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Is your child falling behind with their reading and writing?

Education Hub founder Dr Nina Hood discusses the decline in literacy achievement in New Zealand and encourages parents and caregivers to seek help if they’re concerned. By Kate Barber

Latest literacy statistics from NZQA’s National Monitoring Assessment team suggest a significant chunk of New Zealand students are failing to meet the expected curriculum level as they move into the upper years at primary school – with significant implications for their progress in other subjects, and for their learning at secondary school and beyond.

While 63 percent of students are at or above the expected curriculum level in both reading and writing at Year 4, these figures slip significantly by Year 8, with 56 percent of students at or above the expected curriculum level in reading and only 35 percent meeting this standard in writing. Within this, Education Hub founder Dr Nina Hood explains there are substantial differences – with NZ European and Asian students outperforming Māori and Pacifica students, and girls outperforming boys.

Why are they slipping? 

“Around Years 3 and 4, students are moving beyond the foundational literacy skills, and reading for comprehension, making inferences and reading across the curriculum,”
Nina says. “Students who didn’t build the necessary foundational skills by this time, who can’t decode and who don’t have the vocabulary or broader background knowledge, start slipping.”

As Nina says, developing foundational literacy skills requires both “explicit, systematic phonics instruction as well as rich language opportunities across the curriculum to build their vocabulary and understanding.”

While she says that “effective pedagogy is not taking place in all schools,” she emphasises that students falling behind is not the fault of any one teacher or school, but a systemic issue.

Early literacy skills start at home

Nina stresses that the development of early literacy and oral language skills is built up in families. She emphasises the importance of playing with young children and talking to them about what they’re doing, singing and making up rhymes, and reading to them in an interactive way. “We want kids to think that reading is a wonderful thing.

“Reading for pleasure at home has a massive impact,” she adds. “If young people see parents and significant adults in their lives reading for pleasure, they are far more likely to read.”

If you’re concerned

Check out these five top tips for promoting reading and supporting learning at home.

It’s vital that parents and caregivers ask about their child’s progress at school: where they might be struggling and what the next steps are, Nina says. “If you don’t understand something in the school report, arrange a time to ask the teacher. It’s not a case of having one meeting with the teacher, but rather checking in regularly about your child’s progress.” 

Experienced primary school teacher Chris Luck says that “teachers genuinely believe that engaging with whānau is an important factor in ensuring early literacy success. 

“We want parents to understand where their children are at, what their strengths are and what areas they’re struggling with. We want parents to be involved in their children’s learning and to have conversations around getting extra support if they need it. This may start with arranging to chat with the teacher, the earlier the better, formulating a plan, and having regular check-ins, so everyone is on the same page.” 

If they’re struggling, the earlier you intervene, the better, Nina says. She adds that tutoring 1:1 is incredibly effective, provided that it meets the child’s specific learning needs – whether they have an issue with decoding or an issue with comprehension, for instance.

A better start

In response to the 20-year decline in literacy achievement, the Better Start Literacy programme was launched this year to help ensure all teachers use approaches to teaching literacy that are proven to work. The programme emphasises structured teaching of phonological awareness skills, quality story-books and fun game-based activities to boost letter-sound knowledge, as well as resources to support parents and families to get involved.


Dr Nina Hood is the founder of The Education Hub, a not-for-profit with a mission to bridge the gap between research and practice in education, and is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland. She is the author of the recently released report Now I don’t know my ABC, which examines the state of literacy among young people in New Zealand.

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