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Structured literacy – how the next cohort of Kiwi kids will learn to read

You may have heard of ‘structured literacy’, especially if you have a child in their early years at primary school. But what is this ‘new’ approach all about and, as a parent, do you need to know the nuts and bolts? By Kate Barber.

Structured literacy is an approach to teaching reading that has been picked up by many New Zealand primary schools already – with widespread success. As of Term 1, 2025, all state schools will be required to teach reading using a ‘structured literacy’ approach, meaning a cohort of Kiwi kids who’ll learn to read in a way that’s probably different from how their parents did. It also means there’s a race to get teachers up to speed with using a structured literacy approach.

What’s it all about?

Structured literacy is one of the main approaches to teaching reading and writing and it is based on separating language skills into basic parts – like sounds, letters, phonics (the relationship between sounds and letters), syntax (sentence structure) and word meanings.

The other approach is known as a ‘balanced’ or ‘whole-language’ approach, where teachers use a variety of ways to teach reading and writing – from independent reading to small-group reading sessions. With this approach, children might use the pictures and context to predict how to read something.

If you’re a parent today, chances are this is how you learnt to read. If you struggled, you may have had remedial help through Reading Recovery, which started in the 1980s. As part of the blanket change to how reading is taught in New Zealand schools, this long-standing programme is being dropped.

What’s behind the change?

The problem is that more and more Kiwi kids are struggling to read and write. Latest literacy statistics from the National Monitoring Assessment suggests a significant chunk of NZ students are failing to meet the expected curriculum level as they move into the upper years at primary school. 

Dr Nina Hood is the Founder of The Education Hub, and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland. She explains that, while 63 percent of students are at or above the 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 curriculum level in reading and only 35 percent meeting this standard in writing.

“Around Year 3 and 4, students are moving beyond the foundational literacy skills and reading for comprehension, making inferences and reading across the curriculum,” says Nina. “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.” 

The Better Start Literacy Approach

The Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) is an example of a structured literacy approach. In response to the 20-year decline in literacy achievement in New Zealand, the BSLA was developed to ensure teachers use approaches to teaching literacy that are proven to work. Led by Professors Gail Gillon and Brigid McNeill, controlled research trials over five years proved the effectiveness of the BSLA for all children compared to ‘usual classroom practice’. Since 2020 the Ministry of Education has funded the implementation of BSLA, which is now in over 900 schools across New Zealand. 

As part of the mandate that schools teach structured literacy by the beginning of next year, the Government has flagged $67 million towards: professional development for teachers, books and resources, and additional support for students who need it. Schools can choose to use the Better Start Literacy Approach as they embrace structured literacy, but there are other providers as well.

Marie Stewart teaches Year 0-1 students at a North Canterbury primary school where teachers have been using the Better Start Literacy Approach for the last two and a half years. “We have seen great results for our students already,” says Marie. “I feel like the fruits will be apparent in a few years’ time,” she adds – anticipating fewer students falling behind in their early years at school. 

“For students who had struggled under the ‘old’ approach, the BSLA has given them the tools to crack the reading challenge,” Marie says.

The Code is another resource being used to teach structured literacy and Marie says teachers at the school are using this with older students. “We are finding the gaps and addressing these before they become issues later on.”

Fostering a love of reading at home

As a parent you don’t need to worry too much about the nuts and bolts of the structured literacy approach. As Marie says, when it comes to supporting our kids on their literacy journey, “The most important starting point is having a love of books and reading.” So, enjoy reading to your child and making up stories together; visit the library or go to second-hand book sales. Marie also reminds parents that, when your child gets home from school, they’ll probably be really tired – so rest and snacks are the priorities. Avoid getting into a battle with them about their reading.

<< Check out these tips from book experts for getting kids reading >>

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