Kiwi accent might affect literacy, experts say

The vowel shift that creates the saying "fush and chups" could hinder the way Kiwis learn English.
TERESA RAMSEY/FAIRFAX NZ

The vowel shift that creates the saying "fush and chups" could hinder the way Kiwis learn English.

The Kiwi accent may affect our ability to read and write, literacy experts say.

Some said the "vowel shift" in New Zealand English – the pronunciation that makes "fish and chips" sound like "fush and chups" and "pen" sound like "pin" to other English speakers – made spelling difficult.

However, they cautioned against blaming Kiwi's poor literacy on the national accent alone. Teacher education and brain development had an impact.

Adult literacy tutor Barbara Dixon says New Zealanders can struggle to differentiate vowel sounds when reading and writing.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Adult literacy tutor Barbara Dixon says New Zealanders can struggle to differentiate vowel sounds when reading and writing.

Although New Zealand has literacy levels above the OECD average, a 2016 survey by the organisation indicated about 12 per cent of adults were at literacy level one*, meaning they could "read brief texts on familiar topics" and "relatively short texts and diagrams to locate a single piece of information".

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About 43 per cent of those aged 16 to 64 were unable to draw inferences from long pieces of text, according to Literacy Aotearoa. As many as one in four Kiwis had literacy difficulties that affected their daily lives.

Literacy expert Yolanda Soryl has developed the first Kiwi-accented app for tablets and smart phones that teaches kids ...

Literacy expert Yolanda Soryl has developed the first Kiwi-accented app for tablets and smart phones that teaches kids phonics.

Ara Institute of Canterbury adult literacy tutor Barbara Dixon believed the Kiwi accent was partly to blame.

"New Zealand students have big difficult difficulty differentiating between 'ay' and 'ah', and 'e' and 'i'," she said.

"It affects the way dyslexic adults [in particular] spell enormously."

Literacy specialist Ros Lugg says many students' literacy problems are minor and can be fixed with earlier intervention.
Supplied

Literacy specialist Ros Lugg says many students' literacy problems are minor and can be fixed with earlier intervention.

Dixon's master's thesis identified six types of dyslexia – surface, deep, phonological, working memory, visual processing, and auditory processing – which her students often had "some cocktail" of.

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Wellington-based literacy expert Yolanda Soryl addressed the gap between what we hear and how we write by developing a Kiwi-accented app for teachers.

Having New Zealand actors sound out individual letters and sounds avoided the confusion American or British teaching tools often created, she said.

"Eighty per cent of words you can get phonetically, but only if you know those vowel sounds. In all my years of reading recovery I have never had a child come to me who understood their vowel sounds.

"Phonics isn't the be all and end all of teaching someone how to read and write, but New Zealand teachers haven't been taught how to teach phonics for 40 years now."

Literacy specialist Ros Lugg, of Rangiora, believed teacher education and processing disorders were more relevant to literacy than accents.

"Really, it shouldn't make a huge difference because even with standard UK accents there are big variations."

Her research with Auckland University indicated a link between visual processing disorders and low literacy.

She said the most accurate predictor of children's literacy was whether they could recognise rhyme.

* An earlier version of this story described those with literacy level one as "struggling with basic vocabulary and understanding sentences".

Friday September 8 was International Literacy Day. 

 - Stuff

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