ERO’s review of literacy teaching and learning in early childhood services highlights the wide variety of understanding of early literacy and accompanying practice across the early childhood sector. In services where educators had strong and in-depth knowledge of how children’s literacy learning develops, high quality literacy practices were evident. However, in services where ERO observed few or poor quality literacy practices, children were not well engaged with literacy learning.

The variability in quality may stem from a lack of additional guidance about implementing practices that align with the principles and the communication strand of Te Whāriki. Current theories and research about literacy in early childhood are not gathered into an easily interpreted framework that can be readily accessed in each service. This lack of specific literacy guidelines has led to variable advice and support for educators from leaders in services.

Good leadership was crucial to educators developing a shared understanding of early literacy, and to implementing best practice consistently across the service. Effective leaders had a professional approach to reflecting on and drawing on current research about curriculum and assessment as part of the service’s self review and development. Shared understanding in the service was developed through PLD, and resulted in an expectation of including literacy throughout the curriculum on a daily basis, and the encouragement of ongoing reflective practice.

While services reported that they placed a high value on literacy teaching and learning, literacy was often not mentioned in philosophies, policies, or other written documents or expectations, despite educators’ beliefs that this should be promoted as part of a holistic learning framework. This resulted in a lack of appropriate understanding about literacy in some services.

In most services, literacy teaching and learning was child-initiated through play, with children using resources in meaningful ways. However, the literacy teaching and learning in some services was inappropriate and did not reflect the socio‑cultural framework provided by Te Whāriki, or did not align with what is known about good teaching and learning in early childhood education. In particular, practices in formal transition-to-school groups were variable, with some activities so unmotivating and inappropriate that they had the potential to create negative attitudes to literacy learning.

Most services attempted to engage parents and whānau in literacy activities. Many told parents about literacy in early childhood, and some sought information about home literacy practices from them. In some services, pressure from parents to introduce ‘readiness for school’ literacy programmes, or inappropriate literacy expectations developed through networking with schools, had created tensions about literacy activities. In a few services, this tension led to some groups of children becoming disengaged from literacy. Educators from both services and schools need to work together using both Te Whāriki and The New Zealand Curriculum to provide suitable early literacy programmes for children.

Some services actively planned to differentiate their literacy programmes for different groups of children. Services were most likely to differentiate for age and ability, rather than by gender and ethnicity.

In some services, the potential for improving literacy outcomes for children through self review was understood. However, where review of literacy teaching learning was undertaken it was often limited to resourcing and setting-up of the environment for literacy learning. Only some services had extended their literacy self review to focus on outcomes for children, reflect on teaching practices, incorporate children’s and parents’ perspectives, and create a shared understanding of literacy teaching and learning with the service and its community. With this knowledge of outcomes for children, these services were able to see the need to change their teaching practice.

The wide range of quality and practice found in this evaluation highlights a need for deeper consideration of the theory, philosophy and practice of literacy teaching and learning in early childhood settings. Current guidance and expectations are not well articulated. Despite evidence that good quality literacy teaching practices in early childhood can contribute to later literacy success, ERO found that early childhood pedagogy is often based on common practice rather than a deeper understanding of children’s learning progressions in literacy.