Missing the point on literacy

The announcement that government is giving academics $34m so they can find ways to give children ‘A Better Start – E Tipu e Rea’ rather misses the point. Not that giving…

The announcement that government is giving academics $34m so they can find ways to give children ‘A Better Start – E Tipu e Rea’ rather misses the point.

Not that giving academics money to do research is a bad thing – all hail to the professors, and doubtless some good things will come out it. One of the research areas being targeted is early literacy.

And the point here is that there is immediate and pressing need for funding that would profoundly alter children’s literacy  for the better right now. And there is already a mountain of evidence and research to indicate what and how.

New Zealand has had a great track record on literacy. On PISA, it’s our best performing domain – and the ready-to-read series, big books, and Reading Recovery are credited with achieving this. But like all the domains, we’ve slipped in recent years, and the prime cause behind this is, of course, increasing and increasingly entrenched child poverty, which disproportionately affects Maori and Pasifika and children with disabilities.

There’s no doubt too that existing programmes and resources could be reviewed and reformed to adapt to the needs of today’s children.

Instead, it seems that the wheel will be reinvented, which of course will take time. Meantime, today’s children will miss out.

They stand to miss out because government is cutting back its involvement in the highly successful Reading Together programme. They miss out because those who are already identified as needing intervention with literacy cannot get it because there is not the resource to support them.

Reading Recovery cannot keep up with demand – and it needs to be revamped to work better for children with special needs, such as dyslexia. A recent newspaper article that suggested the programme could be replaced by more “group work” was met with scathing comments by teachers – “there is no substitute for intensive one-to-one work for children who are seriously behind”.

Teachers report that the well-meaning literacy programmes parachuted into low decile schools too often don’t work because the people who deliver them are not culturally competent (more in the autumn EA), and teachers themselves cannot get the PLD they need on cultural competency.

But sadly the government cannot bring itself to listen to teachers who, according to economists, are subject to “provider capture”. That is, they are too close to the front line.

Strange it was then that New Zealand’s pioneering work on literacy, which led us to being one of the best performers in the world, was developed by educators. And strange it is that since economists and accountants have had more of a say in education (and society) that our international ranking has fallen.

As former teacher Cathie Penetito put it, “This deprofessionalising of teachers is destroying teachers’ confidence. If it’s not glossy, if you don’t have to pay for it, if it’s not electronic – then it’s not good enough. Yet teachers know what works.”

Reading together pulled apart?