Parents and children who have travelled the road of learning to read in the past few decades will know the Ready to Read books. Introduced in the 1960s, they are used in the first years of school and guide readers through gradually increased levels of difficulty.
Since their inception, the "readers" have evolved. They've become colour-coded and the content and themes have changed to better reflect Kiwi culture and remove gender stereotypes.
Now, the series is up for another refresh. In a Request for Proposals for a new series of books, the Ministry of Education is seeking new content for the series that puts greater emphasis on a phonics-based approach to learning. Put simply, this is teaching kids to decode words by using sounds. It contrasts with the approach of many school books where children learn to read by looking at pictures and considering meaning and context. Based on Massey University research, the ministry says some early readers need explicit and sequenced instruction in the code of English, alongside the context-based approach.
The ministry has stressed the proposal is not a reversal of its position, as first reported, and that the update is to ensure the series offers the full range of learning methods. The Herald accepts this.
But while the ministry says it's "business as usual" in terms of teaching kids to read, the shift in emphasis towards phonics is still important.
The ministry itself makes the case for change. In its proposal, it says New Zealand has "one of the largest gaps in literacy learning outcomes among developed countries" and acknowledges that the gap is not closing over time.
It also reports on feedback from literacy professionals that the current series does not meet the needs of many students and can be hard to use with struggling readers. The proposal says there are more than 50 phonic programmes "of variable quality" used throughout New Zealand schools and the new books could help eliminate the variations.
The debate over phonics can be a divisive one within education. This is reflected in the response to news of the Ready to Read update from those in the education sector, as well as parents and teachers who have written to the Herald.
Critics say the phonics approach can be less engaging and less effective in improving comprehension.
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There are also concerns about how well the new content will reflect cultural diversity — though the ministry has stressed this as a priority.
Advocates, including parents who have battled trying to help their kids with existing readers before finding success with "decodable" texts, are relieved that a more phonics-based option is on the way.
Stuart McNaughton, the ministry's chief scientific adviser, said the new materials could be used as a "supplement" for children who are not picking up letters and sounds in current books.
The struggles some children have in learning to read are hard to bear for them and their parents. Any changes to help them unravel the puzzle and discover the joy of reading should be welcomed.