If it wins the election, the National Party has vowed to shake up how children are taught to read and write. Part of this education overhaul includes a pledge to require the teaching of “structured literacy” in all year 0-6 classrooms.
For many in education, the announcement is welcome. It signals a move to an explicit and systematic form of teaching reading that educators, researchers and parents have long been calling for.
New Zealand certainly needs to lift its literacy rates. Only 60% of 15-year-olds are achieving above the most basic level of reading, meaning 40% are struggling to read and write. Focusing on what research shows works in literacy is vital for improvement.
Some schools have already implemented a variety of structured literacy programmes, often at their own cost. 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 here is where we need to tread carefully and work collaboratively.
There is a growing body of research supporting the introduction of explicit reading instruction – what informs the label of structured literacy. But we don’t yet know exactly what it would look like and how it would be taught.
And, if we don’t remain adaptable, we could end up with a reading curriculum that fails the promise to lift literacy rates.
How has reading been taught?
For decades, New Zealand schools have followed the “balanced literacy approach”. This places value on being immersed in literature, and on the development of oral language. Students are not explicitly taught to sound out words.
By 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 the sounds with individual letters or groups of letters.
A balanced literacy approach requires children to use a wide range of information to read, including illustrations and the context of the story. So children might look at the first letter of a word and then think what might fit in the sentence.
Structured approaches to reading use decodable books that are designed to help children practise 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 one interpretation of the “science of reading” – a large body of research that pulls from disciplines such as education, special education, literacy, psychology, neurology and others.
The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) trademarked the term structured literacy in 2014. Their definition requires the explicit teaching of foundation skills, including phonics for word reading, in a way that is systematic and cumulative.
But as one part of the broader and evolving body of science of reading research, educators need to be careful not to ascribe too much to one definition of structured literacy. The research base is strong, but it is not entirely clear how to translate this research in the classroom.
Key questions about the structured literacy approach continue to be debated – 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 need to use decodable texts.
Policy makers also need to be wary of creating a structured literacy checklist for teachers to follow. Some programmes could end up meeting the formal criteria but have no evidence that they work in practice. Others might not meet the criteria but provide positive results for learners.
Teachers and researchers need to work together
Successful implementation of any new literacy approach is going to require teacher education to keep pace with the research.
The National Party has promised to introduce structured literacy as part of teacher training and ongoing professional development – but research to support the teachers will be key.
Teachers have the best knowledge about their classrooms, while researchers can examine and evaluate whether implementation of a new programme has worked or not.
Connecting research to educational practice is notoriously difficult to achieve but it is vital for ensuring classroom approaches are based on evidence. Research can provide the evidence of what works, which is vital 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 teaching and learning are complex.
National’s 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, while allowing educators to adapt their teaching practices to ongoing research.