Findings

The findings from ERO’s review of literacy teaching and learning in early childhood education are presented in the above three sections:Examples of practice are in italics.

Defining and valuing literacy teaching and learning

Children’s learning and development is influenced by their interaction with adults and other children, the physical environment, and the philosophy and resources in the service (Education Review Office, 2004:p. 2). Specifically, the ways literacy teaching and learning occur in a service are influenced by these aspects and how educators are guided to teach literacy skills to children. The New Zealand Early Childhood Literacy Handbook (Hamer & Adams, 2003: pp.16-17) recommends that services have written guidelines or statements that clearly outline their understanding of literacy teaching and learning in relation to the children at the service for:

  • providing an opportunity to discuss the core aspects of literacy
  • encouraging the development of effective literacy practices
  • providing a planned and coherent approach to literacy
  • formalising existing literacy practices
  • improving the quality of literacy decision-making.

What ERO found

ERO considered the following key questions when investigating how services defined and valued literacy: [4] How does the service (through philosophy, strategic and annual planning, and shared understanding) promote literacy teaching and learning?

  • How are educators prepared and supported to implement literacy programmes?

Definition of literacy

ERO found that understanding and definitions of literacy were many and varied. Many services defined literacy as including oral, written, and visual language, woven holistically throughout the curriculum in meaningful contexts with appropriate resources. However, this was not always evident in teaching and learning practices or in service documentation. The following example illustrates how the service’s definition is reflected in documentation.

The service’s documentation and practice included:

  • a literacy information folder for parents that defined literacy as languages and symbols for representing and communicating information, experiences and ideas
  • texts of all kinds including oral, visual, written, imaginative, formal, informal, mathematical, scientific and technological language
  • establishing a sound oral foundation through conversation and storytelling
  • using aspects of the Te Whāriki communication, belonging, and exploration strands.

The following example shows inconsistencies between intent and practice.

The centre’s website stated that teachers endeavour to create a sense of purpose in children’s minds for literacy concepts through practical experience and activities. However, there was little or no mention of literacy in documents. Literacy was not referred to in meeting minutes or self review and did not usually feature in children’s portfolio entries.

Philosophy and shared understanding

About half the services referred to literacy in their philosophy but, in some cases, this link was tenuous. Many services’ philosophy statements mentioned the holistic development of competent and confident learners. Some statements also stated specifically how literacy would be developed as part of the programme.

The centre philosophy had a focus on extending children’s learning and interests through literacy opportunities that were connected to their interests, experiences and knowledge. Teachers were expected to observe children’s personal strengths and interests, identify areas for learning and development, and implement individual plans to achieve these goals through a holistic approach to child development.

In services where literacy teaching and learning was not overtly apparent in the philosophy, the statement often referred to helping children reach their potential, or transitioning to school in general terms. Conversely, some services where ERO saw a strong literacy focus in the programme had no mention of literacy in their philosophy statements.

Educators at most services had a shared understanding of literacy teaching and learning. This often resulted from ongoing professional development and included children’s literacy learning occurring through play, social interactions, and interactions with resources and materials in and beyond the service. Educators’ knowledge and practices fed into the development of guidelines and policies, and informed planning and resourcing. However, in some services, literacy knowledge was not based on current theories and research.

In a small number of services, educators did not have a shared understanding of literacy teaching and learning, especially when there was a high staff turnover and educators were new to the service. The following exemplifies literacy teaching at one service without a common understanding.

Senior management recognised that children need learning based on rich experiences where children learn about literacy in the context of play. However, educators, who had primary teaching backgrounds, were introducing activities commonly seen in new entrant programmes in schools that were not always meaningful for younger children.

These findings highlight the need for services to consider including their values and beliefs about literacy in their philosophy statement, and promote appropriate practices.

Guidelines, policies, planning and resourcing

Some services had documented guidelines or expectations for literacy practices, mentioned literacy in strategic or annual planning or had literacy policies or procedures. Most services budgeted for resources to support literacy teaching and learning. When literacy was included in strategic or annual planning, it often related to resourcing.

Where services had guidelines for literacy teaching they highlighted the importance of integrating literacy into children’s developing learning. Sometimes guidelines outlined specific literacy aspects such as oral communication and first languages, involving parents and whānau in learning about home literacy practices, and making literacy learning more visible in assessment. In some cases, primary schools’ expectations influenced services’ guidelines.

Services’ literacy policies or teaching and learning statements often referred to the:

  • holistic nature of literacy
  • context of play and learning in literacy development
  • transition to school and the literacy skills children need for success
  • formal literacy activities to be provided
  • language development pathways
  • questioning needed to help children engage more deeply in literacy
  • assessment strategies or processes used to monitor and share a child’s literacy development.

Managers expected that literacy would be a natural part of all learning, daily and related to in different ways for individual children. Expectations for children’s learning were individual depending on the developmental stage, previous knowledge, and experiences of the child and the expectations of their family. The services wanted literacy learning to be meaningful for the child and to relate to their family and culture.

Literacy was valued and celebrated in the service’s community – children, teachers, parents, and whānau. The environment was literacy rich. Experiences for children and adults were authentic and involved active participation. Bicultural and multicultural literacy were integrated into the curriculum. Literacy learning aligned to current research and responded to the strengths and interests of the children in the service.

Where services had literacy policies or statements these were often out of date and in need of review. As a result, managers often had no current process for evaluating how well their literacy practices were promoting positive outcomes for children.

Most services budgeted for literacy-related resources. However, in many of these services budgets were not linked in any way to strategic planning, expectations or other guiding documents that identified literacy practices or the resources to support them. Instead, there was evidence of ad hoc purchases of books, art and writing materials, and computer software with no specific learning purpose in mind.

Where services had no reference to literacy in any documentation – philosophy, guidelines, expectations, or strategic or annual planning, this lack of reference contributed to inconsistent teaching practice across the service.

Educators’ preparation and support

In many services, leaders provided good support for educators to include a focus on literacy in their teaching. Leaders modelled good literacy practice, placed an importance on literacy through expectations and resourcing, and promoted professional discussions among educators. Educators in these services tended to discuss literacy strategies, reflect on the programme and the learning occurring, and explore ways to be more deliberate in their teaching. These included:

  • capitalising on incidental learning opportunities (for example: following interests through books and information communication and technologies (ICT))
  • setting up the physical environment to encourage reading and writing
  • extending conversations to develop thinking and vocabulary
  • using literacy activities to revisit prior learning experiences (for example: photos, posters and children’s portfolios)
  • developing literacy skills through gross motor play and music
  • providing a meaningful print environment.

In services where managers provided little or no literacy leadership support, educators were not encouraged to increase their knowledge of current theories and research about literacy in early childhood education, or to apply their learning. In some services, educators did not understand how to support literacy learning for specific groups of children (for example, infants, toddlers or young children) and were unable to recognise and respond to learning opportunities. The following example shows the impact of this on teaching practice.

Educators lacked an awareness of the importance of literacy in their interactions with children and the need to maintain conversations with children to support their developing understanding of language. They did not articulate any theoretical understanding of literacy based on knowledge of current research. Little consideration was given to the developmental stages and appropriateness of their practice of formally teaching phonics to toddlers. There was no reflection or evaluation of their literacy programme.

One of the main ways educators were supported in teaching literacy was through PLD. ERO found that educators in many services had undertaken PLD with a literacy focus. However, in some of these services, there was no planned approach to PLD, or only one or two educators attended. The main focus of the PLD undertaken included:

  • general literacy workshops usually provided by umbrella organisations, for example: kindergarten, playcentre, or a private providertraining to become a qualified teacher
  • Kei Tua o te Pae (some literacy focus)
  • teaching phonics courses
  • ICT
  • oral literacy
  • motor coordination programmes
  • storytelling
  • transition to school
  • te reo Māori
  • action research about literacy practices
  • multi-literacies such as ICT and visual arts
  • baby sign language
  • literacy for boys
  • participation in local clusters with primary schools.

Participation in PLD increased awareness among educators of literacy opportunities in planning and linking with strands of Te Whāriki. In particular, ICT courses helped educators to become experts in, and promote the use of, multi‑literacies.

In the remaining services, ERO found that little or no literacy-related PLD had been undertaken. The following example illustrates the lack of appropriate support for educators in improving their literacy teaching knowledge.

Educators had some support in literacy and numeracy from a local primary teacher. One educator identified literacy as an area for further professional development as part of the staff appraisal process. However, she and the manager had trouble locating appropriate professional development courses. As a result, educators often felt pressured by schools and families to provide more formal programmes in literacy and numeracy. They had had some PLD in phonics but were not sure of the appropriateness of using phonics in early childhood education.

When services placed importance on literacy and encouraged educators to develop their understanding, literacy teaching and learning was incorporated into the daily programme holistically and in meaningful contexts.

Literacy was an integral part of the centre’s programme in natural and meaningful ways. Educators had an appraisal goal related to the implementation of literacy programmes. Appropriate PLD supported educators to meet this goal. Management provided a separate budget for literacy. Educators participated in reflective meetings and discussed individual children’s needs and how they could support their literacy development.

How is literacy practised?

As a socio-cultural curriculum, Te Whāriki is not prescriptive about literacy teaching and learning. However, current theories and research about early literacy highlight aspects of socio-cultural practice that can guide educators.

Recent research on early literacy emphasises the importance of a print-rich and resource‑rich environment, and meaningful and socially-constructed play and conversations in literacy learning and development (Morrow, 2008; Hamer & Adams, 2002). Play, games, make-believe storytelling, and songs are important to literacy learning, enabling children to make choices about their learning (Tennant et al 1998 as cited in Education Review Office, 2004: p.33). The educators’ role is to provide the play area, introduce events, and extend play (Hall & Robinson, 2000). Children are likely to develop better oral literacy when learning conversations are varied and used in a variety of contexts (Ashworth & Wakefield, 1994 as cited in Education Review Office, 2004: p.35).

Te Whāriki promotes a broad and holistic approach where literacy teaching and learning is woven across a service (including all children) and throughout its planning. Programmes should be inclusive and cater for the diversity of abilities, ethnicities and gender. A socio-cultural approach to literacy includes multi-literacies such as linguistic, visual, auditory, gestural and spatial forms. An awareness of this helps educators to recognise that teaching and learning is happening in various literal modes (Hills, 2007; Martello, 2007).

A socio-cultural approach to early childhood education recognises that children encounter multiple literacy practices and activities in different places and with different people. These opportunities help children develop their ideas and values about literacy. It is important for educators to be aware of and incorporate literacy practices and activities that are not only meaningful and practical, but also reflect the child’s family and community. The contribution and involvement of parents, whānau, and community helps children experience varied, meaningful opportunities and interactions (Hamer & Adams, 2003; Lenhart & Roskos, 2003; Mitchell et al, 2009).

What ERO found

ERO considered the following key questions when investigating literacy teaching and learning in services: [5]

  • What opportunities are there for children to develop strong literacy learning foundations?
  • How do literacy practices include alphabet and letter-sound knowledge, phonological awareness, concepts about print, oral language development, and writing for a variety of purposes?
  • How does the service promote literacy for different groups of children?
  • How are parents, whānau, and community contributing to, and involved in, literacy experiences?

Oral, written, visual literacies

Promotion of literacy learning

Programmes at most services promoted literacy learning in a variety of planned and spontaneous opportunities that encompassed oral, written and visual literacy. Routines and planned activities encouraged literacy learning. Children’s literacy development was encouraged by having resources such as clipboards and marker pens in carpentry and block play areas; writing materials and keyboards in the family area; and photos and text of food and cooking equipment at the dough table. Educators also revisited past learning experiences with children using portfolios, profile books, and recent events at home or the service to enhance learning.

A variety of play experiences that allowed for imagination and creativity were provided by the centre. Teachers actively encouraged children to engage in conversation and at times recorded this in print so that children saw that print conveyed a message. Access to a range of writing equipment promoted children’s view that they saw themselves as writers. Extensive use of recited prayer, nursery rhymes, and waiata supported children’s literacy development. Teachers used skilled questioning to promote engagement, enjoyment and responses to text.

In a few services, literacy was not well promoted. Educators were too quick to intervene or too directive, and they missed opportunities to enhance children’s literacy learning. Activities were often not based on children’s interests and did not extend their learning and thinking. Books were not displayed in ways that promoted exploration or browsing, and there were few opportunities for writing except in scheduled sessions.

Service environment

Most services had a print-rich environment with children’s artwork and writing, photos, posters, books in different languages, and labels displayed for children to view and read. Children had easy access to writing and drawing materials inside and outdoors. Fiction and non-fiction books were attractively displayed and these, as well as portfolios/profile books, were accessible to children. Children were able to use many creative and dramatic resources. In some services, children could also use visual and audio equipment, computers and software either independently or with an educator’s support. However, in others, print was only displayed at adult height and was not accessible to children, and literacy resources were not displayed in ways that encouraged children to use them.

Interactions

In many services, educators promoted age appropriate language learning and listening skills by modelling oral language patterns and developing children’s vocabulary. Educators also modelled and guided children’s conversations. Children’s questioning and critical thinking skills were extended through conversations and open-ended questioning. Educators encouraged communication and took opportunities to develop children’s oral language.

Interactions between teachers and children constantly encouraged and empowered children in the use of oral language and thinking skills. Teachers displayed skill in critical questioning and reflecting on their role in encouraging children’s use of vocabulary, phrase structuring and thinking about language.

ERO found that in some services, educators were not aware of the importance of sustained conversations with children to support their developing understanding of language.

Meaningful contexts

In many services, children explored literacy in meaningful ways, often initiated by the children themselves. These included:

  • using books for research interests
  • writing invitations, letters, lists, cards
  • writing and dictating stories
  • using name badges for dramatic play
  • sign writing and creating advertisements
  • signing into the service
  • using recipes
  • writing and reading emails.

Some educators shared books and used skilful questioning to develop children’s comprehension and prediction skills. Educators engaged children in learning conversations, responding to their interests or incorporating oral literacy into trips and events, either while on the trip or when revisiting it as a prior experience. Impromptu storytelling based on children’s ideas and suggestions was also used to develop oral literacy.

At times, however, ERO observed children completing worksheets that had little meaning or interest to them. Such activities do not align with the principles of Te Whāriki or promote literacy learning in meaningful contexts.

Noticing, recognising and responding

In many services, educators recognised when literacy learning was occurring and took opportunities to extend a child’s learning during play. Responses included:

open-ended questioning, revisiting prior experiences during reading and dramatic play, extending oral language, and integrating writing into play. In some services, educators recognised children’s interests that had a literacy focus and responded to these in their planning and by showing the learning and next steps in assessment comments.

Some educators were rarely or not able to notice, recognise or make good use of opportunities for literacy teaching and learning, particularly in written and visual aspects of literacy.

Making literacy learning visible in assessment and including next steps for learning was variable or poor in some services. Educators were good at noticing significant learning, but seldom included aspects to support further learning, particularly for written and visual literacies. Few used assessment information to plan for individual children’s needs in transition to school programmes.

Educators were still developing their knowledge of assessment for learning. Aspects of literacy learning were evident in some children’s profile books where educators recorded children’s dialogue as it related to the photograph or artwork alongside it. However, this good practice was not evident for all children. While educators noticed and recognised the learning, the challenge remained as to how they responded as a team.

Transition-to-school programmes

Many services, especially kindergartens, had transition-to-school programmes for older four-year-olds. Most often the children took part in a formal group with literacy-based activities. In some services, children’s participation was voluntary, in others, it was not. Usually the boys did not join in. In some services, children’s interests or developmental needs were not catered for. In others, activities from one day to the next were seldom linked and were educator-directed. Often participation in these transition groups was limited to certain children at any one time, resulting in inequitable access for some children who met the age criteria.

The focus of literacy activities in these programmes included:

  • increasing alphabet knowledge
  • developing letter formation
  • writing their names
  • drawing
  • developing print concepts
  • teaching phonics.

In a few services educators showed a lack of understanding of the pathways children took in developing literacy knowledge and skills, and made extensive use of worksheets. Mostly this was limited to writing worksheets during a formal transition-to-school group, but some services also used homework sheets. The use of worksheets was often teamed with little independent access to writing materials, and limited any literacy opportunities occurring in play. There was little incidental development of understanding the purpose of print, and activities were educator-directed with little independent literacy learning initiated by children.

Specific literacy skills

ERO investigated how specific literacy skills were promoted in services’ programmes. The acquisition of these skills has been shown to help children in their transition to formal schooling.

Alphabet and letter-sound knowledge/phonological awareness

ERO found that services used many ways to promote phonological awareness and alphabet and letter-sound knowledge in formal contexts and in play. These included:

  • through stories, rhymes, and songs, both formally and informally
  • using worksheets and flashcards
  • in conversations
  • in the context of play, for example: puzzles, rhymes, magnetic letters, “I spy” with sounds and letters
  • word play such as alliteration, descriptive language and onomatopoeia
  • computer programmes
  • displaying posters, books and friezes about the alphabet at child level
  • providing board games, alphabet blocks and letter/object cards
  • sounding out letters when writing names, and when labelling objects and artwork
  • questioning children about letters and sounds as opportunities arise
  • having special letter days
  • providing formal phonics programmes.

In some services, educators were conscious of the need to link children’s knowledge of names of letters with sounds of individual or combinations of letters. A small number of services did not promote letter-sound knowledge or did not do this well for certain groups of children. For example, over-threes participated in a formal phonics programme, but phonological awareness for younger children was not promoted through informal activities.

About a fifth of services used a commercial phonics programme as part of their literacy teaching and learning mostly, but not always, for older children. Some services had integrated phonics into children’s play or included a focus on phonics during formal group times. However, in a few services, the use of phonics, including teaching phonics to under-twos, and basing the whole literacy programme on a commercial phonics package, was not appropriate. Large formal group mat times with a one-size-fits-all approach to literacy teaching did not cater for children with more advanced abilities, or those not ready to learn what was being taught. These practices have little alignment with the socio-cultural approach of Te Whāriki.

Concepts about print

The most common way services promoted concepts about print was during shared reading time. Educators and children discussed pictures, followed storylines through the pictures, learning about starting points, left to right sweep, and parts of books, such as the title, author, and illustrator.

Concepts about print were promoted in the context of children’s self-directed play and with educators’ support during child-initiated play and experimentation. Children also learnt by observing others reading and talking about parts of a book, and by observing educators recording dictated stories, emails, explanations and captions.

Educators were skilled at using the teachable moment to capitalise on concepts as they talked with and worked alongside children. This ensured the learning was in context. Mat time also included opportunities to learn about protocols of reading and books such as reading from left to right and using the illustrations to assist with making sense of the story.

Oral language

Services promoted the development of children’s oral language in many ways, both formally and during play times. Educators had conversations with children in the context of play and extended children’s thinking through open-ended questions and prompting answers. These ongoing conversations and interactions with children were more effective when educators knew the children and their families well. Other ways oral language was promoted included:

  • singing, poetry and rhymes
  • role-playing and drama
  • sharing news from home and encouraging questioning
  • retelling stories
  • formal and informal vocabulary development – words that match objects, emotions and experiences
  • using te reo in daily conversation
  • going on excursions to develop vocabulary relating to events and places
  • listening post for audio books and sound games.

The following example highlights ways educators promoted oral language.

When educators planned a group focus, they brainstormed what language they wanted to introduce as part of the topic. Educators worked alongside children and used rich oral language as part of a sustained learning interaction. For example, one educator worked with four children on mathematical concepts of sorting and grouping according to attributes. She explicitly used words such as different or similar, and comparatives such as big, bigger and biggest.

In some services, however, ERO found a low level of conversation and extensive use of closed questions with children. In these services, interaction between adults and children lacked rich vocabulary, and children rarely initiated discussions or contributed their own ideas.

Writing

Writing in almost all services was promoted either formally or in the context of play. Educators often modelled writing for a purpose. However, while children were encouraged to write, in some services their writing lacked a purpose. The focus was often solely on letter formation, with no purpose or relevance for children.

A focused literacy programme was almost exclusively for children over 4½ years. Dedicated time for literacy was made one morning a week when children practised letter formation, drew a picture, and dictated a short narrative that they then copied several times. Almost all the children struggled with the writing activities. None was observed writing for their own purposes. No resources such as clipboards or notepads were located throughout the centre to foster writing anywhere other than within the room for those particular children.

In other services however, children initiated the use of print independently in play: writing and posting letters, using train or bus tickets, writing invitations, making passports, making cards, writing signs and advertisements, drawing kōwhaiwhai patterns, and making books. All children had opportunities to draw, paint, write and make marks. The following example shows the variety of meaningful writing experiences at one service.

Purposeful writing opportunities were frequent. Children took turns to write minutes for their meeting times. Children drew plans and listed steps in their project developments, and used mind-maps to check their progress. A separate writing table had appropriate equipment and resources. As children entered drawings into their “About Me” booklets an educator annotated the child’s dictated text, or the child was supported to write their own annotation.

Groups of children

ERO evaluated how well literacy was promoted to four categories of children: by age, ability, gender and ethnicity. Research shows a disparity in achievement later in life between certain groups. [6]

Overall, many services indicated that they did not differentiate their programme in any way. While these services said they catered for children as individuals and provided equitable access for all, many did not plan for specific needs, or recognise that some activities did not appeal to particular children or groups of children, or were not appropriate for them.

Age

Most services promoted literacy appropriately and in different ways to different age‑groups such as infants, toddlers and young children. ERO did have concerns about appropriateness of programmes in some of these services. These included activities that needed too much help from the educator to complete, or meant that children could not experience their own success.

Services promoted literacy for infants (birth to 18 months) by:

  • having books that were tactile, accessible, and that infants could hold themselves
  • reading books and storytelling
  • singing rhymes and songs
  • repeating words and phrases
  • responding to verbalisation and non-verbal cues
  • displaying resources at child-height and giving access to photos and portfolios
  • creating opportunities for mark-making, messy play, and playdough.

In addition to these, services promoted literacy for toddlers (1–3 years) by:

  • supporting and extending emerging language
  • matching words to actions and experiences
  • encouraging gross and fine motor skills
  • providing books to meet interests and developing needs
  • making writing materials available
  • providing practical activities such as baking, excursions and gardening to develop new vocabulary
  • displaying photos with names and labels.

In addition to the activities mentioned above, literacy for young children (2½ years to school entry) was promoted through more formal literacy teaching and learning. These programmes focused on preparing for school, with many services having transition-to-school groups. Older children in some services were encouraged to lead group times, which helped them develop their oral literacy. Other literacy activities or encouragement included:

  • access to writing and drawing resources
  • use of a listening post for audio stories
  • expressive and creative storytelling
  • open-ended questioning by educators to encourage thinking and expression of ideas
  • dramatic play
  • encouraging reading and writing for real purposes.
Catering for different needs and ability

ERO investigated how services promoted literacy for children with special educational needs or abilities. Just over a third of services did not differentiate their programmes in any way or have a policy regarding these children if they were to enrol at the service. The remaining services promoted literacy for these children in a variety of ways. Generally, most services sought specialist support and parent involvement as needed, and had a range of resources either to support the children or extend them.

Where services had children with special needs, they sought specialist help such as speech language therapists and early intervention teachers from a specialist early intervention provider such as the Ministry of Education’s Group Special Education (GSE). [7] Educators provided lots of one-to-one support and adapted the programme to make it appropriate. Sometimes children’s transition to another part of the service was delayed. However, where children demonstrated delayed literacy understandings and did not have a disability recognised by GSE, educator support or programme differentiation was less obvious.

Educators in services that supported children with identified special abilities in literacy extended their interest by providing appropriate books, encouraged research on the internet, and extended their questioning and conversations. Some provided more challenging resources to promote higher order thinking and problem solving, or extended children’s imaginary play. Appropriate computer software challenged children and extended their reading and writing. However, some services did not extend children with special abilities in literacy through any educator interaction.

Gender

From an early age, boys and girls use different literacy practices (Alloway, 2007). ERO investigated how services promoted literacy learning for boys and girls. Almost half did not differentiate their provision in any way. In many of these services, boys in particular were not well catered for and were often bored with the literacy activities provided. Formal programmes were often of no interest to them. Most services with some differentiation provided books and resources, or planned different activities and environments, so both boys and girls had access to literacy learning that would engage them.

Educators at many of these services were aware that girls tended to be more engaged at mat times when literacy was specifically promoted and often persisted at writing or worksheets for longer than boys. Literacy learning was also more apparent during girls’ role-playing and dramatic play.

High quality literacy provision for boys was often in the context of play and centred on topics of interest to them. Ways this happened included:

  • providing writing materials such as chalk, paint and clipboards in all learning/play areas
  • providing access to ICT to research subjects of interest
  • telling or retelling stories that interested boys, including both fiction and non‑fiction
  • encouraging dramatic play and inventing stories based on popular culture characters
  • developing fine motor skills in play
  • encouraging oral language through questioning during water/sand play, blocks, carpentry, and imaginary play.

The following examples highlight literacy provision for boys in two services.

A spontaneous review at the service identified that boys were not involved with literacy materials. Opportunities subsequently provided included “construction pictures in the sandpit, art mediums near the sandpit” and books outside.

Boys were encouraged in their interests and helped to extend these through the use of reference materials from the centre, the internet and local library. These activities were usually accompanied by hands-on activities, for example, drawing and writing the information they gained so they could share this with others. One recent interest was in sea animals (whales, sharks, and dolphins). Plastic replicas were purchased so the children could immerse them in the water trough and act out different situations.

Ethnicity

While most services promoted literacy for children from different ethnicities, the quality of this was variable. Some services had a high percentage of Māori children but did not reflect this in the programme.

ERO has previously found that over half the services were not implementing practices that supported Māori children as learners (Education Review Office, 2010). Many services incorporated basic greetings and instructions in te reo Māori into daily routines, but did not extend further. Services that sought to promote literacy for Māori in more meaningful contexts and based on children’s interests did so through:

  • waiata, karakia, mihi/pēpeha, whakapapa, pōwhiri, haka, poi, rākau
  • designing pounamu, moko, kōwhaiwhai
  • making piupiu
  • celebrating Matariki
  • noho marae
  • learning about local history, legends, and spiritual contexts.

Services with high numbers of Pacific children, such as Pacific language nests, had a strong focus on promoting oral language traditions through modelling by educators and other adults. Resources and activities such as books, songs, dances, and storytelling in home languages promoted literacy for Pacific children. However, this type of promotion was rarely seen in services that did not have a high percentage of Pacific children.

For children whose first language was not English, services provided books, songs, and storytelling in first languages where possible. Educators who spoke languages other than English included these in the programme and in conversations. This was particularly so in playcentres. Many services celebrated cultural festivals like Diwali, Chinese New Year, Rakhi, and Moon Cake Day, promoted the sharing of food from children’s cultures, and used written and oral greetings from their first languages. Research shows that children who are fluent in their first language are more likely to be fluent in English (May, 2005). However, in some services, educators believed that because parents wanted their children to learn English, they should provide little opportunity for children to speak their first language.

Parents, whānau and community

ERO investigated how parents, whānau and the community contributed to literacy at services, and how services involved them.

Parents’ aspirations and home literacy practices

Encouraging parents to share information about home literacy practices helps educators by affirming or refocusing literacy practices at the service. In services where this was poorly done, or not at all, parents’ aspirations and home literacy practices played no part in the teaching or learning.

In many services, parents’ aspirations for their children and home literacy practices were taken into account in literacy teaching and learning. Educators found out about parents’ aspirations through parent-teacher interviews, informal conversations, and parents’ comments in portfolios/profile books or narratives about home experiences.

Educators responded to their aspirations by:

  • linking learning stories to what parents had told them about children’s interests
  • encouraging children to bring books from home
  • encouraging parents to share home literacy practices with the children at the service.
Informing parents about literacy

Educators at many services took opportunities to inform parents about literacy in early childhood. Some of these were less formal such as conversations about their child’s development, including next learning steps and goals in portfolios or profile books, giving information on noticeboards and in newsletters, displays, and celebrations of children’s learning, homework, and involving parents in trips and activities where educators could model best practice. Some services encouraged parents to stay and work with their child, if possible, and playcentres encouraged parents to undertake the association’s education programme. More formalised ways to tell parents about appropriate literacy practices included providing information on enrolment, at parent‑teacher interviews, and running parent workshops about literacy. The following examples show some of the ways services sought to inform parents of the services’ literacy practices.

Educators made an attractive and informative display board for parents that outlined the centre’s philosophy of learning. It gave clear information about approaches for developing children’s early literacy skills and knowledge. It provided parents with useful information about how they could foster this learning at home.

A workshop was held for all parents and educators. It focused on ways literacy learning can be supported at the centre and at home. By sharing learning stories parents were informed of their child’s interests (for example: playdough, peek-a-boo, sandpit, books, music, puzzles) and how these supported literacy development.

ERO found that educators in some services could do more to work with parents to increase understanding of best early literacy practice. In some services, parents explicitly asked educators to provide formal literacy programmes not aligned with good teaching practice. Problems may arise when educators themselves are not knowledgeable about early literacy and are not able to justify their literacy practices to parents. The following example highlights the need to give parents information about literacy teaching and learning in early childhood.

Recently, the four-year-old programme that focused on worksheets and colouring-in sheets was discontinued. Educators and the director fielded calls from parents who were not happy about this change. Educators were subsequently investigating ways to effectively communicate their ideas about appropriate early childhood-based literacy programmes and how they could share this knowledge with parents so the programme could be relevant and engaging for children.

Overall, ERO found an imbalance between educators informing parents about best practice in early childhood literacy and drawing on parents’ knowledge of their child’s home literacy practices. Finding out about home literacy practices was less evident in many centres.

Engaging parents and using their expertise

In some services, parents were engaged in literacy learning at the service, and contributed their expertise. They contributed to portfolios and profile books, modelled literacy activities such as reading, encouraged literacy learning in play, and supported the use of first languages at home. In many services, educators had to find different ways to encourage parents to engage in their child’s literacy learning, as parents’ own literacy experiences were many and varied.

In some services, parents’ expertise was used to help all children’s literacy learning. Parents and whānau contributed their skills in poster making, photography, creating blogs and websites, and music, and their knowledge of different cultures and languages. The following example shows how involving whānau can develop links between the service and home, and strengthen literacy practices in both settings.

Strong links between the service and homes were developed through the service’s focus on gardening. Grandparents were involved in centre gardening and replicating gardens at home. Lots of rich language development and learning was reinforced between home and the centre. This has supported the centre’s primary focus on developing and supporting the Tongan language and culture.

Networking with schools

Many services had developed networks with local schools. For some services the large number of different schools children were to attend made this more difficult. In a few services, younger primary students visited the service and read to the children, or new entrant teachers or principals visited services to talk with the children about what to expect at school. At some services, parents were encouraged to show their child’s portfolio or profile book to the new entrant teacher. Increasingly, services were participating in PLD with schools as part of a cluster, as shown in this example.

The head teacher participated in a local professional learning community that brought new entrant and kindergarten teachers together to support children’s transition to school and included a focus on literacy. This project improved kindergarten teachers’ understanding and knowledge of the key competencies, The Literacy Learning Progressions (Ministry of Education, 2010), and expectations of the primary schools and their practice in terms of children’s literacy.

However, some schools and services had developed literacy learning expectations that were inappropriate in an early childhood setting. These expectations promoted the acquisition of skills in ways and contexts that were not meaningful for children in early childhood. [8] The following example highlights the negative outcome from services and schools setting and sharing inappropriate achievement expectations.

Networking with the local primary schools and an over-emphasis on literacy expectations for students after one year at school has prompted the manager to move away from Te Whāriki and a socio-cultural perspective to a more formal and instruction focused literacy programme.

Services and schools need greater opportunities to explore The Literacy Learning Progressions to discuss how educators in services and schools can use both Te Whāriki and The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) to cater for each individual child’s needs and abilities.

Using community resources

Services that used local community resources to promote literacy did so through:

  • visiting the library or receiving visits from the mobile library
  • going to see puppeteers, musicians, storytellers, cultural performers, or inviting them along
  • going on walks and excursions – reading maps, road signs, and symbols, developing oral vocabulary, dictating/writing text for photos
  • participating in community networks for non-English speakers
  • consulting the local Māori community, marae visits, kaumatua visits.

How do services know literacy practices and outcomes have improved?

In 2006, the Ministry of Education published Ngā Arohaehae Whai Hua: Self-Review Guidelines for Early Childhood Education (Ministry of Education, 2006). These guidelines outline the process of preparing, gathering, and making sense of information, and of deciding to bring about improvements in learning and teaching practice through: the ability to notice, recognise, and respond; curriculum planning and evaluation; and responsive and reciprocal relationships.

Ngā Arohaehae Whai Hua guides educators to ask how well they foster children’s learning, to explore what they do, what they believe, what they know, and what the result is for children at their service. The guidelines provide advice on the review process and the elements of effective self review.

ERO has previously identified factors common to early childhood services where self review was well understood and implemented (Education Review Office, 2009). These included strong leadership for self review, relevant professional development, stable staffing and collaborative teamwork, sound systems for review, and the use of relevant resources.

What ERO found

ERO considered the following key question when investigating literacy teaching and learning in services: [9]

  • How does self review of literacy improve managers’ and educators’ practices?

ERO found that 40 percent of services had some self-review focus on outcomes for children regarding literacy teaching and learning. In these services, the quality of self review was variable. Generally, literacy review was not well embedded in services’ practice. It was mostly informal, lacked timeframes, and did not focus on how services knew literacy teaching and learning had improved.

Where self review was undertaken, it focused mostly on reviews of amounts and quality of resources such as books, puzzles, art materials, and sometimes ICT. Occasionally, educators’ use of these resources was reviewed.

When self review was limited, the results often focused on the positioning of resources in the environment. Educators lacked depth and understanding of the intent of self review to improve literacy teaching and learning.

More specific aspects of self review of literacy identified across services included:

  • reviewing literacy strategies – play versus formal programmes
  • how educators assessed children’s progress
  • how well educators sustained children’s interest
  • the extent to which educators’ noticed, recognised and responded to children’s learning
  • identifying parents’ expectations and aspirations
  • identifying opportunities for particular aspects of literacy, for example: oral storytelling, ICT
  • integrating and strengthening te reo Māori
  • ensuring literacy programmes prepared children for school.

Two examples of self review in services are described below.

A review of literacy was initiated from a finding that many parents did not recognise what was good literacy teaching and learning in early childhood education and some parents had unreasonable expectations. Educators developed a large wall display with examples of children’s work in literacy to show parents. They also changed the first three pages of children's profiles linking the early childhood education curriculum to the school curriculum and set up a literacy table. The educators now take the time to explain to parents about the literacy development of their child. At the time of ERO’s visit, the service was at the stage where another parent survey was to take place to find out how effective this focus had been.

Through self review, educators had investigated the impact of their teaching and planning on outcomes for children. They reviewed how well the resources and displays supported children’s interest in, and awareness of, literacy. They were now giving greater consideration to how their practice and programme were more closely aligned to outcomes for children. The self-review process shifted educators’ reflective practice to a deeper level of thinking.

ERO found that in services with some self review of literacy, this mainly reflected the perspectives of educators: through formal and informal assessment of children, performance appraisal, as part of in-service training or PLD, or practice. Very few services took into account the perspectives of parents, whānau and children.

Services varied in the ways they gathered information for self review to help them make judgments. Some approaches were limited to descriptive reviews of what literacy practices had taken place in the week and how the children had responded. Others gathered a range of data from parents, observations, professional knowledge, shared PLD, assessment information, and reflections on effective strategies. This information was then used to answer evaluative questions and reach judgments about improvements in teaching and learning, and budgeting for resources.

Management and educators initiated spontaneous and planned reviews of the programme. They documented children’s interests, dispositions, and participation. During regular meetings and their non-contact time, educators reflected on the effectiveness of the curriculum and the environment to provide successful learning opportunities for children. Improvement-focused review developed teaching and promoted positive outcomes for children.

In many services, the findings from self review were not well documented and often did not focus on outcomes for children. At times, self review undertaken by one or two people in the service resulted in little shared understanding of how literacy teaching and learning could be improved.

Where ERO found evidence of self review to improve literacy outcomes for children, outcomes resulted in:

  • ongoing improvement and modification of practice, programmes, interactions and assessment
  • modifying planning to meet children’s changing interests and build on their strengths
  • increasing parents’ understanding of literacy in early childhood education
  • developing a shared understanding of literacy amongst educators.

The following example shows how one service used self review to identify the need to improve practice.

Self review of literacy provision in a parent-led service helped educators develop an understanding of appropriate ways to promote children’s literacy learning. The trigger for the review was the risk of losing four-year-olds to different service types, the desire for children to be well prepared for school, and the knowledge that the literacy area could improve. The resulting action plan for implementing and sustaining improvements focused on an extensive range of teaching strategies to incorporate literacy in meaningful and holistic ways.