If you were not already alarmed about the state of education in New Zealand, two stories in the media last week should shake you from any complacency.

The first story was about a commonplace word, trivial. It appeared in this year’s NCEA History exam set by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA). Students sitting the Level 3 “Causes and Consequences” paper were confronted with the word in a quotation from Julius Caesar: “Events of importance are the result of trivial causes.”

The word trivial flummoxed many students. Some guessed the word meant significant. Others had no clue. Within a few days, 2,500 students had signed an online petition asking NZQA to mark the exam leniently.

NZQA responded by saying the language used in the question was “within the range of vocabulary” for students at NCEA Level 3. However, it said if students had addressed the quote and integrated their ideas with it, they would not be penalised for misinterpreting the word.

This in turn prompted shocked disbelief. How on earth could trivial be beyond the comprehension of students in their 13th year of education? The disbelief was not just local. News of the fiasco appeared in the media in both Australia and the United Kingdom.

The second story received less attention. NZ Herald’s education reporter Simon Collins said up to a third of students in some New Zealand secondary schools use a reader and writer to assist them with their NCEA exams. Collins’ concern was not so much with the absolute figures but the revealed inequity in the pattern of assistance, with students in higher decile schools more likely to receive this assistance than students in low decile schools. Consequently, the availability of assistance during exams may be widening the gap in educational achievement between socio-economic groups.

But there is a deeper problem. By most measures, the incidence of dyslexia in the wider population is less than 10%. And even dyslexic children can be taught to read. Why then do up to a third of students in some (higher decile) schools need special assistance with reading and writing?

There are good reasons to believe both these education issues are related – and that they stem from a flawed philosophy underpinning the teaching of reading in New Zealand.

As celebrated educationalist Professor E.D. Hirsch explains in The Knowledge Deficit, the word reading has two senses. And both are often confusingly lumped together.

The first means the process of turning printed words into sounds, and these sounds into words. The second is the process of understanding what those words mean – or reading comprehension.

New Zealand is an outlier for the first process. Our Ministry of Education promotes a “whole language” approach to teaching reading. It is based on a so-called progressive – or romantic – view that children are “natural learners,” who will crack the codes that link letters to words if we simply put books in front of them.

The only problem is this theory does not work for many children. Instead, they need a systematic process of teaching phonics, that is, breaking down the sounds common groups of letters represent and memorising them. This process may not sound progressive, but the evidence says it works.

After persistently declining results, England reintroduced systematic phonics to teach reading in 2006. In the decade or so since then, English Year 5 children have jumped from 15th to 8th place in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

In the same study, New Zealand’s Year 5 students ranked 33rd among the 50 participating countries. And we were last among English-speaking countries. Little wonder so many of our students require assistance in reading their exam papers (and writing their answers).

Learning how to read is one thing, but it does not guarantee students will comprehend the meaning of what they read. Unfortunately, New Zealand’s education system is also failing students when it comes to this second reading process. Indeed, last week’s trivial furore is evidence of this failure.

Studies suggest that by year 13, students should know as many as 60,000 words – far more words than can be memorised in the classroom. Instead, students pick them up from acquiring knowledge about the natural and social worlds. So the key to good reading comprehension is broad factual knowledge.

Unfortunately, factual knowledge is out of fashion in New Zealand’s progressive education establishment. Instead of concentrating on teaching knowledge, schools are encouraged by the Ministry to teach skills like problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking.

No one is against our children becoming creative, critical thinkers. But as this year’s NCEA Level 3 History exam shows, you cannot think critically about the world if you lack the knowledge or vocabulary to comprehend it.

Last week’s news stories may have prompted despair among readers at the shortcomings of today’s school students. But let us remember that these students are themselves victims of an anti-intellectual education system that withholds from them the tools they need to succeed in the world.

New Zealand students deserve a reading revolution. Wouldn’t Caesar think it ironic if the prompt for something so important were trivial?

Do you find it concerning that many Year 13 students don't know the meaning of the word 'trivial' as revealed in a recent NCEA exam?
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