Last week’s piece about literacy in New Zealand schools Off the Record: (Il)literate New Zealand caught our attention here at the Book Council.

Penned by an anonymous secondary school English teacher, the column was a heartfelt appeal to take the issue of childhood literacy seriously.

The writer describes deteriorating skills in reading and writing among her students, and reports an increase in plagiarism, a decrease in reading comprehension skills, and even students who proudly declare they’ve never read a book, and don’t plan on it.

We believe that literacy in New Zealand is a complex issue, and not one that can be pinpointed to the way reading is taught in the ECE or primary years, or how evolving qualification systems have changed the way we assess students.

Rather, we can look to issues of access, equity, role models, and the kind of reading environment we are all responsible for creating.

Last year we published a study that found that almost 400,000 Kiwis didn’t read, or even crack open, a book in the last year. 31% of respondents said they didn’t have time to read, 24% didn’t enjoy it, and 16% said it was easier to watch movies or television.

But it wasn’t all bad news. 79% of New Zealand adults had read fiction in the past year, together with 85% of 10–17 year olds, and 86% of children under 10 years.

This indicates that most of our young people are reading, despite a myriad of digital distractions. We can, of course, do better.

In late August, we will release our new reading research, that looks into how, why and what New Zealanders have been reading in the past year and how the data has changed over time.

This year, we have looked more deeply into the different languages being read, and what exactly it is that is now competing for our attention and leisure time.

Encouraging reading, especially reading for enjoyment, is critical to ensure all of us can be part of our nation’s prosperity. It’s even a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background.

Established in 1972 to champion reading and writing in New Zealand, the Book Council has been doing exactly that for 45 years. Recently, our focus has sharpened to encourage more New Zealanders to read more.

We do this by delivering a range of programmes and initiatives. The best-known of these is Writers in Schools, which connects more than 100 authors with 40,000 children a year, from inner city to remote rural classrooms. We are working hard to make sure all students, especially those most vulnerable, have access to this programme.

We believe literacy is everyone’s responsibility. Parents are children’s first teachers, and in the countries that have high literacy rates, parents read with their kids long before they start school.

Crucially, they also read themselves, modelling to children that taking time for reading is important, enjoyable, and a normal part of everyday life.

But it’s not just parents – we all need to read more. When was the last time you ditched your phone for a novel?

Fear-mongering about the collapse of literacy in society is not helpful. We need to be creating the right environment – a place where reading is an everyday, enjoyable part of life, because a love of reading is interlinked with the development of literacy.

We need to take a collective and collaborative approach across schools and the wider community to spread the joy of reading. The National Library of New Zealand, which shares our desire to encourage more of us to read, offers a range of online resources to help with this.

Measures include reading aloud to students of all ages, ensuring access to books and especially libraries, and setting a good example as adults.

Young people are much more likely to read more and see books as a source of enjoyment when they see adults reading in their everyday lives.

Children’s writer Kate DiCamillo says: “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.”

Let’s work together to instil a love of reading in New Zealand.


  1. Thanks Kathryn, this is a fantastic response. I also really want to mention that while the grownups of nation bemoan the state of reading in in young people, these same people have a responsibility to make sure that their schools keep up standards in their school libraries. School libraries are marginalised, understaffed, many have no budget or have a shrinking budget. These are the places your child goes regularly to borrow books, these are the places where they find reading treasures, the same treasures which ensure a lifetime of reading.

    We all know that the more a child reads and is exposed to adults who value reading, who take reading seriously as a valuable use of their available leisure time, the more they are likely to be interested in books and in reading. It is up to the parents and teachers in schools to pressure their Board of Trustees to ensure that school libraries are an inherent part of the fabric of a school. That they are treasured and that money is spent on keeping their reading collections current.

    For many students the library is a really important part of their school life, it is their special place, the place they feel the most at home, it can be a shelter from the hurly burly of the playground. School libraries offer all kinds of wonderful opportunities for students including an excellent homework, game place, bookclub hub, kind librarian to talk to, someone who connects with them and never asks them to do homework. Treasure your school libraries, appreciate your school librarians and make sure that your children’s school has the same attitude. Not just in words but in actions as well!


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