Literacy levels in NZ must improve


Results from international literacy studies in which New Zealand participates show that although New Zealand’s best readers are among the best in the world, we have a very large tail of underachievement. In the 1970s the performance of New Zealand children put us near the top of these international studies. Since 2000, results indicate that the average score achieved by New Zealand children has remained virtually unchanged for 10 years, while achievement in other countries has improved. New Zealand is slipping further and further down the ranking in these international studies because our results are not changing. Results for New Zealand children who scored below the 20th percentile have also not changed for the past 10 years, despite millions of dollars being invested in ‘catch-up’ programmes. This long tail of underachievement is of serious concern for New Zealand’s reputation in the international arena, but more importantly for the impact it has on the children who fail to achieve in our education system, and for the consequences this has on their lives and on the New Zealand economy. It would be easy to think that underachievement is limited to children in low decile schools but this is not the case. Underachievement means a child is not achieving at their potential and there are children in schools across all decile levels whose performance does not match their potential.

Early literacy can improve

A child’s early years are critical for laying the foundations for later success. A number of international studies have shown that children who have not successfully learned to read and write by the age of 8, rarely catch up to their more successful peers, even with the introduction of intervention programmes. The importance of success in the early years cannot be over emphasised.

New Zealand classrooms provide children with rich learning environments and New Zealand teachers have championed the trial and development of many innovative and effective educational initiatives that are used and recognised internationally. However, despite this, there are still children failing to reach their potential in New Zealand classrooms. We need to critically evaluate the nature of literacy instruction in the first year of school.

The Shine Literacy Project

The Shine Porirua Literacy project is an initiative that sets out to do this. The project itself is Joy with childrena key foundation project in the Shine educational initiative. This project has attracted widespread support from schools and organisations in the wider Porirua community and from the comparison schools outside Porirua City (located in Johnsonville, Khandallah, Ngaio, Wadestown, Newtown, Lower Hutt).

The Porirua Foundation is managing the funding of this project.

The Shine steering committee is keeping an overview of the project and its implications for the wider community.

Massey University is managing the data collection and data analysis and will be responsible for reviewing student progress and outcomes.

The project involves teachers and New Entrant children from 32 schools spread across the Porirua Basin, North Wellington and Lower Hutt, and includes Decile 1 to Decile 10 schools. It has been designed and is being run by the educational researchers at the Institute of Education, Massey University.

This project grew out of a successful three-year trial of an early literacy initiative at Titahi Bay School (a decile 3 school) between 2010 and 2012. Over this time, Titahi Bay School made significant gains in student achievement. The number of students achieving at national expectations for reading went from 60% to 91%, and the number of students achieving at national expectations for writing went from 49% to 82%. This Titahi Bay School initiative involved a mixture of teacher professional development and a small, but significant change in thinking about how children are taught early literacy skills at school entry.

The strategies that form the basis of this literacy research project are research-based, best-practice strategies that have been shown to make a difference to children's acquisition of literacy skills. The project also draws on current international knowledge of the physical and cultural prerequisites for learning, and accommodates the wide range of different strategies children use in their learning. It has been reviewed by leading experts and is consistent with the requirements of the NZ National Curriculum. However, the strategies used for instruction do differ from those that have become common practice in NZ schools in recent decades.

Phase One (2014/2015)

The 17 schools involved in trialling the literacy strategy being evaluated include 27 New Entrant classrooms using the approach. This means that there are more than 500 students being exposed to this method of instruction in their first year at school. We will, however, only be tracking the progress of students who begin school in Term 2 of 2014. This tracked cohort of students will be reassessed after 16 weeks at school, at the end of their first year at school, mid-way through their second year at school and at the end of their second year at school. We would also like to track their progress at the end of their fourth year at school.

There are 15 schools that are comparison schools for the first year of this project. We will be assessing the school entry knowledge of children starting school in Term 2 of 2014 and reassessing these students after 16 weeks at school and at the end of their first year of school. If, at the end of the first year of school, the results from students involved in trialling the literacy strategy are better than those in the comparison schools, the comparison schools will be offered the opportunity to trial the strategy from the end of Term 2 in 2015. We will then monitor the progress of the students who are exposed to this literacy strategy in their second year at school.

Phase Two – second trial group (2015)

There is also the opportunity to trial the approach with a new group of students in the comparison schools – those who start school in 2015. The progress of New Entrant children in the same schools could then be tracked - those who did not use the approach in 2014, and those who use it in 2015. The second year of this project would then expose a further 400 - 500 students to this literacy strategy.

Phase Three – longitudinal results

Ideally, the students who start school in 2014 (from trial and comparison schools) would be tracked so that their progress could be evaluated after four years at school. This would involve further assessment and data analysis during 2018 for Phase One students and during 2019 for Phase Two students.


The project will cost approximately $280,000 over two years. The costs are for:

  • Student assessments – research assistants’ wages, testing materials, marking, data entry and associated monitoring costs
  • Co-ordinator’s salary – management of the project, the testing regime and teacher professional development programme 
  • Resources for classrooms trialling the literacy strategy.

We are targeting the following outcomes:

  • Improved teacher knowledge
  • Improved outcomes for students in the acquisition of literacy skills and across other learning areas
  • Increased understanding of the skills and knowledge children need at school entry which have the greatest impact on literacy success.

We need funding support from the wider communities where the schools taking part in this literacy initiative are located.

Contact people

For professional knowledge about this project, contact Joy Allcock.

For information about, and offers of, funding assistance contact Chris Kirk-Burnnand, Chair of the Porirua Foundation.


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