Interventions across primary and secondary education are urgently needed to address declining literacy levels and persistent inequity, according to a new report.

The evidence summary, titled ‘The literacy landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand’, is authored by Professor Stuart McNaughton, chief science advisor to the Ministry of Education. It is released today through the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard.

Literacy, mathematics and science levels – as measured in standard international assessments at 15 years old – have been declining in Aotearoa New Zealand over many years. In addition, disparities between students from low socioeconomic status communities, Māori and Pasifika students, and other students, remain unchanged.

Apple, books, pencils and ABC blocks

“We see disparities in Years 4-8 – for example, Māori students in English medium schooling typically have reading comprehension one to two years lower than Pākehā students,” says Stuart. “But the differences don’t start there. They emerge before school.”

The report identifies several evidence-backed actions and interventions across a child’s school life that can make a difference to literacy development.

These include simple everyday activities, such as reading and telling stories to preschool-aged children, alongside systems-level processes, such as implementing literacy progress measures in early learning services.

“There are strengths in our system to build upon,” says Stuart. “For example, fostering strong Māori identity, culture and language, as well as attending Māori medium schools or simply having Māori teachers, can increase achievement at secondary school for Māori students.”

“Given the importance of language, culture and identity to achievement, it is concerning that about one quarter of Year 8 students say they have never had the opportunity to read books that reflect their identities,” he adds.

Other recommendations include:

  • Well-designed digital innovations in low-decile schools;
  • Formal and informal assessment tools at the point of starting primary school to provide detailed profiles of new entrants’ strengths and learning needs;
  • Strengthening the three-tiered ‘Response to Intervention’ (RTI) model, especially interventions following ‘Reading Recovery’;
  • Incorporating critical literacy in Years 4-8, especially for digital and social media contexts; and
  • Policies and teaching to promote wellbeing during the transition from primary to secondary school.

The effectiveness of these recommendations can be enhanced by better teacher preparation and further research in educational science, according to Stuart.

“Structural inequalities and discrimination also contribute to our challenges in equity and excellence,” he says. “The recommendations of the report would be more powerful if these encompassing conditions were addressed too.”

An ‘at a glance’ outline is available alongside the comprehensive report.

Professor Stuart McNaughton

Professor Stuart McNaughton ONZM

Stuart is Professor of Education and Founding Director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre – Te Pūtahi Whakatairanga Hapori Ako Angitu at the University of Auckland. His areas of expertise include children’s learning and development; literacy and language; the design of effective education for culturally and linguistically diverse populations; and cultural processes in development.

Stuart is the Chief Education Scientific Advisor for the Ministry of Education – Te Tāhuhu o Te Mātauranga. He is part of the Forum of Chief Science Advisors convened by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.