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New Zealand's Falling Literacy Rates

A Response to recent media & opinion reports.

And the blame game begins another round. Long-service teachers, myself included, can discuss the many pendulum swings between favoured methodologies. Politicians, academics and experts near and far will put their spin on these appalling results for New Zealand. Each will make proclamations in support of their research, or a solution which lies in applying a particular method or resource, and certainly for improvement in teacher training. There will be a debate for and against school readiness, shouts for more investment in early education, no doubt some will want to throw more digital devices and ‘new apps’, and ‘modern mayhem’ into the remedying. But generally, the implication will be that teachers alone need to fix this.

In my experience, the solution lies in the classrooms of our most humble teachers. It is there that you find the teacher with a deep understanding of language development, and of the fundamentals of learning and memory. These are teachers who immerse their students in language-rich learning experiences. These teachers balance explicit and direct instruction with meaningful tasks for practice and mastery. They know how to integrate ‘whole -language’ with essential components for effective morphological and phonological concepts to be learned. They have sustained the importance of fine motor control not only for mastery in handwriting but because they understand the kinaesthetic link to memory. And within this carefully balanced literacy programme, they provide meaningful contexts for learning, exploiting every opportunity to loiter in great stories and to bring topics and themes to life in their classrooms. Such teachers know where each student is at in the literacy learning progression, not because of their stringent assessment routine but, because they teach all of this in a setting where they observe and get to know their students and their families.

We know that the storytelling method thrives in such classrooms. Unfortunately, it is becoming harder for these teachers to work their magic. Quite simply they are losing time, attention and connection with students as a consequence of multi-composite classes with huge numbers and hours lost to 'factory floor' management. In some settings, our children are players in a literacy curriculum of ‘potted sports’ participating in an ‘inter-change’ of literacy teachings and ‘action-stations’ which often give little to connect and embed learning.

Interestingly, 'storytelling' has led to improved outcomes in all settings. Perhaps this is in spite of rather than because of changing learning environments.

I suspect our storytelling approach fills a connection gap, bringing that opportunity for memory work with meaningful practice and mastery of language. The storytelling schools method is a proven and powerful tool for accelerating language and communication. It opens a wide door to content learning and provides a broad platform for key competency growth. But it will not lead to improved reading and writing outcomes where English's deep orthography is not being systematically taught. For learners with a specific learning difficulty, the storytelling way allows them to learn author craft, to comprehend and to compose - these learners have improved access and accommodation. As learners without sufficient skills in using sounds, symbols and text they experience inclusion and advancement in literacy learning. But, it remains our job as teachers to systematically and explicitly teach these skills for reading and writing to all learners.

In 2018 Storytelling Schools will continue to add its voice to this conversation. Yes, we will want to show you the magic and possibilities that lie in putting spoken language at the heart of literacy learning and teaching. We will share the experiences of storytelling teachers who are successfully raising students engagement, oral language fluency, and writing and reading outcomes. But, just as the cause of declining literacy standards is far broader than the quality of teacher training, we will be strong advocates for a solution that is broader than just the promotion of the Storytelling Schools method. This is because effective literacy learning relies on a balanced approach. An approach that requires teachers to have acquired sufficient theory and practice, an analytical and reflective stance to their teaching, and a great deal of common sense.

For many teachers and parents the media revelation that NZ literacy standards are at an all-time low, is no surprise. The causes are broad and rooted in pedagogical changes in education, societal shifts in community and communication, and inherited literacy abilities. The impact is far-reaching. It will take parents, teachers and policymakers to step up to the challenge. We will need to tap into the knowledge and experience of the humble practicioners with mastery in the craft of literacy teaching. But firstly, at this point in the school year, our priority is to thank teachers for their work. For teaching is a profession filled to the brim with people who care deeply and give generously of their time.