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Structured literacy for NZ children – Expert Reaction

From next year, the government expects all public schools to teach students to read with a ‘structured literacy approach’.

Yesterday’s pre-Budget announcement committed $67 million to support professional development for teachers, books and resources, phonics checks, and additional support for students that need it.

This morning, Education Minister Erica Stanford confirmed that reading recovery programmes in schools would be cut as part of the shake-up.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Professor Gail Gillon, Director – Child Wellbeing Institute, University of Canterbury, comments: 

“It’s fantastic that the Government is making a further significant investment in structured literacy approaches within our primary schools. Our Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) developed by our team at the University of Canterbury is an example of a structured literacy approach. Since 2020 the Ministry of Education has been funding the roll out of BSLA. Teachers in over 900 primary schools across the country are now successfully implementing the approach in their junior classrooms. Our teachers will be very excited to hear that the Govt is continuing to invest in such approaches.

“BSLA is unique in that we have developed it specifically for our New Zealand education context. We have also tested the approach through controlled research trials and found that it is more effective in enhancing children’s foundational literacy skills than other approaches. BSLA is a culturally responsive and strengths-based approach to structured literacy teaching. This is critically important to ensure new literacy initiatives are working for all our children. Our data consistently show that our Māori and Pacific learners are responding well to the approach.

“Structured literacy approaches are based on the “science of reading” or years of cumulated knowledge from robust scientific studies as to the critical foundation skills that support children’s reading and writing success. As the name suggests, the approach provides structured and systematic teaching using explicit teaching techniques to develop children’s reading and writing skills. Our BSLA approach supports junior school teachers (new entrant and Years 1- 3) through quality professional learning and development. We support teachers to provide explicit and systematic teaching in phonics, phoneme awareness and word decoding and encoding skills. These skills are critical for all children to learn to read and spell words accurately and efficiently. We also support teachers to provide explicit teaching in vocabulary, oral narrative, story structure and listening comprehension skills as these skills are important for reading comprehension and for writing.

“Importantly within structured literacy approaches children’s developing skills are regularly monitored with valid and reliable assessment measures. Our BSLA online assessments help teachers understand whether children are successfully acquiring foundational literacy skills and helps them identify early children who require additional support . Structured literacy approaches are well supported by scientific evidence internationally. Through our BSLA data we can clearly demonstrate that, when well supported through quality PLD, our teachers are successfully implementing structured literacy teaching strategies within our schools in NZ.”

Conflict of interest: “I am the co-developer of the Better Start Literacy Approach, and employed by the Child Wellbeing Institute at the University of Canterbury. We have a contract with the Ministry of Education to deliver Professional Learning and Development for teachers to implement the BSLA.” 

Associate Professor Aaron Wilson, Head of School, School of Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland, comments: 

“I agree with the importance of developing strong foundations for reading and writing and I support efforts to develop teachers’ knowledge about effective teaching of reading and writing in the first year of school, including knowledge about teaching decoding and encoding. The importance of these as necessary conditions for reading comprehension is well established.

“However, I am concerned that the meaning-making aspects of reading and writing are neglected in the proposal for the early years and nothing in what has been proposed directly addresses the development of more sophisticated literacies such as the forms of high level reading comprehension valued in the NZ Curriculum and NCEA and in international assessments such as PIRLS and PISA.

“Nothing in the proposal will be of help to struggling readers who are already in Year 4 or above.

“Nothing in the proposal will help students who already have sound decoding and encoding skills develop more sophisticated comprehension or written communication skills and knowledge.

“Students who already start school with good letter-sound knowledge and/or who develop foundational skills of decoding and encoding quickly in their first months of school are in for a very boring and unproductive three years.

“While highly structured approaches can support good teaching, they also run the risk of stifling teachers’ ability to be responsive to the learners in front of them, e.g. to select the texts their students will find most engaging and to design teaching activities that meet the actual needs of their own students.”

Conflict of interest: Aaron Wilson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from his commentary and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

Associate Professor Rebecca Jesson, Associate Dean Research, Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland, comments: 

“Teachers are united in their passion for children to do well.  An investment into literacy is always welcome. I welcome initiatives that seek to address inequities in outcomes for children.

“I think that the announcement this morning about cancelling the Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Support teacher workforce is hugely disappointing and not in line with the evidence.

“In Aotearoa, Reading Recovery has spent the last three years adjusting its approach and implementing the MoE’s Structured Approach to Literacy.  The service now offers ELS in line with the MoE Structured approach to Literacy.

“The changes have been independently evaluated and the successes are detailed in the evaluation published this week.

“Results show that we have had success in implementing the Structured approaches to Literacy and that students make progress at double the rate of average.

“It is disappointing to hear repeated misinformation and claims about whole language, without attending to the evidence.”

Conflict of interest: Rebecca Jesson is Academic Advisor for Literacy to Tuituia/ Learning Circle, which holds the contract for Reading Recovery (RR) and Early Literacy Support (ELS) national co-ordination. She serves as trustee on the Marie Clay Literacy Trust.

Dr Melissa Derby, Senior Lecturer, Te Kura Toi Tangata School of Education Operations, University of Waikato, comments:

“The announcement from the government that New Zealand schools will teach students to read using a structured literacy approach could be a game changer for New Zealand children.

“The dire literacy rates of New Zealand students show that something needs to change – and fast. The whole language approach to teaching reading, where students would look at a picture and guess a word based on the picture and perhaps the first letter of the word, left far too much to chance, and too many children slipped through the cracks.

“The research is clear that strong decoding skills in the early years of primary school, combined with things like good oral language skills and vocabulary knowledge, go a long way in helping children to become competent readers. This means they can not only access curriculum content during their time at school, but they can use literacy as a tool to create opportunities across their lifespan.

“Literacy opens doors, and until now, those doors have remained closed for too many New Zealand children, especially those who rely on education to provide a key to those doors by teaching crucial lifelong skills like literacy.”

Conflict of interest: “I am a member of a Ministerial Advisory Group put together late last year to advise the Minister of Education on the literacy and numeracy parts of the curriculum for Years 0-10; my PhD was part of A Better Start National Science Challenge, which dealt in part with structured literacy.”

Dr Sally Clendon, Associate Professor, Institute of Education, Massey University, comments:

“A strong start with literacy and communication is critical for all children, but is even more so for children with complex communication and learning needs. Many of these children are unable to use spoken language as their only mode of communication and instead must use other modes such as picture symbol based boards or communication apps to express themselves. For these children, learning to spell is a ‘super power’ – it enables more flexible and precise communication and allows children to move beyond the limits of the picture symbols programmed into their communication systems.

“Children with complex communication and learning needs benefit from the same evidence-based instruction that supports all children. This includes instruction that is explicit, strengths-based, comprehensive, meaningful, and responsive. These children present with a range of literacy learning profiles including challenges with decoding as well as significant language learning needs. For this reason, it’s critical that approaches to teaching literacy provide explicit teaching in both phonics and language-related literacy skills such as vocabulary, sentence structure, and storytelling.

“These children also have a wide range of literacy skills. Teachers need a strong understanding of literacy and communication development; this includes understanding what development looks like in the very earliest stages. Effective teachers can identify every child’s strengths and their next steps for learning.

“They can also scaffold learning appropriately to ensure instruction is inclusive, targeted, and mana-enhancing and all children progress as readers, writers, and communicators.

“Ensuring a literacy approach is inclusive to ALL children is an important and exciting challenge and we are already underway with achieving this in New Zealand. The Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) (Child Well-being Research Institute, University of Canterbury) has taken significant strides towards this by adapting assessments used to monitor progress; supporting teachers to implement an instructional approach that is structured, comprehensive, and inclusive; and involving learning support specialists (e.g., speech-language therapists) as collaborative partners. The BSLA team are committed to continuing to strengthen our supports in this area to ensure the benefits of literacy are accessible to all.”

Conflict of interest: Adjunct appointment with the Child Well-being Research Institute, University of Canterbury. Sub-contracted to University of Canterbury as a team member for the Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA). Expert advisor on several Ministry of Education initiatives (directly or indirectly via sub-contracts to University of Canterbury, NZCER) including BSLA, English Curriculum Refresh, Literacy and Communication Progressions, and the Literacy and Communication Progressions for the School Entry Kete.