Overview

A Government priority for education is that every child achieves literacy and numeracy levels that enable success. A literate society is important for educational and economic reasons. There are also social, cultural, and personal benefits for children developing good literacy knowledge and practices.

The Ministry of Education has highlighted literacy as a focus area of professional development in early childhood education stating that “Literacy and numeracy skills are the foundation for continuing learning and provide access to other parts of the curriculum” (Ministry of Education, 2009a: p.8).

Children’s development of strong early foundations in literacy begins in the home and is grown and enriched through participation in high quality early childhood settings. New Zealand and international research highlights the consistent and positive association between participation in early childhood education and gains in mathematics, literacy, and school achievement (Mitchell, Wylie & Carr, 2008).

The Education Review Office’s 2010 review of early childhood teaching and learning literacy practices confirms that children attending New Zealand early childhood services are exposed to a multitude of resources and experiences that provide opportunities to develop early literacy. Early childhood environments are rich in resources and activities designed to engage and support children in becoming literate. The early childhood curriculum promotes literacy learning and provides some guidance about the skills and dispositions children are likely to have when moving to school. Early childhood educators engage in a range of practices and strategies intended to build children’s literacy learning and competence.

The question for policy makers is whether this is enough. This review found little evidence of explicit links between the literacy teaching and learning practices in early childhood settings and those undertaken in early literacy programmes in our schools. In many cases, literacy activities in early childhood are based on common practice rather than a deeper understanding of children’s learning progressions in literacy. Early childhood educators are generally not aware of how effectively, or to what extent, their programmes and practices support later learning or achievement. Similarly, there is limited evidence that schools seriously enquire into, or adjust, their literacy programmes to build on children’s prior literacy learning and experiences, despite acknowledging that early childhood education is beneficial to success at school.

ERO suggests that New Zealand’s current approach to literacy learning and teaching in the early years of education is an important topic for greater cross-sector discourse and debate. Early childhood services and schools have much to learn from each other. The findings of this evaluation raise questions about whether current early childhood and school practices should be better aligned and, if so, how. The Ministry of Education has a leadership role to play if the government’s vision for New Zealand’s future literacy achievement is to be fully realised.