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Advocacy Group Says ‘Status Quo’ Interests Holding Literacy Policy Back

A grassroots literacy advocacy group is challenging the government – and all political parties – to aim for 95 percent of children to become proficient readers and writers.

Lifting Literacy Aotearoa (LLA) says educational research tells us that if policy and curriculum settings are right, this is achievable.

The group has today released a comprehensive literacy policy briefing for the incoming Minister of Education.

It has identified shortfalls in current frameworks around the curriculum, teacher training and standards, professional learning and development, assessment, intervention and specialist staffing, and quality teaching materials.

LLA chairperson Alice Wilson said that while the previous Labour government had bold ambitions to improve literacy outcomes, it failed to adequately free itself from the grip of status quo interests, and the new National-Act-New Zealand First government must learn from Labour’s mistakes.

“For too long literacy instruction in New Zealand has been divisive at the expense of children’s learning. This needs to end immediately. Acquiring literacy is a fundamental human right - it must not be political. Ensuring every member of our nation has adequate reading and writing skills is something we can all agree on, and literacy policy needs to have cross party support,” she said.

In its white paper, LLA calls for wide-ranging and immediate changes to current curriculum and literacy policy settings.

It is calling for parties currently in government, as well as those in opposition and those who lead the sector to read the paper over the holiday break and digest the actions needed to improve literacy outcomes for children in Aotearoa.

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The recommendations include appointing an expert ‘science of learning’ advisory group; being clear and ambitious about the goals for literacy policy; ensuring there is a robust, impartial and efficient process for considering changes to policy and practice settings as new evidence comes to light.

“For decades those who have been leading New Zealand’s educators have clung on to debunked teaching methods. Some stakeholders in the sector have gained financially from this mistake. Educational science is evolving, but the science tells us what does not work. And we need to get rid of these methods immediately,” Ms Wilson said.

She added that 3-cueing, where children are taught to use first letters, pictures and other cues to guess words, promoting the rote memorisation of whole words, needed to be eradicated from New Zealand classrooms immediately. This includes stopping the public funding of the Reading Recovery programme in schools and replacing it with the training and funding of specialist structured literacy intervention teachers in every school, including high schools..

“There is no one single programme that will solve New Zealand’s literacy crisis. No one PLD provider can offer a universal solution. Structured Literacy is the term given to reading, spelling and writing instruction informed by the science of reading.”

“We must not repeat the mistake of throwing all resources into one university, and one programme. Teaching is an art, and teachers deserve choice about how to implement structured literacy once they are given the knowledge around how all brains learn to read, and the kinds of instructional practices that best facilitate that learning.”

“To get this right, all stakeholders within the education sector need to be willing to move and adapt to the science – that means universities and other providers of initial teacher training should no longer be able to ignore educational science and pick and choose to teach what and how they like.”

She added that the body setting and monitoring standards of training (currently the Teaching Council) must be more effective in ensuring standards of teaching are more explicit and being delivered.

Big decisions need to be made in a short amount of time. Thousands of teachers are waiting for answers, guidance and support; and thousands more students and parents are waiting for better classroom experiences and learning outcomes, she said.

“If we don’t invest in literacy the cost to the country’s productivity down the line is enormous – at present the school-to-prison pipeline is rife because children aren’t being taught to read and write properly. This needs to change, and it can change with the will and the knowledge,” Ms Wilson said.

“If we don’t get this right it amounts to wasteful spending. If adults are not literate we will see increased costs in mental and physical health care, the justice system, and the welfare system, and reduced GDP than would otherwise have been.”

A recent Australian-based economic analysis of the costs of illiteracy found that properly funding literacy policy in schools would result in a 13 times return on investment. We could expect similar such returns in New Zealand.

LLA says changes are also needed in te reo matatini, literacy learning in kaupapa Maori and Maori-Medium settings, as well as other language medium settings (such as Samoan and Tongan). So the proposals apply equally to those settings as well.

LLA is receiving submissions on its proposals from the public, which can be emailed to liftingliteracyaotearoa@gmail.com by 17 February 2024. The paper can be found on their website: www.liftingliteracyaotearoa.org.nz

The group is particularly keen to hear from teachers, principals, literacy specialists, PLD providers, teacher aides, literacy researchers and parents of children with dyslexia and other additional learning needs.

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