax, and any letters or parts of words they do recognise. For example, if the word starts with "s" and there is a picture of a snake and the child guesses the word is therefore "snake", they have succeeded in deducing the meaning of the text. This approach seems to work for some students. Studies estimate around 40 per cent of children will achieve literacy when instructed this way. However, American author and industry-leading reading researcher David Kilpatrick asserts that children who learn to read with cueing are succeeding in spite of the instruction, not because of it.
The answer, according to Susan, is a move towards structured literacy, an approach that has seen great success in teaching children with dyslexia to read.
"There's more and more evidence that structured literacy is working," asserts Susan.
Some schools are already adopting a structured literacy approach, but without a nationally prescribed education plan and an investment in retraining teachers in phonological instruction, most schools aren't equipped to walk away from the cueing system - yet. But, according to the Ministry of Education, things might finally be changing.
An overhaul is underway, reveals Pauline Cleaver, Associate Leader (Hautū) Pathways and Progress at the Ministry of Education. It won't be a quick fix, however.
"Making the changes needed will take time," states Cleaver. "We are taking a phased approach and will be working collaboratively with the sector to fully realise the Strategy's potential."
The strategy referred to is the Literacy & Communication and Maths Strategy, announced in March, aiming to improve education outcomes and equity in both literacy and maths.
According to Cleaver, the MoE is investing in training support for 5400 teachers with the goal that by the end of 2023 they will be ready to implement the new Better Start Literacy Approach. The BSLA "focuses on the link between spoken and written language, systematically supporting children's phonological and phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge and oral language," says Cleaver. It is unclear how unilaterally the BSLA will be applied however, with the MoE commenting that "all schools with new entrant and year one students will have the opportunity to take part in MoE-funded BSLA". This raises the question of when this "opportunity" will be offered to students. Will it take the place of current pedagogy or instead only be offered when a student shows signs of struggling?
While there is some hope for a brighter literary future, what about all of those parents, like me, whose children have already fallen through the cracks? It seems to me there are only two options for desperate parents. The first being to wait and see and hope it just "clicks" for their child one day. The second is to outlay an extraordinary amount of money on private reading instruction, and perhaps an even more costly assessment to identify learning disorders, such as dyslexia.
In New Zealand, unless you are one of the very, very few who qualify for financial assistance, a formal assessment undertaken by a qualified educational psychologist will cost you between $1000 and $1500. Will this investment help your child to read? No. It will simply identify any key areas of delay or specific learning disabilities and recommend teaching approaches based on those findings.
Lois is a specialist reading tutor and is also qualified to perform education assessments (known as a WJ IV) in cases of suspected dyslexia. Lois works solely with clients referred to her through SPELD, a not-for-profit service that aims to provide support to children and adults with reading challenges. Lois works with SPELD as she believes that help is needed, but she is running a business and her services aren't free. Those who become SPELD members (an annual fee of $100) can book a WJ IV assessment with Lois for a reduced fee of $1150.
In most cases, even where a learning issue such as dyslexia is identified, there is no funding available to obtain additional help for that child. Parents can enlist the help of a SPELD tutor, like Lois, for as little as $50 or as much as $100 an hour, depending on experience.
A weekly ongoing cost of $100 is out of the question for many Kiwi families. So where do they find financial aid? According to Lois, there isn't any.
"We're not supported," says Lois of SPELD, "we haven't got funding." Lois wishes "there was money in the kitty", enabling her to help those who can't afford her services, but the assistance just isn't there.
I didn't have a good understanding of how reading was taught in New Zealand public schools when my son turned five (how many parents would?). As a result, I was at a loss for about two years as to why my son's reading just wasn't progressing. Then, about 3 months ago, I got lucky.
Julia is a speech and language therapist based in West Auckland, who works specifically with children. I came across Julia's work for a different reason, but we soon started talking about the complexities of language and I mentioned my son's reading challenges and she smiled at me and said, "I can help."
Born in the US, Julia completed her degree there and it involved a thorough instruction in phonics and language decoding, both oral and written. Going back to basics with my son, Julia started working on the phonic sounds that would have once been taught during his first year at school. My son, frustrated for so long, hung on her every word, repeated every sound and worked harder than I have ever seen him work at anything, except Lego.
A few months of Julia's help has seen my son jump mountains, not just in his reading, but in his self-confidence, attitude to school and emotional regulation. Reading is still a struggle for him, but for the first time I feel confident that he will get there. Seeing him so proud of himself when he finished his first chapter book brought tears to my eyes, but his progress did not come cheap. His sessions with Julia cost $120 a week, every week. When you add it up you are faced with a number that is well out of reach for most New Zealanders. And that is not ok with me.