There is a change ahead for new entrants when it comes to learning to read at school.
At the moment many school books have stories where children learn to read by looking at pictures and context, rather than a phonics-based approach where they sound out the words.
However, the Ministry of Education is now putting a stronger emphasis on phonics in it's
Ready-to-Read series of readers for primary school students.
This story has been edited. The Ministry of Education's response to the original story has been added in full below.
The new approach changes the current emphasis, followed since the 1960s, of offering children enjoyable books first and stepping in to help with "decoding" words by sounding out the letters only when the children get stuck.
The current strategy has failed to close the gaps in reading abilities that children start school with.
"Evidence shows that New Zealand has one of the largest gaps in literacy learning outcomes among developed countries," it says in a Request for Proposals for a new Ready to Read series of reading books.
"Children who start school with less English literacy capital typically make less progress than their more knowledgeable peers, and the gap between the two groups widens over time."
The Ready to Read series, which are supplied free to schools and have the colour-coded wheel on the back, are graded by complexity but are not organised to teach one letter sound at a time.
Keryn Wilson of Ladbrooks School near Christchurch gave the example of Joy Cowley's Ready to Read book Off goes the Hose!
The language seems simple, repeating phrases such as:
"We water on the garden.
"We water on the tree.
"We water on Grandma."
"But a word like 'water' is a highly complex word," Wilson said. "It has the 'w' sound, it has the 'or' sound but it's spelt with an 'a' which doesn't usually sound like that, it's got 't' and it's got the 'er' ending.
"If children [new readers] are looking at that word, they wouldn't be able to read it phonetically. They would guess it."
Instead, Ladbrooks School has paid $6000 for a set of "decodable" or phonic readers from Australia and Britain which take children methodically through each individual letter and letter combination, starting with the most common letters S, A, T, I, M.
Their first books include only combinations of those five letters such as "sat" and "mat".
Lucy Martin, who turns 7 today, struggled with the old system but is now learning to read since Ladbrooks School adopted the simplified decodable books this year with help from Hamilton-based Learning Matters.
"The stories are fairly painful. Some of them you think, 'Oh my goodness!'" said her mother, Mary Martin.
"But the kids love them because they can read them. Lucy's a kid that was struggling to read the old way, I guess, and she's just finding it quite empowering with the decodable texts."
The issue is not black and white. Education Ministry deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor-Reid said the ministry "has not changed its position".
"We continue to support a range of approaches to teach young children to read," she said.
"The Ready to Read series is a longstanding series that has supported generations of Kiwi kids to learn to read.
"We are always looking to keep the series up to date and relevant for the diverse range of learners in our classrooms. In this latest update we want to make sure the sequence of learning sounds is strengthened."
Both the existing approach and the new one teach children to learn new words by both sounding out their letters and guessing from the context and pictures.
But the old approach encouraged teachers to use context first. Massey University research found that 60 per cent of the cues that teachers gave children to tackle new words were about context and only 40 per cent were about sounding out the letters.
The new approach will still let schools use context clues with children who already know their sounds and letters, but will encourage a more systematic teaching of sounds and letters to most children first.
The change has alarmed the reading teachers' group, the NZ Literacy Association.
"We are seriously concerned and question this decision but we do need to find out more," said association president Joy Hawke.
A former University of Auckland literacy lecturer, John McCaffery, said the change would "set back literacy achievement for Māori and Pasifika students" by postponing their introduction to enjoyable and culturally relevant books.
The Ministry of Education's Response
The New Zealand Herald today claiming a "U-turn on reading" is inaccurate and misleading.
The Ministry has not changed its position on learning to read.
The Ministry of Education has always supported a range of approaches to teach young children to read, including phonics (sounding out words), as well as comprehension and context. In line with this 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.
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 and 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.
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 article is disappointing, inaccurate and has caused unnecessary concerns for educators and parents.
Ellen MacGregor-Reid, Deputy Secretary Early Learning and Student Achievement.