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Education Minister wrong about literacy

Education Minister Trevor Mallard's claims that if Maori and Pacific Island students were taken out of the equation, New Zealand's international standing in reading would be much higher are not correct, says a Massey University literacy expert.

College of Education Professor James Chapman says Mr Mallard's comments were made in a newsletter to schools, partly in response to the recent parliamentary report on reading.

Putting aside the issue of whether the Minister should exclude a particular group of people from national data on educational performance to make a point, Professor Chapman says the facts do not support his claims.

"The New Zealand data from the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) show that the Minister is partly right – there is a small 'improvement' in literacy if these groups are excluded," he says. "But if Mr Mallard's view about Maori and Pacific Island people lowering the overall literacy levels in New Zealand were correct, the improvement would be substantial."

The IALS study assessed three types of literacy performance: prose, document and quantitative. Prose literacy assessed the knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from sources like newspapers, poems and fiction. Document literacy refers to reading and understanding materials like job applications, payroll forms, transport schedules, maps and tables. Quantitative literacy involved skills like balancing a chequebook, filling in an order form and figuring out the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement.

Scores on these three measures of literacy were divided into five levels, with levels one and two representing literacy performances that are inadequate for everyday work and life in a developed society.

In the 1996 study, 46 percent of New Zealand adults performed at levels one and two for prose literacy and 50 percent performed at these levels for document and quantitative literacy.

Professor Chapman says there is not the reduction in numbers performing at these low levels that would be expected if Mr Mallard's theory were correct. Analysis of the literacy survey data just for Pakeha showed there was only a slight improvement, of around 6 percent.

But the literacy levels of Maori and Pacific Island adults are cause for concern, Professor Chapman says. The survey found between 69 and 72 percent of Maori and Pacific Islanders performed at levels one and two for the three literacy areas.

"These levels must be seen as unacceptable for the future of New Zealand as a harmonious, mutlicultural democracy committed to a knowledge-based economy," says Professor Chapman.

"Major improvements in literacy instruction are needed, especially for Maori and Pacific Island people, if New Zealand is to meet its future social and economic goals."


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