Thousands of children begin secondary school each year without the reading, writing or maths skills needed to make it through. In our series 'The Primary Issue' we look at what more can be done to raise achievement for all Kiwi kids.
• Students from low-income families are twice as likely to leave primary school without the expected reading and writing skills when compared to wealthy peers

• Children from poor families started school knowing just 3000 words - half the vocabulary of children from middle or high-income families

• New Zealand's gap between the reading levels of rich and poor is wider than most OECD countries

• Some schools are "overwhelmed" by underachievement and unable to make the most of funded intervention programmes

• One third of Year 1 and 2 teachers had "had minimal understanding of effective reading and writing teaching"

• Two new studies to focus on what more can be done for children in their first school year

Bleak reading and writing levels among poor children remain stubbornly below those from wealthy backgrounds, with some education experts now turning to health researchers for help to "break the cycle".

National Standards results show children from low-decile schools are more than twice as likely to leave primary school with low literacy levels when compared with high-decile pupils - although overall, there were still one in five children arriving at high school without expected reading skills.

Differences in the reading levels between students from high and low-income families narrow slightly as the children grow older, but data shows the gap in writing ability actually worsens by the time students head to high school.

One academic described it as similar to the "Matthew effect", where the "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" and said New Zealand needed to address the way it taught children from disadvantaged backgrounds.


"You have the children that come into school with lots of literacy knowledge, enough to attach new knowledge to, so they will learn to read no matter how they are taught," said Massey University's Dr Alison Arrow.

"Whereas kids that come in with limited knowledge have nothing to build on. They don't know spoken words have sounds in them, for example. So if they don't get explicit instruction when they get to school they struggle to catch up and they will lag behind for the rest of their school career."

The trend in reading and writing data is a problem New Zealand has been aware of for at least a decade. OECD studies show we have one of the widest gaps between rich and poor when it comes to reading, and it hasn't changed over time.

The increased focus on literacy, numeracy and the "tail" also appears to have limited effect. While there has been increased talk about raising achievement for "priority learners", Education Review Office reports show that hasn't necessarily been do-able in practice.

For example, ERO found only a quarter of schools had practices to catch up "priority learners" that were highly effective; that few schools effectively identified and targeted the full range of students at risk of failing; that 30 per cent of teachers in Year 1 and 2 classrooms had "little or no sense" of how critical it was for children to develop confidence and independence in early reading and writing; and had "minimal understanding" of effective reading and writing teaching.

In one report about Ministry of Education interventions in both mathematics and literacy, it found half of schools using the tools did not necessarily lead to accelerated progress.

"A small group of schools appeared to have little sense of urgency even though most had high underachievement rates," it said.

"Many leaders and teachers were overwhelmed by the high proportion of students underachieving at their school."

Nearly 60 per cent of those schools were in low-decile areas.

Some critics believe the issue is linked to the way New Zealand stages reading intervention. It has recently funded two studies aimed at helping teachers to more effectively "catch up" disadvantaged kids in their first year.

Dr Arrow is currently working on The Early Literacy Project, a $1.25 million intervention which aims to increase the knowledge of teachers working with new entrants.

The programme differs to regular intervention in that it is based on phonics (learning sounds), and begins within six months of the child starting school. New Zealand's traditional intervention, Reading Recovery, is whole-language based (reading books) and children wait until they are 6 years old to take part.

The divide between the two approaches has previously been labelled as the "reading wars", however most teachers use both methods in the classroom depending on what children needed.

However, Dr Arrow said current support for phonics, or "decoding", was patchy and could be used more effectively in Year 1. It would help all children, not just those from underprivileged homes.

"What we'd like to see is to see something that's a bit more systematic and supported in terms of intervention that really targets children that are starting to struggle within the first six months," she said.

"We know if children aren't developing decoding skills in that time that's an indicator that they're going to have quite specific difficulties. I think parents are right to be worried when they see their kids are struggling but have to wait for a year to get help."

The second study is a 10-year research project called "A Better Start", a joint education and health exercise costing $34 million.

It will take at-risk Christchurch students and work with families to address health issues such as hearing defects or housing-related problems like bronchitis, and then also employ a phonics-based literacy intervention, but with an added focus on vocabulary. It will also research bilingual teaching. If it is successful, it will be scaled across other regions.

Professor Gail Gillon, the project's co-director, said it was a "step change" in the way interventions worked.

"We're not just saying it's the teachers' problem. Healthy wellbeing is critical to learning. We need to address this significant issue in a holistic way."

Dr Cathy Wylie, from the New Zealand Council for Education Research, said it was good for teachers to have a variety of skills, both in phonics and the techniques used in Reading Recovery.

"Because kids are not uniform you need a range of approaches," she said. "You also need to be able to talk to you colleagues or have access to wider expertise."

One of the benefits from Reading Recovery was that it created a community of experts, which other teachers would draw on. It would be helpful if every school had one really knowledgeable literacy teacher that others could use as a resource, she said, and a central advisory service for teachers to be able to rely on for help.

Dr Wylie said resourcing also needed to be addressed.

Even with Reading Recovery, resourcing had always been a problem, with studies showing it was more likely to be undertaken in high-decile schools, although low-decile schools had more children needing the programme.

Both Labour and the Green Party said while quality teaching made a difference, underlying inequality issues also had to be addressed.

"Lifting families out of the poverty trap, providing second-chance learning opportunities for parents, and tackling issues like housing quality and affordability are all part of the answer," Labour's Chris Hipkins said.

Catherine Delahunty, of the Green Party, said the Government already knew what the problems were, and should address them instead of studying them.

"You can't overcome poverty with more research. Why don't we feed kids, ensure warm and stable housing, and strengthen our communities. That's how we're going to get our kids doing better on every level."

Education Minister Hekia Parata said the Government had lifted benefits, and supported breakfast-in-schools programmes in recognition of the effect socio-economic factors could have on learning.

"However, I do not agree with those who argue that economic disadvantage is an insurmountable barrier to learning. The challenge for us as policy makers is to identify what works, support schools and teachers to provide it and ensure other teachers know about it."

'Leaps and bounds'

Jackson Dempster's reading improved dramatically once part of a Reading Recovery programme. Photo / Supplied
Jackson Dempster's reading improved dramatically once part of a Reading Recovery programme. Photo / Supplied

"I used to be real bad at reading books, but I got better and better," says Jackson Dempster.

The 9-year-old from the Pohangina Valley, about 30 minutes from Feilding, took part in Reading Recovery for around three terms at the age of 7, and said it "helped me a lot".

His mother Angela Dempster has nothing but praise for the programme, which she says made a dramatic improvement in her son's reading.

It was when Jackson moved into Year 2 at Tiritea School that his reading was flagged by his teacher, who immediately put him into the Reading Recovery programme.

Sitting in on one of his lessons one day, Mrs Dempster was "blown away" by what she saw.

"I really enjoyed sitting in there with him and seeing what she [the teacher] does, and then I had an idea of what Reading Recovery was about," she said, adding that it helped her with ways to assist Jackson with his reading at home.

After that Jackson "went leaps and bounds", bringing books home from school to read and books for over the holidays.

"I couldn't believe how much he had taken off with his reading."

His reading level improved dramatically, she says. When he went into Year 2 his reading level was assessed as level 12, or that of a 6 to 6-1/2-year-old. By the time he reached Year 3 at Awahou School he was above average for his age.

"Expected reading level after three years at school is level 21 to 22. He was reading at level 23, which was above the national standard," said Mrs Dempster, reading from his school report.

A second school report said Jackson was reading at level 25, above the expected level of 21 to 22.

"So that just shows you that it [Reading Recovery] did something for him," she said, adding that her son "couldn't get enough of the books" at that stage.

Jackson has since finished Reading Recovery and moved to a new, much bigger school - but his reading level has plateaued somewhat. After three terms at his new school his school report said "he needed to be 'working at level 2', and he was 'working towards level 2'".

However, an explanation from his teacher suggested it was "more of a confidence thing" than anything to do with his ability.

"With Reading Recovery he went way sky high, awesome, and now he's coming down a bit," she said.

"His current reading at the moment, [his] reading age is 9 and a half, and his goal by the end of next term is reading at age 10 - remembering that he's not 10 until October."

Admitting to being a little confused by how he was assessed, she said: "If he's reading at his age, I'm happy with that, considering we struggled when he was younger."

- Patrice Dougan
• Day 1: National Standards: A failed crusade?
The trouble with NZ's primary schools
Is the $250m policy working?
Quality of school report cards a 'lottery'
• Day 2: Measuring the success of Early Childhood Education
Have kids got the skills they need to start school?
• Day 3: Teacher quality: How to raise the status
Our secret teacher's report - What it's like to tell parents their six-year-old is failing
• Day 4: The problem with maths
Ministry counts cost of children failing at maths
• Day 5: Peace, war and reading
Our report card and your comments