Training 4000 teachers won't reverse sliding literacy, educators say

A move to train more teachers in a literacy programme developed by Canterbury University researchers doesn’t go far enough, say some teachers and principals, who want all teacher trainees to be taught the approach.
Martin De Ruyter/Stuff
A move to train more teachers in a literacy programme developed by Canterbury University researchers doesn’t go far enough, say some teachers and principals, who want all teacher trainees to be taught the approach.

Training just 4000 teachers in a new method of teaching children to read and write won't resolve declining literacy in New Zealand, some educators warn.

The teachers are due to be trained in the “Better Start Literacy Approach” after the Ministry of Education announced $10 million for an extension of the phonics-based programme, trialled by researchers at Canterbury University.

A recently-graduated teacher was among those who told Stuff all teachers should be trained in the systematic phonics-based approach, known as structured literacy.

The Auckland teacher, who didn’t want her name published, said she was shocked at how little literacy training she got during her one-year post-graduate teaching diploma.

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Sarah Davies principal at Nelson’s Stoke School says a move to train 4000 teachers in structured literacy doesn’t go far enough.
Braden Fastier/Stuff
Sarah Davies principal at Nelson’s Stoke School says a move to train 4000 teachers in structured literacy doesn’t go far enough.

“I was expecting .... to learn what to do when a five-year-old arrives on the first day of school ... this is how you teach them to write, this is how you move through the alphabet, listening to the sounds.

“We didn't get taught any of that.”

The course addressed only briefly the most-widely used approach in New Zealand, known as balanced literacy.

Under that approach, many schools used Ministry-funded “Ready to Read” books, which provided picture and context clues to help children work out some words.

Structured literacy in contrast helped children decode systematically through teaching of letter sounds and patterns.

The system for teaching literacy at school seemed “broken”, with some schools adopting literacy and numeracy programmes developed privately, the teacher said.

“I just wish there was a more standardised model coming from the Ministry, because then we could just refer back.”

Stoke School principal Sarah Davies, agreed structured literacy should be taught at teacher training college.

After training two new entrant teachers as part of the Canterbury University pilot in 2019, the Nelson school had switched to the approach for Year 1 and 2 students.

Students who had struggled to read and write, were now “really getting it”, Davies said.

Davies wanted to roll the programme out to the whole school, but training teachers was challenging due to “other constraints on time” and professional development already in place.

Resourcing the structured literacy programme was also expensive for the school, with one title costing $13, she said.

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Nelson Central School principal Pip Wells said her school was piloting a structured literacy programme for first year students, after noticing “a significant cohort of children” coming into school with lower oral language and literacy levels.

The school would “seriously look at” applying for any of the 4000 training places, she said.

“The challenge for us is that there are a significant number of initiatives that are being rolled into schools, that all have the same degree of urgency, that require additional teacher energy, time and resource, that quite honestly we haven’t got.”

Ministry deputy secretary early learning and student achievement Ellen McGregor-Reid said the Better Start Literacy Approach training was part of “a range of new resources and support for teachers that are focussed on ensuring they have what they need to help akonga (pupils) ‘crack the code’.

A range of Ready to Read phonics-enhanced books the ministry was rolling out would continue to grow as the ministry worked to develop a literacy strategy this year, she said.

The ministry had also started to engage with Initial Teacher Education (ITE) providers to look at how they could reflect shifts in curriculum in their own programmes.