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NZ’s literacy strategy failing to reduce the gap – report


Professor James Chapman


Distinguished Professor Bill Tunmer

Large inequalities in reading achievement over the past 15 years have not been addressed by a national literacy strategy that is “fundamentally flawed”, a new report has found.

The report, by Massey University Institute of Education researchers, examined data from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) carried out in five-yearly intervals since 2001 and Reading Recovery monitoring reports.

When the PIRLS study was released Education Minister Hekia Parata said the results showed that “we are either standing still or falling behind in reading”. She also said we “must ensure that children develop good reading and writing skills from the moment they start school.” The researchers’ findings provide strong evidence in support of these comments.

What they found is that despite major efforts by the Ministry of Education, and more than $40 million spent each year on the Reading Recovery programme, New Zealand’s reading achievement scores have not improved over the past decade.

Professor James Chapman says the current approach to teaching literacy is not working.

“New Zealand’s strategy has failed,” Professor Chapman says. “The current approach is not working for too many children  – and we need to change it.”

He and his colleagues say the failure of the strategy is not the fault of teachers and principals, but the result of misguided policy decisions. They recommend major scientifically-supported changes to New Zealand’s approach to literacy education.

The strategy was recommended by a Literacy Taskforce established by the Government in the late 1990s. Reading Recovery has been in place for 30 years and targets the bottom 15 per cent of learners.

But the report says the international data shows the large gap between scores for Pakeha and Maori/Pasifika children has not closed over the past decade, and remains large.

Distinguished Professor Bill Tunmer says the Reading Recovery programme “is of limited benefit to those students who need help the most”. He pointed out the lowest achieving children are less likely to successfully finish the programme. “Moreover, a significant number of the lowest performing six-year-olds are excluded from Reading Recovery because they are considered unlikely to benefit, or are withdrawn early when they do not meet expected rates of progress. This adds to the evidence that Reading Recovery does not work well for pupils who are most at risk for failing to learn to read.”

Recommendations of the report include:

  • Identifying children who are likely to struggle with learning to read when they start school – not in their second year, which is the current practice

  • Using explicit teaching of phonological awareness and letter-sound patterns for children with limited reading-related skills when they start school. 

  • Using different strategies for different children – “a more inclusive approach to literacy teaching that responds to the diverse literacy learning needs of all children”

  • Replacing Reading Recovery with a remedial reading programme that targets children who need help the most during their first year of schooling—avoiding the current “wait-to-fail” approach.

The researchers point to literacy initiatives adopted in some South Auckland schools and Titahi Bay School – designed by Massey education graduates – as examples of strategies putting current theory and research into practice and raising literacy achievement in classrooms.

Read the summary and the full report below:



Media interviews

Watch the researchers on One News

Listen to Professor James Chapman on Radio NZ Checkpoint and Distinguished Professor Bill Tunmer on Radio NZ Nine to Noon

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