When the recently released Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showed New Zealand had dropped in its ranking by 11 places to 33rd out of 50 countries, it generated a lot of discussion among my education colleagues, but little surprise. The result is consistent with the latest Ministry of Education data for year four and five students (ages 8-9).

Whenever New Zealand students appear to be underperforming compared to their peers internationally, the response from the general public tends to be that teachers aren’t doing their job properly. Fingers are pointed, newspaper articles and talkback shows trigger public anxiety and suddenly it seems everyone is an expert with solutions being flung about from every direction. A recent NZ Herald article saw a variety of people weighing in, such as:

  • Our new Education Minister, Chris Hipkins argues that the poor performance in PIRLS is due to a misplaced “focus on National Standards” from the former government.
  • Professor Tom Nicholson commented “there is too much focus on whole language and not enough on learning how letters sound so children can decode words”.
  • The director for the Learning Staircase, Ros Lugg claims New Zealand does not cater for struggling learners, who need a more structured approach.
  • A Year 5 teacher suggested there is a big jump between Curriculum Level 2 to Curriculum Level 3 as students move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”.
  • A teacher from a decile 7 school described that her students come to school with low levels of oral language, which she attributed to time-poor parents who are either too busy on their digital devices or rely heavily on technology to occupy their toddlers with little oral language interaction.

This is not to say that the ideas above should be dismissed. In fact, some are very valid points, however, we have heard them all before. I think that while the public are right to demand answers, the urgency to find solutions can potentially lead to knee-jerk responses and off-the-shelf-package approaches that aim to fix everything. But the notion is futile because there is no quick fix. An informed approach to finding solutions will require deeper inquiry at all levels of the system, testing causal thinking and discussion about what factors have contributed to the decline in reading achievement levels within the Years 4-5 band.

If we want a solution, we need to understand the problem, because the two aren’t separate. An example of a causal contributing factor that remains deeply entrenched in New Zealand reading programs is “ability grouping” (also known as streaming). When looking into New Zealand’s education system, it shows two things: one, we have one of the highest disparities between our highest and lowest achievers, and two, that we ability-group at a higher rate than any other OECD country.

According to Professor Rubie-Davies, author of “Becoming a High Expectations Teacher,” ability grouping is a key factor in creating an inequitable education system. It has a damaging effect on student self-confidence and thereby negatively impacts on learning outcomes.

Assessments like PIRLS also require digital fluency and literacy skills which may not be consistently applied within reading programs in New Zealand schools. Our students would have needed to navigate their way through the assessment online which could have been a challenging experience for some of our children who are not accustomed to using a “reading online approach” as a teaching and learning tool. Although New Zealand students are reported to have higher access to computers than young people in other OECD countries, this doesn’t tell us the extent to which teachers are using e-learning strategies effectively and consistently within their reading programs.

There’s no such thing as a quick fix, however a deeper exploration into the complexities of the causal factors may lead us in the right direction.

Mayleen Gautusa is a professional learning and development facilitator with a focus on literacy and English-language learning at the University of Auckland’s Team Solutions.

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