The taskforce agreed that, in general, with adequate support systems in place, the following factors contribute towards success for all children:
- the highest quality teaching is available to all children, regardless of the medium of instruction;
- there is a culture of high expectations for all children;
- the whole school is a community of learners;
- there is a close partnership between home and school;
- the cultural identity of children is recognised and affirmed.
Best practice for teaching reading and writing
In New Zealand, decisions about how to teach are made at the school level – that is, teaching methods are not prescribed as part of the national curriculum, although official guidance is provided through the teacher materials outlined later in this report. The Literacy Taskforce believes that this policy should not be changed. Decisions about teaching strategies, teaching approaches, and materials to use are professional decisions that are best made at the local school level in response to the needs of particular groups of children and individuals. However, the taskforce was concerned that, given the evident under-achievement of some children, “more of the same” will not be good enough.
The Literacy Taskforce endorsed the following principles of best practice in whichever medium of instruction:
- a sound understanding of the learning process that underpins all teaching;
- the expectation that all children will become successful readers and writers;
- language programmes that acknowledge the interrelationship and reciprocity of oral, written, and visual language;
- planning for teaching that will build on the child’s existing skills, knowledge, interests, and individual needs and that will acknowledge the role of the child as an active learner;
- teaching that takes account of children’s linguistic and cultural backgrounds;
- teaching that uses a range of explicit and implicit instructional strategies appropriate to the learner, including small-group or individual instruction where appropriate;
- regular and purposeful monitoring – children’s progress in reading and writing being monitored regularly (using running records, teacher conferencing, observation, and other methods) for clear purpose and for use in subsequent teaching;
- the development of positive attitudes to reading and writing, including the willingness to take risks;
- the use of a wide range of interesting material, fiction and non-fiction, in a range of media and appropriate to the instructional levels, including repetitive texts, rhymes, poems, and songs, to enhance children’s print and phonological awareness;
- access to a wide range of interesting and stimulating material, fiction and non-fiction, in a range of media;
- teachers who are readers and writers.
The taskforce also considered that a statement of best practice needs to be quite specific about what comprises appropriate instructional approaches, particularly in the light of the public debate about phonics and whole language. Although the debate has brought important issues about the teaching of reading to the surface, the taskforce felt that it had been conducted by the media in a way that polarised views. The taskforce strongly believes that such polarisation has been unhelpful  when the focus of attention should be on ensuring that instructional approaches include an appropriate mix of strategies.
The Literacy Experts Group’s advice on appropriate instructional approaches was based on a concern they expressed that teachers may not always select appropriate strategies, particularly when working with struggling readers. There is sound research that indicates that children should not rely on context as the primary or only strategy for working out unknown words but should develop the use of word-level skills and strategies. For some struggling readers, teachers may need to place a stronger emphasis on the development of word-level skills and strategies than for those children who quickly develop alphabetic awareness and are able to use language prediction skills such as context much more readily.
The taskforce agreed that it is essential that all teachers be skilled and able to use a wide range of strategies with children, selecting those that are most appropriate at the time rather than trying to provide a balance or following a particular approach.
The Literacy Taskforce recommends that a statement of best practice be drawn up and promulgated to schools. This statement should also guide the development of curriculum materials for both teachers and children developed and distributed by the Ministry of Education and guide schools’ purchase of materials.
The national curriculum
The national curriculum for reading and writing in general classrooms is outlined in English in the New Zealand Curriculum and in Te Reo Māori i roto i Te Marautanga o Aotearoa for Māori-medium education. The Literacy Taskforce believes that although the curriculum objectives in the English curriculum are deliberately broad and therefore often need further elaboration to be successfully implemented, they do not need to be changed. The taskforce supported the Ministry of Education’s proposals to develop exemplars to give further guidance.
Members of the taskforce thought that the curriculum for Māori-medium education, Te Reo Māori i roto i Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, might need further consideration in the light of experience being gained through its implementation.
The taskforce was concerned at the way in which a balanced curriculum has been interpreted by many schools to mean that equal time should be given to each of the essential learning areas. It considered that schools should be given clearer direction to emphasise literacy and numeracy in the early years. However, this emphasis does not necessarily mean allocating more time to language programmes than is currently usually given in the junior school but using that time more effectively and actively reinforcing the development of literacy and numeracy through the rest of the curriculum.
Such an emphasis could be issued through modifying the National Administration Guidelines (NAGs).
The taskforce was concerned that the way in which the NAGs’ requirements to “monitor student progress against the national achievement objectives” and to “assess student achievement, maintain individual records, and report on student progress” have been interpreted and implemented are not reasonable. The taskforce was aware of teachers being required to gather large amounts of detailed data to record the progress of individual children across the curriculum at the expense of quality instruction time. It is difficult for teachers to maintain an emphasis on literacy and numeracy in these circumstances. The taskforce believes that all the essential learning areas are important, particularly for those children in the target groups because of the rich experiences they provide, for example, in art and physical education, but that the workload associated with monitoring in this way often intrudes on quality teaching and learning time.
The Literacy Taskforce recommends that the requirement on schools to provide the broad curriculum, as laid out in the New Zealand Curriculum Framework, should continue but that the monitoring requirements of the National Administration Guidelines be modified for the early years to focus on student achievement in literacy and numeracy.
Curriculum materials for teachers and children
The Ministry of Education provides schools with both teacher materials, and materials for children to support literacy learning. Most of these materials, such as The Learner as a Reader and Dancing with the Pen, which are guidelines for teachers, and the Ready to Read series and the School Journals are published for the Ministry by Learning Media Limited. Ngā Kete Kōrero, a levelled reading series for children in Māori-medium classrooms, is published by Learning Media Limited and Huia Publishers. The Literacy Taskforce believes that although schools buy materials from other providers, materials provided by the Ministry are essential to ensure that all schools are provided with best practice guidelines and models.
The taskforce agreed that teachers need more assistance than is currently available through the materials provided. This does not mean step-by-step instructions for teachers to follow but more detail to help them to select and use appropriate instructional approaches and strategies, particularly those to be used with children who are in underachieving groups.
The taskforce would also like to see more material for limited-progress children as well as a greater awareness being given to ensuring that the Ready to Read series includes texts that provide more support for struggling learners.
The Literacy Taskforce recommends that priority be given to:
- developing a video that illustrates taking and analysing running records in English and in Māori and using this data to inform the teaching programme;
- revising Reading in Junior Classes;
- developing teacher guidelines for teaching reading and writing in Māori-medium education;
- ensuring that the series for children include adequate suitable material for struggling readers;
- positioning te reo Māori readers to fit Ngā Kete Kōrero framework levels (levels 1 to 3);
- developing guidelines for schools to use when selecting materials for their literacy programmes.
The Literacy Taskforce strongly supported the development of a professional development package. This package is discussed later in this report.
Members of the Literacy Taskforce expressed concern about the widely reported variability in the skills and knowledge about literacy learning that they and their colleagues have noticed in graduates from current teacher education providers. For example, some members reported instances of teachers who have begun their teaching careers this year not yet able to undertake such fundamental procedures as running records or with little apparent knowledge of the procedures for guided reading. Even taking into account that two years of support and guidance will be provided by schools before they are registered, some beginning teachers do not appear to meet the relevant interim standards developed for the Performance Management System.
The taskforce was concerned that it was difficult to find out about current teacher education programmes and how they prove their suitability for teacher registration purposes. Not enough appears to be known in an area of critical importance to the quality of teaching and thus to the achievement of children.
The Literacy Taskforce recommends that the Government investigate how and why teacher education programmes, particularly in respect to literacy learning, are approved for the purposes of teacher registration.
Throughout its discussions, the Literacy Taskforce kept reiterating the importance of professional development for teachers. The taskforce was concerned that not all teachers have the same high level of skills and knowledge in respect to literacy learning as that which is demonstrated by leading teachers. Such demonstration of best practice is particularly evident when leading teachers are working with children most at risk of underachievement. The taskforce believes that it is essential that all teachers be engaged in regular, quality professional development and that improving teacher capability in literacy learning is seen as a priority in the professional development plans in primary schools. The taskforce acknowledged that this priority creates a tension in schools having to address the implementation of new curriculum statements.
The taskforce was also very concerned that the Government’s intended policy of devolving the funding currently used for the Teacher Support Service to schools could result in teachers not having access to quality advice and support. Members considered that this is a serious equity issue affecting rural and lower decile schools in particular.
The taskforce recalled the effectiveness of ERIC, the in-service training programme that was once available to teachers. Members would like to see the development of a new professional development package for the Māori as well as the English medium. The package should use such media as videos and printed material, which could be available for teachers to use either independently or as part of a formal professional development programme facilitated by an expert literacy adviser or the school's literacy leader. It would be essential that such a package focused on best practice and included explicit instruction on the approaches needed to work effectively with children who are underachieving.
The Literacy Taskforce recommends that the Ministry of Education develop a comprehensive professional development package to assist teachers to implement best practice in their teaching of reading and writing.
Literacy leadership in schools
The taskforce discussed the importance of literacy leadership within the school – a teacher or teachers with expertise in literacy learning having responsibility to provide guidance and support in classrooms as well as in the staff meetings that are part of the regular professional development of teachers. To do this, literacy leaders need a thorough understanding of best practice, including the theoretical ideas that underpin best practice and their evolving status.
A particular responsibility of the literacy leadership should be to evaluate the effectiveness of literacy programmes at the classroom level and for those children needing additional support. The taskforce was concerned that it is possible for schools to be using many different literacy programmes without knowing enough about their effectiveness in meeting the needs of children and suggests that literacy leaders develop the expertise needed to do this evaluation.
The Literacy Taskforce recommends that support and advice be provided to develop literacy leadership in schools. The taskforce considers that such support is best provided through a nationally co-ordinated service.
Professional leadership in schools
The professional leadership in the school is responsible for setting goals and aspirations. Members of the taskforce felt the need to make the point that this leadership must include the principal, who, as professional leader, should have a thorough understanding of how learners learn as well as the ways in which the school should be organised and the teachers supported to achieve the best results possible. For example, the taskforce considered that only in the most exceptional circumstances should beginning teachers be given new entrant classes because of the particular skills and experience needed to teach these children.
In considering the role of the principal in relation to literacy learning, the Literacy Taskforce expressed its concern about the particular pressures faced by principals of lower decile schools.
The Literacy Taskforce recommends that appropriate materials and opportunities be provided for principals to allow them to update their understanding of literacy learning.