Will structured literacy solve our reading crisis?


An exploration into how we learn to read.

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. It’s not sexy. Indeed, critics say it’s boring, lacks context, and is too rigid. But the empirical evidence is there: it works – and especially so for our dyslexic and neurodiverse learners. What’s more, results from the Better Start Literacy Approach shows that Māori and Pasifika learners in Years 0 – 2 are also benefiting in a big way from more explicit teaching of words and sentences.
Teaching methods operate on the understanding that language has rules and structures, and that these rules can be learned, just like everything else. Some languages are less ‘reliable’ than others, of course. The phonology of English doesn’t map very regularly or logically onto its alphabet — just take ‘sure’ and ‘wore’ as head-scratching examples — but there are rules. In contrast, the sounds of te reo Māori correlate quite neatly with the letters used to represent them.

Under a structured literacy approach children are systematically and explicitly taught the structures of written language. That includes phonological awareness, alphabetic principles, and how the sounds of our language map onto the squiggles on the page. With plenty of repetition and practice they improve fluency until the process becomes automatic. They then move on to the next stage of vocabulary acquisition and comprehension.

Surely teachers are already doing that, though?

Yes… but mostly no. While there are elements of structured literacy at work in New Zealand’s teaching of reading – termed ‘balanced literacy’ – it’s not a systematic framework and there’s a lot of variability in how language instruction is delivered.
Underpinning the current approach is the ‘whole language’ philosophy that assumes we acquire written language in the same way that we do oral language (by lots of exposure to natural language). Learners are taught to use strategies like context cues to make meaning of unfamiliar words. New Zealand teachers have largely taught reading and writing this way since the 1970s, with some direct instruction around phonics and decoding (the ‘balanced’ part of balanced literacy).

As an analogy, let’s imagine I’m watching rugby and the commentator keeps talking about ‘mauls’. If I watch enough mauls and hear the word ‘maul’ said at the same time, my brain might fill in the gap to make sense of what a maul actually is (this is yet to happen). In contrast, by using a structured approach someone could show me a slow-motion clip of a maul, explicitly point out the components of a maul, and then explain how it fits with the other things that happen in a rugby game.
Using the first method – which assumes that a lot of action is happening implicitly in my brain – might work pretty well for most children needing to understand a maul (about two-thirds) but, for too many, it doesn’t. And they’re often the learners who need a bit more differentiation too — including our dyslexic or neurodiverse children and English-language learners.

Guess who’s back…

Like cuts of jeans and sofa colours, trends in education are cyclical, albeit slow-moving. The open plan learning of the late 1970s returned as ‘modern learning environments’ in the mid 2010s; then were repainted as ‘innovative learning environments’ (when ‘modern’ stopped making sense, one supposes) and, in their death throes, ‘flexible learning spaces’. In the same way, New Zealand has been here before with structured literacy. Many teachers of a certain vintage were themselves taught to read this way.
Right now, in the same way that fashion trends are led by the well-resourced, those that can do structured literacy, are. Even a few high schools around the country have picked up the approach. After all, if students can’t decode the new vocabulary that comes with specialised subjects like chemistry or art history, how will they ever access higher levels of the secondary curriculum?
Schools that have seen the successes of structured literacy and have the means are squeezing their professional development budgets to upskill staff in explicit literacy instruction. It means a lot of winding back for teachers, a lot of gap filling, new teaching resources and a ton of specific knowledge — so a move to structured literacy is no small one. And not all schools can access the expertise or funds to run this kind of professional development.

While schools wait for more direction and resourcing around the literacy plan (which indicates a significant shift toward structured literacy principles) the word is spreading organically between teachers and schools. Education is a notoriously bulky ship to turn around, which is perhaps why, even in the face of so much evidence, it has taken so long to get to this point.

Change is hard

Quite simply, the way we used to think was best is obviously no longer the most effective way. What’s changed is our understanding of the brain. Thanks to cross-disciplinary research we now have much better evidence of what actually goes on when we learn to read.
The problem is that a national shift to structured literacy will require a profound and far-reaching overhaul. Aspects of this change will deeply confront our teaching workforce’s long-held beliefs about the best way to do their jobs. It will involve the swallowing of many bitter pills, dead rats, and sour objections at a policy level to confront our nation’s worsening ability to read and write.
How do we get agreement across teacher-training institutions? And what do we do with all the children who have already muddled through their first few years of reading instruction – the 15 year-olds poised to leave school with only rudimentary literacy skills?

And how do you retrain an entire workforce?

Teaching children to read this way is not easy – it takes a huge amount of linguistic knowledge to begin with. Most teachers haven’t worked at the granular level required to teach decoding skills in such an explicit and sequential manner. These teachers may naturally feel some scepticism about teaching in a way that contradicts what they learned at teachers’ college, and equally, there will be feelings of remorse.
Talking to the Conversations That Count podcast The problem with literacy, Josie Woon, co-principal of Te Kura o Takaro, describes the guilt that came with realising that she’d been doing a disservice to her neediest students for decades, saying that teachers “should be marching in the streets for this kind of knowledge.” There’s a real risk however that, particularly if it’s implemented patchily or poorly, structured literacy will be cast aside by frustrated teachers as “just another initiative”. The more teachers can hear from people on the ground, those who are actually using structured literacy with struggling readers and seeing improvement, the better. Likewise, sector leaders should not underestimate how much support teachers will need with this change. Otherwise we could be consigning good, evidence-based practice to the back of the PE shed along with interactive whiteboards, the Numeracy Project, and those silly V.A.K questionnaires.

By Jen Smart

Related Articles

1 2 3 20