A Unicef study has found that New Zealand's education system is one of the most unequal in the world - especially between boys and girls.

New Zealand girls outperformed boys in reading at age 10 by 4.2 per cent - a bigger gap than in any other developed country except Malta.

The gender gap widened to 6.5 per cent by age 15, but the gap widened even more between ages 10 and 15 in several other countries so by age 15 New Zealand's gender gap was only 10th-widest out of the 28 rich countries that measured reading at both ages.

Overall, the report ranks the reading gaps between New Zealand's top tenth and bottom tenth of students second-widest after Malta at age 10 and sixth-widest out of 38 countries at age 15.

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New Zealand has also scored badly in previous Unicef reports that created league tables for child poverty, child deaths by injury and child wellbeing.

This is its first league table on educational inequality and is based on 2016 data on 10-year-olds from the Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) study and 2015 data for 15-year-olds from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Another report based on the same data last week found that New Zealand's education outcomes were becoming more equal, but only because our top students' scores in PIRLS and PISA have been falling faster than our bottom students, whose scores actually improved slightly in the latest PISA survey

The gender gap in favour of girls is only significant in reading. New Zealand boys still do better than girls in maths at age 15, and there is no significant gender difference in science at age 15 or in maths or science at primary school.

But Unicef says it focused on reading "because reading is a fundamental gateway skill for achievement in many other academic subjects".

It says girls have higher expectations than boys of gaining a university degree in most rich countries, and are more likely to go on to tertiary education.

"The data suggest that boys are entering post-secondary education on an unequal footing with girls when it comes to reading," it says.

Massey University education professor James Chapman said New Zealand's wide gaps in reading achievement were due to teaching children to guess at the meaning of "whole words", rather than to sound out the parts of words.

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"If a child comes to a word that they don't know, the teacher typically says, 'Read on and come back and think of a word that would fit, look at the picture, think of developing the meaning of the sentence,'" he said.

"All kids, and particularly some kids, would benefit from a change from the focus on the whole-language approach to the teaching of reading where there is explicit instruction on the relationship between the sounds of spoken language and the letters of our alphabet, individually or in clumps, which represent those sounds."

But University of Auckland Professor Stuart McNaughton said schools now included more teaching of "phonics" than they did when critics first complained about the lack of phonics in the early 2000s.

"We know that most kids have learnt the phonic system and the alphabet by the end of the first year. That's now not the issue," he said.

"The time has come to rejuvenate the language basis for our teaching of reading, including extended language, different texts, narrative and informational texts. That's where we are headed."

Unicef found that a third of the variation in reading scores at age 10 in New Zealand was due to which school a child attended, a bigger share than all except two other rich countries.

However, differences between schools accounted for only 18 per cent of New Zealand's variation in reading scores by age 15, a smaller share than in all but 10 countries, because NZ secondary schools are not specialised and draw from broader socio-economic populations than most small primary schools.

Hands-on learning boosts reading skills

Boys like Jonathan Graham, 10 (left, pictured with Summit Point School founder Rebecca Elias), were falling behind in mainstream but are now leaping ahead. Photo / Simon Collins
Boys like Jonathan Graham, 10 (left, pictured with Summit Point School founder Rebecca Elias), were falling behind in mainstream but are now leaping ahead. Photo / Simon Collins

Children who have been struggling to read are now leaping ahead at a unique North Shore school, thanks to "multi-sensory" learning.

Summit Point School, a small private school that opened last year for dyslexic children, uses all the senses to help kids learn.

Founder Rebecca Elias says some children need to be taught explicitly how to produce each sound in their mouth, and then the ways that each sound can be represented in letters.

"There should be a component of phonics and phonological awareness," she says.

"You also need whole-word recognition skill. I believe both have a key place in acquiring the skills to read."

Rebecca Elias (left) uses cards to teach Blair Paltridge, 11, the different ways
Rebecca Elias (left) uses cards to teach Blair Paltridge, 11, the different ways "ch" can be pronounced. Photo / Simon Collins

Today she was using cards to teach children aged 10 and 11 about the different sounds that the letters "ch" represent in English words derived from Anglo-Saxon origins ("much"), Greek ("chord") and French ("chef").

"They get taught explicitly the word origin so they can analyse the syllable and understand how to pronounce sound," she said.

Jonathan Graham, 10, said it was interesting.

"If you don't know the word, it's kind of like, 'Oh, okay,'" he said.

"At my old school the teacher would just give us a book and tell us to read it."

"If you don't know the word, it's kind of like, 'Oh, okay,'" says Jonathan Graham, 10 (left). Photo / Simon Collins

The 30 boys and 18 girls at the school typically started two to three years behind their age level for reading, but deputy principal Tanya Thorogood says most leap ahead at Summit Point and some boys aged 11 and 12 are now reading at levels higher than typical 16-year-olds.

"Our kids would have been in the mainstream 'tail'. We are taking them out of the tail with accelerated learning, particularly the boys," she says.

Rebecca Elias has to train her own teachers because she says no NZ teachers are trained to work with dyslexic children the way Summit Point does. Photo / Simon Collins
Rebecca Elias has to train her own teachers because she says no NZ teachers are trained to work with dyslexic children the way Summit Point does. Photo / Simon Collins

Elias says she has to train her own teachers and sends them to Melbourne to train in the US-based Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory approach.

"No teacher in New Zealand has been given the skills or training," she says.

Summit Point is developing a training programme that it hopes will be registered by the NZ Qualifications Authority so that it can be offered to mainstream teachers.