NZ children used to lead the world in reading. Now our literacy rates have fallen so sharply that almost half our students are below their expected reading level when they finish primary school and one in five 15-year-olds do not have basic reading proficiency. In the first of a three-part series education reporter Dubby Henry asks how we got into this position - and more importantly, what are we doing to get out?
Holly Hancox's son was excited to start school. But within a couple of years, she says, he hated it with a passion.
Jimmy (not his real name) had been immersed in books since preschool, and his parents didn't expect any issues when it came to reading. After all, his big sister had found it easy. But he just couldn't get the hang of it.
He was an active kid, and had started school in April - after his class had learned their ABCs - so his teacher told them not to worry if he was lagging behind.
But at year's end he hadn't caught up, and his parents asked if he should redo the year.
"They said no, no, he's a boy. He's younger than the others, it'll click one day."
Next year Jimmy was in the bottom group for reading, writing and maths, Hancox said.
"He started having kids telling him he was dumb; he started feeling and saying he was stupid."
Their concerns were again brushed off, and he fell further behind despite a summer of intensive reading practice.
Against the school's advice, the family sought a learning diagnosis. It cost thousands of dollars but failed to pick up dyslexia. The next year Jimmy's teacher said he was so far behind that he wouldn't make national standards.
At their wits' end, the family moved Jimmy to one of New Zealand's most expensive private schools, thinking it would have the answer.
"We later found out that they didn't have any evidence-based interventions for him either."
At times Jimmy would refuse to go to school, Hancox said. "He would cry, he would kick the back of my seat and just be beside himself.
"Then he developed these sore tummies. The doctor couldn't tell us why, we put him on a special diet, but in the end we worked out it was probably anxiety - just going to school and failing and having no idea what he was doing. It's really heartbreaking as a parent seeing your child go through that."
'A long-term slide in achievement'
Stories like Jimmy's are repeated across the country, as tens of thousands of children struggle to read and write while their classmates seem to master those foundational skills with ease. Many have dyslexia or other neurodiverse traits; others may speak a different language at home or haven't been immersed in books or rich vocabulary from an early age.
As the fluent students begin reading to learn, with a world of knowledge opening up to them, the stragglers are still learning to read, and fall further behind. Extra help and tutoring during school means they miss out on more and more class time.
The problem then spills over to high school, where surveys have seen our average reading levels steadily declining since 2000. Nearly half of Kiwi 15-year-olds now say they never read for pleasure and more than half of teens only read if they have to.
Earlier this year the non-profit organisation the Education Hub carried out a literature review to determine where we had gone wrong. It painted a "deeply concerning picture" of literacy achievement across New Zealand, with falls across every reliable national and international measure for a decade or more at both primary and secondary school.
And as in other areas of society, the gap between our haves and have-nots is among the worst in the world - with almost a two-year difference in achievement between kids of the same age in high and low decile schools.
The Government and Ministry of Education have openly acknowledged the problem, warning earlier this year of a "long-term slide in achievement" compared to other countries, and a failure to address "persistent inequities" for some groups of learners.
"The evidence is clear that current approaches to literacy learning are not working for all children, particularly Maori, Pacific, English Language Learners and students with special learning needs," one Ministry document said.
'New Zealand ... one of the most literate nations on earth'
It's taken a long time to acknowledge the decline.
Twenty years ago, New Zealand was considered one of the world's most literate countries, but there were already concerns about a crisis in reading, with a big gap between the highest and lowest achievers.
In 2001 a cross-party education select committee inquiry detailed what was wrong with New Zealand's approach to reading and writing.
The committee's report, Me Panui Tatou Katoa - Let's All Read(PDF), said that by age nine, "nearly all children should be reading within or beyond an internationally-benchmarked 'normal' range, reflecting the status of New Zealand as one of the most literate nations on earth".
The report made 51 recommendations, including bringing more explicit phonics teaching into the classroom, and a national stocktake of how reading was being taught.
But although resources were thrown at literacy, at best our results plateaued until 2011, when studies began to show a decline.
One such measure, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), takes a snapshot of 9-year-olds' reading achievement every five years.
The latest PIRLS data from 2017, measuring achievement among kids who started school in 2010, showed falling literacy levels in both boys and girls - but particularly among girls who have traditionally been better readers. And while Māori and Pasifika students' average reading levels, and those from lower socioeconomic groups, remained below the average, well-off Pākehā students saw the biggest decline.
New Zealand's National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) - which looks at Kiwi kids' reading and writing in Year 4 and 8 - is also finding serious issues. The latest data, from 2019, found 38 per cent of Year 4s were behind curriculum expectations in English, while in Year 8 - the last year of primary - 44 per cent were behind.
At high school level the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey in 2018 found the average reading level of Kiwi 15-year-olds was at a record low, following a decline that's been happening for over a decade, and about one in five lacked basic reading proficiency.
Just this year, when the Ministry of Education ran a small pilot of its new NCEA Level 1 literacy and numeracy standards, only one in three students passed the writing component, while around two thirds passed reading and numeracy tests. Without those standards, from 2024 students won't be able to get NCEA. (Bigger trials are currently underway.)
The NZ Initiative, a think-tank which obtained those figures under the Official Information Act, says the tests are set at the right level. People who can't pass those tests, they argue, have not got the skills required to thrive in an information-rich society.
Education Hub founder Dr Nina Hood told the Herald the decline in literacy for New Zealand children was "quite deeply alarming".
The results of national and international surveys were echoed by feedback from other sources, like employers and the Department of Corrections.
"I think we're collecting enough data points now across a range of different areas to suggest that it's pretty darn bad."
The 2001 select committee report pointed to a big gap between the high achievers and the bottom 20 per cent of children who were struggling. But while the bottom 20 per cent have barely budged, "the issue is you've got another 20 per cent who are pretty close to falling into that bracket", Hood said.
"My view on international comparisons is actually, who cares? Who cares if we're doing better than x country if we've still got 40 per cent of kids who are struggling to read?"
Hood's report for the Education Hub highlighted a number of issues that needed fixing, including a worrying decline in children arriving at school with strong oral language skills. It recommended children's vocabulary and conceptual knowledge be built up by adults reading to them and discussing rich texts.
And it was "essential that children learn to decode text through explicit, systematic phonics instruction", the report said.
'He would just come up with some random word'
That's where Holly Hancox believes Jimmy went wrong. He needed to be taught clearly and systematically how letters are linked to sounds, so he could decipher the words on the page, she says.
But both the public and private schools he attended followed what's known as a balanced literacy programme - an evolution of the whole language philosophy that encourages children to recognise whole words, rather than sounding them out, often using contextual clues like pictures and sentence structure. While it contains some phonics instruction, it emphasises meaning and exposure to rich texts over the decoding of individual words.
Many children do work out how to read through this approach, but it wasn't enough for Jimmy. Hancox said it was clear he wasn't sounding out new words using the letters they contained. Instead, he was looking at the first letter of new words and then hunting for other cues, like pictures.
"He would then just come up with some other random word, whether it made sense or not. It may have related to the content - but, of course, once they get past a certain point the pictures disappear and then you're just reliant on the way the word looks."
He was so busy trying to work out the words, he often wasn't comprehending what he was reading, and frequently skipped words altogether.
Back then Hancox didn't know enough about the science behind how kids learn to read to realise that Jimmy wasn't being taught using the best evidence-based approach.
Eventually, she joined a Facebook page for parents of dyslexic kids, where she discovered an online programme named Nessy that taught children the connections between letters and sounds.
That made a huge difference to Jimmy's spelling and reading, she said.
In Year 6, Jimmy was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. After months of tutoring, the Hancoxes found a speech and language therapist who took Jimmy through a programme called Sounds-Write, which followed an explicit, systematic known as structured literacy. A few months of weekly tutoring saw the gaps filled in, Hancox said. It was "fantastic" but it cost $100 a week.
Now 15, he's completely caught up in reading and the family has moved him to a state high school. But it has come at huge financial cost.
Holly quit her job when they realised Jimmy would need extra help, and though private schooling had its benefits, it cost "a huge, huge amount - and the ridiculous thing is that his [reading] issues weren't addressed".
"We've spent thousands and thousands on all sorts of interventions that were not only a waste of time, but ... my son was doing all this extra work outside school. He was tired, it was pretty tough on all of us, and wasting his time, and reinforcing his feeling of failure because those interventions were never going to work."
Hancox acknowledged the vast majority of people don't have the resources to get their child a diagnosis or private tuition, let alone private schooling.
Even among those who do, the demand for tutors who can genuinely help with dyslexia far outstrips supply, with tutors reporting long waiting lists for their services.
Hancox believes kids like Jimmy who struggle to read actually don't need to be pulled out of class - because the structured literacy approach that fixed his reading issues can help every child learn to read.
Structured literacy is based on what's known as the science of reading, and is increasingly being called for by parents of children with dyslexia - there are thought to be 70,000 such children in New Zealand alone.
Those parents - and many academics - believe if all schools to move to a structured approach, the vast majority of literacy issues among primary-aged students would disappear.
"He just needed the approach that works for everybody. We've got 40 years of evidence to say that all brains learn to read the same way," Hancox said.
"It really is harmful to none and benefits everybody, but especially those who are at risk."