Article release

Phonics on the rise in New Zealand

*Press release produced and distributed by our partners at the Media Center for Education Research Australia (MCERA)*

The uptake of phonics in New Zealand primary schools may improve children’s reading abilities, according to the authors of a study published in the Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties. But it faces obstacles to achieving this goal.

New Zealand primary schools have neglected phonics over the past decades, says Professor James Chapman of Massey University, the study’s lead author.

But in the first study of its kind, Professor Chapman and his co-authors found that 90% of the 666 junior school teachers they surveyed from across New Zealand said their schools now use phonics when teaching children to read. A large portion of the teachers (68%) reported that phonics was used daily as part of every literacy lesson.

Most teachers who commented in the survey saw major benefits to using phonics. “I just feel that children that know the sounds are better readers with more confidence than the children that don’t,” said one teacher. When asked about disadvantages, many said that “phonics in isolation was a problem and that phonics needed to be fully integrated with a range of reading strategies.”

Professor Chapman says that phonics and related methods are essential for early readers, as they help kids make the basic links between sounds and letters. He holds great hopes that the use of phonics will improve the literacy levels of New Zealand children, which lag behind those of Australia and other countries in international tests.

However, he says that there are still major barriers to effective phonics use in New Zealand. In the other part of his study, 55 teachers were surveyed twice:
• firstly, to test their knowledge in four areas important to teaching phonics and to assess their beliefs about their literacy teaching skills; and
• secondly, to see what verbal responses they would use to help children overcome common reading errors.

Most of the teachers felt they had “moderate to very good levels of literacy teaching skills”. In the test of their knowledge, their average score was good in two areas. But they struggled in the two more difficult areas. (Collectively, they scored 89% and 70% for phonological and phonemic knowledge; for phonic and morphological knowledge, 54% and 53%).

In the survey on responses to student errors, 40% of teachers’ first responses focused on helping kids decipher individual words; for example, “Let’s see if looking at the chunks in the word can help.” 45% focused on using context for clues (“Does the word you read match the picture?”). 15% gave no useful information (“Try that again.”)

Professor Chapman says the approach most suited to beginning readers and to phonics instruction is a focus on individual words.

While acknowledging their sample size was limited, he says these two surveys indicate “that many teachers may have insufficient knowledge of how to use phonics instruction effectively.”

While he thinks the uptake of phonics in New Zealand schools holds great potential, he doubts it will achieve much until teachers receive more training in using phonics effectively. “Before teachers are able to teach children to read or to develop the foundation skills for learning to read, it is important they be not only knowledgeable about the code of written and spoken English, but also have knowledge of research-based instructional procedures. New Zealand children are likely to continue to perform poorly on international literacy surveys when compared with children in Australia, Canada, England, and the United States. Teachers deserve significantly more support to upskill their knowledge and skills of literacy instruction, based on contemporary research.”

Further, curriculums in New Zealand still favour the whole language approach, he says. The book series usually used to teach reading, for instance, is still based on this model. He says this makes the books unsuited to teaching phonics, and suggests replacing them with “more appropriate texts.”

“Phonics instruction, carefully and systematically integrated into literacy teaching that is focussed on the development of effective word-level decoding skills, has the potential to improve the literacy learning outcomes of New Zealand children. Why would New Zealand want less?”