More than a quarter of Kiwi kids think reading is a waste of time and more than half only bother if they have to.

A new report says growing numbers are simply turning off reading. More than half of our 15-year-olds (52 per cent) now agree that "I read only if I have to" - up from 38 per cent in 2009.

Even worse, 28 per cent agree that "For me, reading is a waste of time" - up from 18 per cent in 2009.

The report by the Ministry of Education's chief education science adviser Professor Stuart McNaughton has been sparked by declines in Kiwi kids' reading performance in international surveys at the ages of both 9 (Year 5) and 15 (Year 11) over the past 20 years.

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Kiwi 15-year-olds remain above the international average, which was originally set at 500, but their average reading scores have fallen in every year since the surveys began from 529 in the year 2000 to 506 in 2018.

Did social media do it?

Many commentators have blamed the decline on the growing use of computer games and social media, and McNaughton doesn't dismiss the idea. But he says there is not much evidence yet.

"There are two possible explanations for a direct effect on achievement. One might be that the greater use of social media for communication competes with reading and writing extended texts outside of school," his report says.

Professor Stuart McNaughton says there is no evidence yet on whether social media is causing a decline in NZ children's reading ability. Photo / File
Professor Stuart McNaughton says there is no evidence yet on whether social media is causing a decline in NZ children's reading ability. Photo / File

"This would be consistent with the drop in reported rates of reading and interest in reading, but the current evidence doesn't establish a direct link."

"A second is that the use of social media has been claimed to change the focus of reading and writing practices: from being able to process and comprehend extended texts at a deep level, to reading at a surface level with punctuated or 'bite-sized' texts, thereby reducing high-level cognitive processing.

"Again, direct causal evidence is missing and frequency and duration effects are not known."

Did NCEA do it?

McNaughton says another possible cause of the decline is the introduction of the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA) between 2002 and 2004, which has allowed teachers and students to choose "fragmented and idiosyncratic pathways".

His own previous research has found that the flexible NCEA framework has led to schools steering students from poorer families, especially Māori and Pasifika students, into less challenging units.

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The gap between the richest quarter and the poorest quarter of NZ students in opportunities to learn more challenging material was the widest of all countries in the global survey.

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But he says we need to respond by taking a "life course approach" to rethinking the way we teach reading at all ages.

"We propose that better outcomes will result from optimising learning and development across all ages, rather than focusing on isolated, limited or piecemeal solutions," he says.

He recommends to:

Early childhood: Encourage parents and early childhood centres to read with children and tell them stories, and make sure the centres measure each child's progress.

Starting primary school: Develop a standard school entry assessment to provide "detailed profiles of new entrants' strengths and learning needs", including social and emotional development.

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Years 1-3: Strengthen existing approaches for all children including "guided reading with systematic phonics (sounding out words)", and appoint "a lot more" specialists for children who still haven't caught up with the mainstream after six months of one-on-one Reading Recovery.

About 23 per cent of 6-year-olds in schools that provide Reading Recovery currently take part in it, but McNaughton says 15 to 20 per cent of those who take part still need further help to catch up.

He says the current numbers of 100 resource teachers of literacy and 1000 resource teachers of learning and behaviour are not enough. "We need a lot more RTLBs and RTLits."

Years 4-8: Another screening assessment is proposed at Year 4, where the focus traditionally changes from "learning to read" to "reading to learn". McNaughton recommends a "richer diet" to extend children's vocabulary, and organised help for parents to keep children reading over the summer holidays.

Starting secondary school: Schools should create "records of learning" so that teachers at each new school can see a student's strengths and weaknesses at their previous schools.

Years 9-11: The system of identifying students that need help with reading and writing, which is currently focused on early primary school, needs to extend into secondary school, with specialist literacy teachers to help those who are still struggling.

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Make it relevant

McNaughton says we also need more books and other reading materials that are relevant to the children's lives. By Year 8, 27 per cent of boys and 23 per cent of girls disagree that "the things we read in class are about people like me and my family/whānau".

He gives a real-life example of a boy who didn't read much at home but often went fishing with his dad.

"If a teacher knows that background knowledge, that the child does have some vocab - he knows words like 'sinker', 'bait', and 'tide', then a very effective Year 1 teacher will take that language and build upon it," he said.

Speld teacher Mary Parker uses word cards to help Kaya Fischer-Soffe catch up with reading in this 2017 file photo. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Speld teacher Mary Parker uses word cards to help Kaya Fischer-Soffe catch up with reading in this 2017 file photo. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A diagnostic assessor for the reading tutoring group Speld, Judith Alexander, welcomed the report but said teachers needed to focus more on teaching the sounds of words so that children could "decode" new words.

"I get kids who might be 10 or 11 and can't even break words into syllables, let alone phonemes [sounds]," she said. "We need a lot more of the sound-based stuff."

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