I’m worried… but perhaps that word’s not quite emotive enough. Let me rephrase… I’m deeply concerned.

I’m deeply concerned about what I see happening in terms of literacy in New Zealand. I cannot be the only teacher noticing a steady deterioration in my students’ individual skills when it comes to reading and writing. And I know that many, many of the COLs around the country have “improved writing” as one of the ‘agreed-upon’ targets. (Said targets quite often tied to ‘national standards’ – oh, the irony of it all!)

And I know I can’t be the only faculty leader dealing with increased attempts at plagiarism. I cannot be the only teacher faced with 15-year-olds who tell me (quite proudly, in fact!) that they have never read a book in their lives and intend to keep it that way. I refuse to accept that I am alone in this.

So, here’s a wee anecdote: At the end of term two, our Year 10s complete a ‘common test’ (yes, shock, horror, there’s that word ‘test’!), which includes a ‘response to unfamiliar prose’ section. Back in the day, these were called ‘comprehension tests’… (honestly, I could quite easily go off on a tangent here about all the things that have become ‘dirty words’ in education, but I’ll save that for another day!)

In this section of the ‘mid-year checkpoint’, I purposely ask closed questions, as well as the more open-ended questions we have become used to in the NCEA unfamiliar text exams. I’ve copied the five vocabulary questions from the recent assessment here:

VOCABULARY:  Find ONE word FROM THE PASSAGE with the following meaning:

  1. The ability to read and write:

_____________________________ (write ONE word ONLY)                                     (1)

2. Nominated, specified, or appointed:

___________________________ (write ONE word ONLY)                                         (1)

3. The ability to understand something:

_____________________________ (write ONE word ONLY)                                     (1)

4. A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a person or thing:

_____________________________ (write ONE word ONLY)                                     (1)

5. Introductory, initial, or prior:

_____________________________ (write ONE word ONLY)                                     (1)

I marked the answers of 90 students. Not a single one of them managed to find/identify all five words – words that were in the reading passage! The majority could not provide the answers ‘literacy’ or ‘comprehension’. Only about half of them could find ‘stereotype’. I expected them to struggle with ‘designated’, but I was stunned by the rest.

We have a problem. And I don’t think we can afford to turn a blind eye any longer. The New Zealand Association for the Teaching of English (NZATE) team posted this link on their Facebook page, which is a further illustration of why I am so deeply concerned.

Having said this, the epiphany that has really prompted me to sit down on a Friday evening to write this, is that my concern is NOT limited to the individual students who will leave school and struggle to read or write with sophisticated comprehension per se. Many people will argue that not everyone needs to read or write with sophisticated comprehension or the oft-quoted favourite “not everyone is going to uni”. But you see, I take issue with that.

I take issue with that in the first instance because I have high expectations and I believe that having those high expectations is part of what drives me as a teacher.

And secondly, I take issue with that because whether you go to university or not, whether you decide to pursue an academic or vocational pathway or a combination of these or anything else in the future, every single school leaver is going to be a voter and every single school leaver is going to have a say in his/her/their own future: your future, my future, the country’s future.

And how on Earth do you vote if you cannot read policy with sophisticated comprehension? How do you engage in meaningful debate if you cannot access ‘sophisticated’ writing? How do you express your beliefs, your reasons for those beliefs, if you do not have the tools of communication at your disposal?

If our school leavers depart our care without the skills to read well and to write well, they are sitting ducks for politicians who will feed on their emotions and who will exploit their inability to engage with written policy. It is much easier to manipulate the less literate with mumbo-jumbo and that is why I worry. Slogans like ‘Let’s make America great again’ appeal to those who do not have the stamina or ability to read with critical insight. We need a truly literate nation – for the greater good of all our citizens. And that is why I am deeply, deeply concerned.

A timely example of this dilemma sits with the current NCEA review and the various proposals on the table. Every Tom, Dick and 5-year-old Harriet has an opinion on what we should or should not do in our schools. But how many of those people-with-opinions who are shouting their views from various rooftops or from behind the safety of their keyboards have managed to read the 44-page proposal document? And how many of them can?

And since I’m on the topic of the proposals, WHY are we trying to fix the literacy issue at Level 1 NCEA? We need to start at the beginning (“a very good place to start… when you read, you begin with A-B-C…”). I have students in my year 10 classes who are working at Curriculum Level 6 in English and others who are working at Curriculum Level 2. You cannot use the first year of NCEA to fix what has been systematically broken in the preceding 10.

So, in summary, I want the young people of New Zealand to leave school with the ability to read and write with sophisticated comprehension – all of them, every single one of them.

Yes, I want them to develop a love for reading, but that love generally follows from the ability to read… If you can’t do it, there is no way you can love it…

The New Zealand Curriculum’s key competencies imply this need for (sophisticated) literacy: How do you think critically about what you read if you do not understand what you read? How do you participate and contribute if you cannot access the communication tools required to do so? How do you “engage with language, symbols and texts” if you cannot read well and write well? How do you relate to others if you cannot put yourself in the shoes of others, which great literature allows you to do? And how do you manage (your) self if you do not have the ability to express that “self” with clarity?

In conclusion, I am thrilled that the literacy issue is also being addressed at the NZATE Conference this year. And I hope that the issue will become a topic of conversation in many, many homes across our nation.

And now that I’ve got all the above off my chest, I’m going to curl up with the cat and a good book in front of the fireplace.

Would you like to be our next ‘Off the record’ feature? Please get in touch with editor@educationcentral.co.nz. Your anonymity is assured.


  1. Great insight – congratulations on taking the initiative to share your ‘concern’ . Totally agree that the skills need to develop in the 10 years you mention. Today we have high workplace literacy issues, that impact on customer engagement, business results etc, that government funds to fix not only for immigrants but our own born here.

    I’m guessing we’d have a similar situation with basic numeracy skills.

  2. I couldn’t agree more.
    The literacy (and numeracy) standards were an attempt to identify for teachers the skills, knowledge and understanding that students need to properly engage with the curriculum.
    But the standards were anathema, apparently.
    Hopefully NZATE will work out ways to help the youngsters in front of them to catch up, and quickly. And hopefully NZATE can find some way of helping the teachers at earlier levels to understand that certain skills and knowledge a a sine-qua-non for any further learning lest we leave a whole generation (or more) of people who are “sitting ducks” for the unscrupulous.

  3. The difficulty may be caused by the variety of definitions given to “Literacy” Perhaps (probably definitely!) our teaching program misses the mark of what we expect our students to emerge from school with. The new view of Literacy is not a simple one. The new view from overseas research is that we should be defining Diverse Literacies and Numeracies so that students learn to listen accurately, read so they can understand, make inferences, analyze and reason with perception, and they can understand and write/ discuss logically and perceptively world issues like climate change, keeping food safe, financial planning and issues, etc. Diverse Literacies also includes the wider view of Digital Literacy, Financial Literacy, Personal Health Issues Literacy, Climate Change LIteracy, etc.. How many students who leave school this year will be able to
    show understanding of all those issues and discuss/write about those. Literacy standards need to be re-defined.


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