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Will structured literacy solve our reading crisis?

An exploration into how we learn to read - from the education perfect website. by Jen Smart.


To everyone but primary school teachers, learning to read is a very mysterious process. From the outside it also appears to be an extremely frustrating one for some brains and, given our consistently poor results in international literacy tests, an apparently ineffective one for far too many young people in Aotearoa.

New Zealand’s slide in youth literacy scores has been persistent since 2000 and this year’s lows are again provoking much hand wringing. Blame has been cast in the direction of digital devices, the rapid uptake of technology in our schools, a curriculum lacking in specifics and, inevitably, claims that teachers are not teaching the basics properly.

But what are the basics? More importantly, can everyone agree on them?

Proponents of a structured literacy approach have argued – with increasing frustration – that the foundations of reading and writing are being too sloppily laid for too many children. They’d like the planned overhaul of early literacy teaching to happen faster, and with much more clarity and specificity for teachers.

But changing how we teach reading will be the most significant shift the sector has seen in decades. Embedding an evidence-based approach is obviously the right move but the implications are likely to reach much further than we might think.

Remind me again what ‘structured literacy’ actually means?

Heralded as a solution to Aotearoa’s literacy recession, structured literacy is an evidence-based approach to teaching reading that is very hot right now. For those not enmeshed in the world of syllable splits and vowel teams, a quick explainer…

The approach to teaching reading is drawn from a cross-disciplinary body of research known as the ‘Science of Reading’. Findings from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, linguistics and educational research are used to inform a step-by-step framework for teaching reading and writing.

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