Opinion: Closing the rich-poor divide in literacy

Is it time to review current methods of teaching reading?

Tom Nicholson

New research reported in the media recently, again puts the spotlight on the two-year gap between rich and poor schools that has disadvantaged our poorest children in the last 20 years. Many of these children are Māori and Pasifika, making the issue even more concerning. 

We know from research the cycle of failure begins in the first year of school. At Massey University’s Institute of Education we were able to demonstrate this vividly in a recent study, soon to be published in Journal of Educational Research, where we followed a group of 126 children from a range of socio-economic suburbs for 15 months, starting from their first day of school through their first year and two summer holidays. After 15 months of schooling, children in the poorer suburbs were still reading at an early five-year-old level, while children in more affluent suburbs were reading at a six-year-old level or better.

How can we close the gap?

Some will say it is impossible to overcome the disadvantage of a poor home background, an impoverished neighbourhood and a low decile school. But that doesn’t stack up – there are many in our society who experienced hardship and poverty yet still learned to read and write. You don’t have to be locked into low achievement just because you are poor.

Some will say the answer is better teachers and better leaders, but these latest findings show the cycle of failure has resisted the money spent on these initiatives. This makes sense – even the hardest working and best teacher or principal will struggle if there are too many children not learning. It is really hard to turn around these statistics if children are still failing in years 4 and 8. The answer has to be different to the ones we have been trying and it has to start early.

I don’t want to re-litigate the great reading debate. The answer is not about phonics or the book reading method. Clearly, we need both. But how well equipped are our teachers to teach these methods well?

The 1980s was the last time we saw a major teacher professional development initiative that reached out to all teachers to explain the book reading approach. Since then we have made new discoveries about literacy and in this new age of digital learning the internet can help us achieve literacy for all.

It is time to tackle professional development again but do it better. I have always been a great fan of phonics, believing it will solve all our problems, but it has to be part of a bigger picture. Surely it is time to review the present picture and the current reading methods, as the famous Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading by Sir James Rose did in England in 2006.

New Massey study shows how reading levels can improve

Having spent my academic career trying to solve these issues, I have a strong, evidenced-based idea of what does work.  In a recent randomized, controlled Massey study published in Frontiers in Psychology, we were able to raise the literacy levels of Year 2 Māori and Pasifika children attending schools in poorer areas of Auckland to average levels, with just a small change to current methods.

We discovered a combination of book reading and phonics achieved better results across a number of key literacy areas than either of these approaches on their own. In the study, a group of 96 six-year-olds (nearly all Māori and Pasifika) from disadvantaged schools were randomly put into an intervention group or a control group. After only 12 lessons of 30 minutes once a week over several months, the intervention group was at average levels for their age in word reading and approaching average in reading accuracy, comprehension, and spelling. The control groups, however, were still behind.

On the other hand, I have to be realistic. Everyone with a stake in education will have their own solutions to the present crisis. This is good. But we can’t keep on doing what has not been working. If our poorest children are not learning to be literate then it must be the way we are teaching them.

It’s been 30 years since we have considered what makes the best way to teach reading and writing. It is time to do it again, to re-design the literacy that is taught in our schools so that is works for the poor, the strugglers, and especially for Māori. We need to create new foundations for real success, to make New Zealand number one in literacy again, and help all our children achieve their dreams.

Professor Tom Nicholson is a literacy expert in the Institute of Education

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