New Zealanders may want a simple solution to the country’s declining literacy, but reading is complex. The national proposal to introduce structured literacy is a step in the right direction. But it is essential that curriculum guidelines provide a clear framework for teachers, as well as help teachers adapt their teaching practices to ongoing research.
If the National Party is victorious in the New Zealand elections, it has vowed to change the entire education system and teaching style of the country. This education change includes a pledge to require the teaching of “structured literacy” in all Year 0-6 classes. This announcement is welcome for many people associated with the education sector. This signals a move towards a clear and systematic form of teaching and learning that teachers, researchers and parents have been demanding for a long time. New Zealand definitely needs to increase its literacy rates. Only 60 percent of 15-year-olds are able to reach above the most basic level of reading, meaning 40 percent are struggling to read and write. Research shows that focusing on what works in literacy is important for improvement.
Some schools have already implemented a variety of structured literacy programs, often on their own. The Ministry of Education has also begun to provide resources for more explicit reading instruction, and has incorporated elements of structured literacy into its education strategy. But this is where we need to tread carefully and work collaboratively. There is a growing body of research supporting the introduction of explicit reading instruction – which supports structured literacy. But we don’t yet know exactly what it will look like and how it will be taught. And, if we do not remain adaptive, we may choose a reading curriculum that may fall short of its promise of increasing literacy rates.
How have you been taught to read? For decades, New Zealand schools have followed a “balanced literacy approach”. It values immersion in literature and the development of the oral. Students are not taught to pronounce words clearly. In contrast, a structured approach focuses on teaching children to read words by following a progression from simple to more complex phonics – the practice of matching sounds with individual letters or groups of letters. A balanced literacy approach requires children to use a wide range of information when reading, including pictures and story context. So children can look at the first letter of a word and then think about what might fit in the sentence.
Structured approaches to reading use decodable books that are designed to help children practice a particular letter-sound pattern. Defining and Trademarking Reading Instruction When we consider mandating a single approach to reading instruction, we need to develop a clear understanding of the terminology. Structured literacy is an interpretation of the “science of reading” – a large body of research that draws from disciplines such as education, special education, literacy, psychology, neuroscience. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) trademarked the term structured literacy in 2014. Their testing requires explicit teaching of basic skills including phonics to read words in a systematic and cumulative manner.
But as part of a broader and growing body of science of reading research, teachers need to be careful not to preach too much of a paradigm of structured literacy. The research base is strong, but it is not entirely clear how to implement this research in the classroom. Debate continues over key questions about structured literacy approaches – including how best to teach based on the science of reading, and specific issues such as how many spelling patterns need to be taught explicitly, and how long we should allow decodables. Need to use lessons. Policy makers also need to be careful about creating a structured literacy checklist for teachers to follow.
Some programs may meet the formal criteria but there is no evidence that they work in practice. Others may not meet the criteria but provide positive outcomes for learners. Teachers and researchers need to work together Successful implementation of any new literacy approach will require teacher education to keep pace with research. The National Party has promised to introduce structured literacy as part of teacher training and ongoing professional development – but research to support teachers will be vital. Teachers have the best knowledge about their classrooms, while researchers can investigate and evaluate whether the implementation of a new program has worked.
Local research is being done. Massey University and the University of Canterbury both have research projects focused on understanding and improving New Zealand’s literacy education. Linking research to educational practice is extremely difficult, but important to ensure that classroom approaches are based on evidence. Research can provide evidence of what works, which is important in determining which literacy practices are successful, for whom, and how to implement them. New Zealanders may want a simple solution to the country’s declining literacy, but reading is complex. The national proposal to introduce structured literacy is a step in the right direction. But it is essential that curriculum guidelines provide a clear framework for teachers, as well as help teachers adapt their teaching practices to ongoing research.
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