Teacher Theresa Kinloch learned how to teach reading systematically too late to help her own daughter.
Kinloch, the new entrant team leader at Willow Park School on Auckland's North Shore, has been trialling a new set of phonics-based "decodable readers" which are about to be distributed to all primary schools - 2.4 million copies of them.
The 64 new books teach reading in a "structured" way - introducing a few new sounds and letters in each book at first, then gradually adding more words and more complex sentences.
For Kinloch, the structure of the language is a revelation. No one ever taught it to her, let alone trained her in how to explain it to 5-year-olds.
"I have a daughter who is dyslexic, she's 18 now. You see the struggle," Kinloch says.
"I didn't know this to teach my daughter. It's pretty heartbreaking."
For almost 60 years, New Zealand schools have taught children to read using a set of Ready to Read reading books that have been colour-coded for their vocabulary and complexity, but have not been designed to teach specific sounds or letters.
As the Ministry of Education says: "Unlike earlier series such as Janet and John, they used natural language and avoided dull repetitions. The emphasis was on providing interesting stories, even at the very earliest level."
We prided ourselves on their success. The first large-scale survey by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) in 1970 placed NZ 14-year-olds first-equal out of 15 countries in reading comprehension.
Unfortunately it's been downhill ever since. The IEA's Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) has tracked our 9-year-olds amongst 18 countries that have been in every survey since 2001, placing us 10th in 2001, 13th in 2006 and 2011, and 15th - near the bottom of the pack - in 2016.
Based on a global average of 500 points in the first 2001 survey, New Zealand's actual reading achievement was stable between 529 and 532 in the first three surveys while other countries improved, but slumped to 523 in 2016.
Ministry of Education researchers say other English-speaking countries place "a greater emphasis on, or in some cases new approaches to, teaching phonics" - letter sounds.
The ministry issued a tender in June 2019 for a new set of Ready to Read books "to complement and make more explicit the progression of phonemic [sound] awareness and phonics [letter sound] components of effective literacy instruction".
It is also transforming the Reading Recovery programme, which provides one-to-one tuition for the lowest fifth of readers at age 6, to include group learning for 5-year-olds using the new phonics-based Ready to Read books.
To some, like Kinloch, the change is inspiring.
"All of my children see themselves as readers," she says. "They know they have strategies to decode words, they are not looking around panicked."
But others like Louise Dempsey, co-author of The Reading Book, say phonics is already widely taught in NZ schools but only helps with short, phonetically regular words.
She worries that focusing on teaching reading using decodable texts is yet another educational "fad" and "feels like we are going back into the 1950s with Janet and John".
"There's no magic fix out there," she says.
Where we've come from
Dame Marie Clay, the founder of Reading Recovery and the most influential figure in New Zealand's approach to reading in her lifetime (1926-2007), was a strong believer that teaching should be geared to each child's individual needs rather than following any fixed "sequence of learning".
"When learning, the nature of the written code takes precedence over meaning," she wrote, "it is possible to end up with texts about 'pale ale' or 'fat cats' or 'her third bird's turn' or those that have been the butt of many jokes like:
Jump, Janet, jump.
You can jump.
You can run.
You can run and jump."
Clay advocated books that told interesting stories based on the oral language that the child already knew, choosing each book to suit each child.
Joy Cowley's The New Cat, one of five books currently listed in the Ready to Read colour code for beginners (magenta), is simple, but uses numerous letter sounds:
The new cat jumped on the table.
He liked the fish.
Dempsey says learning to read should be an interactive process between each child and the teacher or parent.
"Reading should focus on comprehension and include lots of oral language. Decoding needs be explicitly taught and then applied during reading, so students can gain meaning from texts," she says.
"I think our NZ reading material is absolutely brilliant and we are so lucky to have it. It's very New Zealand, it's good quality, we are supporting our local writers and illustrators."
For more than 30 years, a group at Massey University led by professors James Chapman and Bill Tunmer have argued that many children have failed to learn the basic "decoding" skills of recognising different sounds in words and connecting each sound to written letters.
In a 2018 study, Chapman's team found that when children got stuck on a new word, 60 per cent of the prompts that NZ teachers gave were based on the picture and context, and only 40 per cent were word-based prompts such as asking children to sound out the letters.
Chapman says teachers typically ask children to "guess" the word based on what would fit in the context. But often several different words would fit, and the child may never learn to decode the word so that they can read it next time in a different context.
For decades, Chapman's views have been heretical.
"A lot of teachers don't like Massey University," he says.
But in the ministry, officials were monitoring changes overseas. Britain's Conservative Government started testing all children in England on their letter sound knowledge at age 6 from 2012 - an approach that seemed vindicated when England's PIRLS score improved from 539 in 2006 to 552 in 2011 and 559 in 2016.
Chapman traces the beginning of a change in Wellington to a personal visit by a ministry official.
"There was an initial overture from a ministry official who came to an open day at Massey because her son was enrolling at Massey and asked, could we have a chat over coffee?" he recalls.
"So we had a chat. Then there was a more informal meeting of the same person and two other officials who came up to say, 'Are you sure that this is how teachers still really teach?'
"We said yes. They mulled it over. Then Bill [Tunmer] and I were invited to a meeting with ministry officials in Wellington. They said, 'We can't keep doing the same thing, we know we've got to do something different'."
The ministry agreed to fund a $1.25 million research project in which Chapman's group monitored the word knowledge and spelling of children who entered selected schools aged 5 in 2015 and 2016 through to mid-2017. They compared children whose teachers received training in phonics techniques against a control group.
In the first year, the control group actually outperformed the phonics group, partly because of staffing changes in the schools.
So the researchers tightened their teacher training and brought in a "coach" who visited each teacher at least four times. This time the phonics group outperformed the control group, and in particular phonics-trained children in low-decile schools achieved almost the same reading levels as high-decile schools.
The ministry received Chapman's report on the project in February 2018 and published it in August 2019, two months after the tender for the new Ready to Read books which said: "The intention is to build from research undertaken by Massey University and internationally that reveals that some early readers need explicit and sequenced instruction in the code of English."
Emails obtained under the Official Information Act show that several bidders asked for copies of the Massey research in June and July, and were given "a confidential copy" because the report had not yet been published.
The tender was won by a Canterbury University team led by Associate Professor Alison Arrow, a co-author of the Massey research who moved to Canterbury in 2018. Its $989,000 contract requires 40 phonics-based books by October 2020 and a further 24 by November 2021.
The new approach
Arrow says the first 40 books are ready. Ministry associate deputy secretary Pauline Cleaver says: "Over 2.4 million books will be distributed to all state and state integrated schools in 2021. We are publishing 64 books and will print 38,000 copies of each book."
The books follow a four-stage sequence recommended in the Massey report, starting with single-letter sounds, then introducing blends of two or more letters, different vowel sounds and common beginning, middle and end parts of words.
Arrow says she tried initially to create books using only a few target letter sounds, but compromised to make the books fun to read.
"There is a tradeoff. Some people would argue that to teach phonics in this type of approach well, it has to be solely decodable text," she says.
"That's very, very hard to do with a story at the very beginning because you have just got five letters that you can use. You just can't write a story with five letters."
The first book in the new series, Tap, Pat, has echoes of Janet and John, but develops a storyline in just 48 words.
Mia taps on a mat.
Tap, tap, pat, pat.
Mia taps her drumstick on her teddy, on a pot, on her dad. Tap, tap, pat, pat.
But there is a climactic punchline when she uses the stick to hit the cat:
Mia taps on her pet.
Tap, tap, tap!
Mum is mad.
"No, Mia, no!"
A later book, which children were reading in Kinloch's class after six months at school, follows a young tūī learning where to build its nest, The Best Place to Rest.
Kinloch told her students at the outset which sounds they were going to revise, helped them to sound out words like "nest" and "egg", and asked them to write "best", change it to "nest", then change it to "net" and so on through several changes before they read the book.
When the children struck new words that they didn't have the code for yet, she filled in: "'Laid' - we haven't learnt that yet."
When they finished, she made sure they understood what it was all about, asking, "What were some of the birds that they met? Who was looking for a place to rest?"
She says the children love the stories.
"They are New Zealand creatures, New Zealand children," she says.
She quotes American research finding that 40 per cent of children "could learn to read in a cupboard" - in any kind of system. But another 40 to 50 per cent need systematic code-based teaching to become proficient readers, and repeated code-based teaching is "essential" for 10 to 15 per cent who struggle most to read.
"This approach is essential for some but harmful for none," she says.
"This is a million times better than what we had before. But teachers are going to need professional development, or they [the new books] are going to end up in the bookroom and no one is going to know what to do with them."
Canterbury University is offering short "microcredentials" for teachers. Cleaver says the ministry "will cover the costs of the professional support".
Will it work?
Dempsey warns that adopting phonics in Britain did not mean all students could understand what they were reading.
"When I worked in Hackney as a literacy consultant, we noticed that students could read and make progress using formulaic texts like decodables, but struggled to read other texts that used natural book language, with more challenging vocabulary and ideas," she says.
"Many 'at risk' readers in the senior primary years can easily decode the words in texts – their challenge is understanding the words and ideas."
Auckland University Associate Professor Rebecca Jesson, a trustee of the Marie Clay Literacy Trust, is impressed by the new books' storylines. But she is not convinced that they will work for all children.
"There will be children for whom it absolutely is what they need. There will be children who will get tangled," she says.
"It [the best teaching] is noticing what's going on for the child, rather than fitting the child into a package."
She sees phonics as a "back to basics" approach at one extreme of a spectrum, with "play-based" approaches that let children learn at their own pace at the other extreme.
"Somewhere in the middle probably is a good balance," she says.
Auckland University colleague Professor Stuart McNaughton, the ministry's chief scientific adviser, was attacked by Chapman and others for failing to declare that he is also on the Marie Clay Literacy Trust when he published a careful report on reading policies last August. McNaughton declined to be interviewed for this article.
Auckland primary school teacher Mark Bracey, who blogs at Ease Education, worries that teaching letter sounds to kids who are already strong readers risks "boredom and disengagement".
He believes the key to effective teaching is a caring relationship with each child.
"I have worked with so many students who have turned out to be really competent readers once I have established a relationship with them," he says.
"Phonics won't help these students. They need care and positive attention and clear guidelines and lots of encouragement and high but realistic expectations. Nudge, nudge."
He cites a boy who couldn't read the word "one" and sounded it out: "O as in orange, N as in nest, E as in egg."
"This boy's knowledge of phonics was extraordinary, but could he read confidently as a result? Nope," he says.
"He is a special case and fortunately I have only met a few like him in my whole career. He does need remedial work ... He needs the same approach but just much more intensely - encouragement, support and LOTS of really specific, scaffolded practice."