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Poor Literacy Too Great a Cost

Poor Literacy Too Great a Cost

New Zealand ignores the literacy of English second language learners at its peril according to Waikato University’s Professor Stephen May.

“New Zealand will suffer socially and economically if it doesn’t address English language learning issues in schools and teach English well,” says May, Professor of Language and Literacy Education.

Whereas New Zealand features consistently in the top OECD figures that measure English first language literacy, Professor May contends the real problem is the gap in literacy between first and second language speakers.

“Essentially we excel at teaching literacy to those who speak English as a first language but we are one of the least effective when teaching those who don’t.

“Second language speakers, as well as Maori and Pasifika peoples, are over represented in a literacy ‘tail’ where chronological reading and writing ages in English are well below national norms. This in turn frequently leads to academic non achievement and early exit from formal education for these students.” (more) Poor Literacy Too Great a Cost Professor May argues, however, that the solution does not lie simply in ‘more phonics’.

“In fact, the phonics versus whole language debate that has dominated recent public debates on literacy is a red herring. Rather, it is New Zealand’s monolingual tradition that is the problem. It contributes to a mistaken view of bilingual and multilingual children as problematic, while teachers, who are themselves predominantly monolingual, are ill-equipped and under resourced to teach such students in increasingly diverse classrooms.”

Viewing Maori as a ‘low status’ language, adopting a deficit attitude to students from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and excluding and devaluing their languages are all apparent in New Zealand classrooms. Yet all ignore consistent education and linguistic research showing the cognitive, academic, social and economic advantages of being bilingual, according to May.

“Aside from Maori medium education, there is virtually no support in New Zealand for approaches to language and literacy that foster bilingualism or multilingualism. This is ironic because it means that we are consistently trying to turn existing bilingual speakers into monolingual English speakers, yet at the same time we are encouraging monolingual English speakers to learn other languages! (more)

Poor Literacy Too Great a Cost “We also seem to be working from an assumption that the best way to learn English is through English when the research tells us that the best way to learn English as a second language is exactly the opposite: acquire literacy in the first or stronger language and then transfer these skills to English.”

May argues that a radical review of teaching English literacy to second language speakers is required if New Zealand is to avoid the long-term socio-economic costs of poor achievement, including teaching and learning processes and how children learn language, allowing teachers greater access to relevant educational research and addressing the wider issues surrounding language and diversity such as public attitudes to language.

Prof. May hopes that some of these issues will be addressed at the upcoming international conference on Language, Education and Diversity (LED2003) he is convening at Waikato University.


FACTS A 1995 survey found that New Zealand is one of the most linguistically homogenous countries in the world. (Over 9 out of 10 speakers are first language speakers of English).

New Zealand has the highest gap of any country in the OECD between the literacy achievements of first and second language speakers.

Maori and Pasifika adults have some of the lowest literacy rates in English in New Zealand – 70% of Maori and 75% of Pasifika adults are in the lowest English literacy levels.

Recent Census statistics show that over the last 10 years New Zealand demographics have led to a slight reduction in monolingual speakers bringing us more in line with the rest of the world.

There is a significant difference between being able to speak conversational English and being able to grasp academic or classroom-based English. The latter is much harder to acquire than the former and is central to academic success.

The International Conference on Language, Education and Diversity (LED2003) - - is the first international conference of its kind and runs from 26 – 29 November at the University of Waikato. It has attracted over 400 participants from over 30 countries

The conference will be opened by Hon Trevor Mallard, Minister of Education and Professor Bryan Gould, Vice Chancellor on Wednesday morning, 26 November. Amongst the keynote speakers is Tïmoti Käretu, New Zealand’s first Maori Language Commissioner. (For other keynotes see below or refer to

Associate Minister of Education, Marian Hobbs, and the Australian Federal Minister of Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Hon. Gary Hardgrave, will also be participating in the conference on 29 November.

Key themes explored by keynote speakers include: Language Policy: Tïmoti Käretu (NZ); Tove Skutnaab-Kangas (Denmark); Alastair Pennycook (Australia) Multilingualism: Robert Phillipson (Denmark); Bilingual Literacy: Nancy Hornberger (USA) New literacies: Mary Kalantzis (Australia); Allan Luke (Singapore); Adult Literacy: Glynda Hull (USA)

The book Bilingual Children’s Language and Literacy Development, edited by Professor Ted Glynn and Dr Roger Barnard of Waikato University will be launched at the conference.

Professor Glynn has recently been awarded the prestigious Mackenzie Award by the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) and the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ Award by the Royal Society of New Zealand for his contribution to educational research in New Zealand.

Professor Stephen May joined Waikato’s School of Education in 2001 as New Zealand’s inaugural Foundation Chair in Language and Literacy Education, having taught previously in universities in New Zealand, Britain and Canada. His principal research focus is on establishing policies promoting cultural and linguistic diversity.

He has published widely and is internationally recognised in his field. His most recent book, Language and Minority Rights, was shortlisted for the prestigious British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAL) Book Prize, 2002.

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