The Government has laid out how it plans to lift literacy and numeracy in New Zealand's students, after more than a decade of plunging achievement levels described as "deeply alarming" and an appalling waste of children's potential. In the final of a three-part series, education reporter Dubby Henry looks at how the new strategy aims to fix our reading woes - particularly in the primary school years.
A revamped plan for teaching literacy and numeracy in schools could signal a sea change in how New Zealand kids learn to read - but advocates for change aren't sure yet.
The national literacy and communication action plan released last Friday outlined a five-year strategy to reform the way literacy is taught, including new remedial reading trials which will emphasise sounding out words phonetically.
It has come at a key moment in the decades-old debate over reading methods, once split between phonics (sounding words out) and whole language (learning words mainly through context) and now more usually characterised as structured versus balanced literacy.
Structured literacy advocates have been agitating in favour of a science-based model for teaching kids to read and write.
They say the balanced literacy approach has failed a large proportion of young learners who need more explicit, systematic instruction and a focus on phonemic awareness - which will give them a solid foundation for later learning.
But they've been concerned the Government is trying to keep a foot in both camps, and won't take the steps needed, in an effort to keep all parties happy.
Last week's action plan includes a common practice model giving teachers much more guidance about what students need to know when, and the best evidence-based way to teach it.
While it will cover the entire schooling system from early childhood to Year 13, there's a big focus on the early, foundational years of literacy teaching, as many believe that's where New Zealand has gone wrong.
Asked if that model would follow a structured literacy approach, Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said there was "certainly a place there now with structured literacy" and strongly suggested that was the direction the education system was headed.
But it wouldn't be forced on schools and teachers in the manner of national standards, saying " 'This is what you must do'...[That approach] just didn't work. We have to reflect the NZ context, we have to reflect what the sector knows already."
She pointed to the rolling out of the Better Start Literacy Approach from Canterbury University in 2021 as an indication of the Government's direction. Better Start Literacy is based on the science of reading and follows a structured literacy approach - although some don't think it goes far enough.
Professor Emeritus of Education Psychology James Chapman said while the action plan talked about "evidence-informed pedagogy" and "bringing rigour to teaching and learning", there wasn't enough detail to know if that meant a structured literacy approach.
But he was pleased to see reference to "phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension" in the action plan.
"Reading scientists have known about this for 22 years or longer...it's good that the ministry...is finally catching up to that," he said.
"If this marks a shift away from [the whole language approach] and towards the science of reading with a more structured approach. Well, then that would be fantastic."
Tinetti's reference to the Better Start Literacy Approach - which Chapman is involved with - was also very positive, he said.
"I've read the peer-reviewed research reports that have been published so far out of that research and it is impressive. If she's buying into that and accepting that - which obviously I think she should - well then that's a very, very good omen."
But Alice Wilson, chair of the pro-structured literacy lobby group Lifting Literacy Aotearoa, wasn't confident the ministry or ministers would do what was needed.
"My observation is that they are trying to keep all the stakeholders happy and responding to the media more than being led by the evidence and good analysis."
Wilson pointed to Education Minister Chris Hipkins' comments in March when he told reporters that "sounding out the words, looking at the pictures, that's how kids learn to read. The idea that you have to pick one or the other is just such a red herring" - a classic balanced literacy approach.
Ongoing support for the whole language-based Reading Recovery intervention programme in particular made her wary.
Pro-structured literacy researchers like Chapman and Massey University's Dr Christine Braid also wanted to see a clearer move away from practices that had been proven to be harmful - particularly the practice of three-cueing, which some states in the USA have banned altogether.
Three-cueing encourages children to use cues, like pictures and meaning from context, to work out an unknown word - which Braid said lets them compensate for weak decoding skills.
"If they do not attend to all of the word, they lose the opportunity to map it."
Braid is herself a former Reading Recovery tutor who strongly believed in the three-cueing method until 10 years ago. She says it is still frequently used under balanced literacy approaches and in the Reading Recovery intervention programme.
"That is the one hill I will die on...I don't want to get stuck in the weeds about how much phonics we need or anything but we cannot have a three-cueing system," she said.
Tinetti last week told RNZ the government would have no qualms about scrapping teaching methods that were not supported by the evidence.
"Even if ... it's something we've been really invested in over the years, we want to say 'Is it backed up by the research? Is it backed up by the evidence?' If it's not, we have to be big enough to say 'Let's go with the research, let's go with the evidence', because our young people are too important."
The Herald asked Tinetti whether she was actively considering a ban on three-cueing - given those comments - and whether that would be feasible given New Zealand's schools are self-governing.
Tinetti responded in an emailed statement that the action plan was focused on providing "support, resources, tools, guidance and professional development" around effective teaching, informed by the latest evidence. The work would also "make clear what practices are proven not to work for our children and young people".
"Kaiako [teachers] and leaders will be supported in moving away from these practices," she said.
Researchers the Herald spoke to also had questions around how the common practice model would be written. It's to be drafted later this year by an expert panel before going out to consultation in Term 1 of 2023. But it's not yet clear how the experts will be chosen or how they will decide what is considered "evidence-based" research.
Tinetti said more information would come out in September about the development of the model, through Ministry of Education bulletins. Details of how they would be appointed would be outlined by October, and the panel would be chosen in Term 4.
New structured literacy interventions being trialled by Government
There's another aspect to the action plan that has structured literacy advocates excited - and will be music to the ears of parents of children with dyslexia, many of whom pay big sums for private tuition to get their children's reading and writing on track.
The action plan says the Ministry is developing "evidence-based supports" for neurodiverse learners, such as those with dyslexia, and is trialling interventions for those in Year 2-8 who need extra support learning to read.
Children with dyslexia or dysgraphia, those who haven't experienced explicit teaching of letter-sound relationships, and others experiencing literacy challenges will be the target of the trials.
Three providers - Learning Matters, Massey University and Canterbury University - won the initial contract in February. The Herald understands all three are using a structured literacy approach.
While all three used different delivery methods, Tinetti said the packages would be "diagnostic, explicit, systematic and cumulative" and build "phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension skills".
"The trials are not focused on selecting one provider or package but testing the efficacy of the approach for learner achievement," Tinetti said. They would provide data on how effective these targeted interventions were to accelerate learners' achievement.
Tinetti said those trials would be complete this December and independently evaluated by the end of March next year.
Teacher training needed to ensure common practice model adopted
A frequent refrain from teachers introduced to structured literacy is "why has nobody told me this before?".
That was the case for Taranaki's Kayla Henry, who said she had never learned about structured literacy at training college or in the 10 years she spent teaching.
And she didn't know how to recognise dyslexia or dysgraphia - until she realised her own son Ashton had been memorising words instead of reading them.
"It appeared that he was like an amazingly gifted reader. But actually he didn't have any phonological awareness."
Concerned, she started homeschooling him at age 7, and researched intensively until she discovered structured literacy - saying it was "pretty embarrassing" that she hadn't known about it sooner.
"My teaching knowledge didn't set me up for a child that doesn't learn the way that we teach it in schools."
Ashton's literacy is now catching up and his reading confidence has improved, though he's not yet at the expected curriculum level, Henry says.
Henry wants teachers to get training in structured literacy, but also in how to better identify learners who aren't reading well, like her son.
"When I got him home and noticed some of the things that he was struggling with, I had flashbacks to my teaching career," she said. "We had children in my class with these exact same things and I had no idea what that was or how to help them."
Many of those the Herald spoke to said teachers were already overloaded, while schools that are moving to structured literacy have found it takes years to fully train teachers in the new approach.
The action plan puts a heavy emphasis on taking things slowly and bringing teachers along for the ride.
Chapman said if there was a move toward a science-of-reading approach it needed to be taught during initial teacher training. But it wasn't clear from the action plan how training providers would be required to implement any changes given they jealously guarded their independence.
He said the Ministry of Education would need to take the lead and provide support and resources to encourage teachers to adopt the approach.
That message was echoed by the primary school teachers' union, NZEI Te Riu Roa, which welcomed the plan's "curriculum overhaul" but said supporting teachers' professional development would be critical.
'Her writing's like a college kid'
When Peyton Poutasi started school this year, her dad admits he was a little worried about her learning to read.
"I knew my girl was a smart girl, but at the beginning of the year she could only write 1-10, 1-20, I saw her reading a book slowly."
But Poutasi Lemuelu has been "shocked" at his daughter's progress - and he's very proud.
Lemuelu says he can see Peyton has a great teacher. She attends Robertson Road School in Māngere, which started using a structured literacy approach in 2020. That means teachers are following an explicit, systematic approach to teaching the foundations of written language, with a focus on phonics and phonemic awareness but also covering vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.
"She can read and write sentences, like 'My name is Peyton, I am six years old, her counting's 1-100....Her writing's like a college [high school] kid for me."
His little girl is up at 6am every day, raring to get to school. "All she does is come home and work - she wants to spell and do her homework."
Lemuelu was adopted and moved to New Zealand from Samoa in 2007, starting at intermediate school in Manurewa. He worked hard on his English while still in Samoa and was able to read it, but still struggled to understand people speaking when he arrived in New Zealand.
"I was smart, but I was a fob [fresh off the boat] coming to New Zealand," Lemuelu said. "I always push [Peyton] to know how to do her numbers and writing - because of my background."
Peyton brings books home, and he reads them with her at night and help with homework.
He can see she's sounding out the words as she goes, especially the ones she doesn't know. "She always tries to pronounce the words. If she doesn't know she'll come and ask me...I have to push her to not be shy and say the word," he says.
Robertson Road School is among about 15 per cent of New Zealand schools thought to have introduced structured literacy in some form. Principal Ravi Naidoo told the Herald he'd like to see it become Government-funded and rolled out across the country.