New Zealand's biggest study into literacy teaching at childcare centres - where under-5s are cared for and prepared for school - has revealed some alarming findings.

* 330 Childcare centres were inspected.

* 60% were lacking a focus on literacy.

* $115.50 The daily rate paid at a top-end childcare centre.

One expert has labelled teaching practices discovered in some centres as "quite dangerous", while another says the report reveals our children are being sold short.

The Education Review Office (ERO) Report on Literacy in Early Childhood Services investigated if children were learning good literacy skills in centres. The Education Ministry views a good start in early literacy - not only reading and writing, but also listening, talking, viewing and drawing - as "critical" to kids doing well later on.

ERO investigators went into more than 350 teacher- and parent-led early childhood services - including daycares, kindergartens, playcentres and home-based networks and discovered:

Some teachers tried to teach phonics to kids aged under two.

Purchases of books, art, writing materials, and computer software with no specific learning in mind.

Failure to differentiate teaching for boys and girls (boys get bored more easily).

Some services that simply didn't know if they were improving kids' learning.

Claire McLachlan, Associate Professor in Early Years Education at Massey University's College of Education, said she was "thrilled with the honesty of the report". This meant the Education Ministry knew exactly what to address.

"It's confirmed my suspicions that some centres are doing really well, but others are doing not only badly, but also doing things that are considered to be quite dangerous," said McLachlan.

"Quite dangerous" included having a phonics programme thrust on kids who were not yet developmentally ready for formal teachings.

She said young kids could only cope with about 10 minutes' direct tuition daily and if teaching were too formal, it could turn tots off learning.

"The skill-and-drill stuff will not have good outcomes," she said. Overseas research showed this could see kids eventually become dropouts.

She said some findings did not surprise her. She had witnessed some "dodgy" stuff in centres over the years while working in the field, and cheaper centres were not necessarily the worst. "There are good and bad centres in all areas."

She said centres needed to start looking out for boys more. They should pitch to what boys were interested in - like making and talking about volcanoes, sandpits, "blowing things up", and engaging them with paper aeroplanes. She said the simple act of making of an aeroplane, for example, could teach kids that reading instructions would help them. Reading became useful and fun.

"Don't be PC," she implored.

McLachlan said she was concerned Government cuts might mean less professional development in some centres. She hoped the report showed the importance of teachers being knowledgeable.

Another early-education expert, Dr Sarah Farquhar, the director of ChildForum.com, said the report "does not paint a good enough picture of literacy teaching and learning in these services overall".

She reckoned parents should be told which services were bad. But parents need not be totally in the dark - they could just ask for their centre's latest ERO report which would highlight any concerns.

ERO's national manager of evaluation services, Diana Anderson, said they never named and shamed bad centres. It was more helpful to tell them how they were underperforming - so they could improve. Parents could tell if a centre might be underperforming anyway - they were usually reviewed on a shorter timeframe than three yearly.

The Education Ministry's group manager of early childhood education, Karl Le Quesne, said the report showed good literacy teaching was occurring in many services. But he has promised to work through ERO's recommendations and provide guidance on high quality literacy teaching.

Education Minister Anne Tolley said a taskforce was only weeks away from reporting back to her on developing innovative, cost-effective and evidence-based ways to support children's learning.

"The Government is absolutely committed to raising achievement levels in literacy and numeracy, and giving every single young New Zealander the opportunity to reach their potential."

It is understood centres range in cost from a few dollars a day for some sessional kindergartens, up to $115.50 daily for one Auckland purpose-built centre. Children aged over three get 20 free hours through a Government subsidy.

OFF TO SCHOOL AND EAGER TO KEEP LEARNING

Four-year-old Vetapilia Talauta-Riki is starting at Auckland's Richmond Rd Primary School next month - and she's armed with her ABCs, can count to 30 and writes her own name.

She loves books and role-playing and talks with her daycare teachers about news topics. She's constantly exploring the English language at Top Tots Daycare in Ponsonby.

Mum Sifagrace Talauta, a credit control manager in Auckland, says her daughter has had amazing tutoring in literacy and is excited about learning more in school.

She says parents should choose the daycare facility for their child carefully.

She chose Top Tots Daycare because it had a family-type environment, lots of resources and a high teacher-to-child ratio. She says she wanted her child cared for and it has been a bonus that she has been prepared for school so well.

It costs $118 for three days including the Government's 20 free hours subsidy.

TEACHING TIPS

Want to know if an early childhood service is good on literacy teaching? Dr Sarah Farquhar, director of www.ChildForum.com, says to look for the following:

* Plenty of picture books and signs that extensions of literature are valued, like use of puppets. Look for learning games based on stories and recipes.

* Educators setting aside time to read every day to, and with, children.

* Educators showing pleasure and personal interest in children's language and early writing efforts.

* Educators noticing and evaluating how your child is progressing.