Introduction

This evaluation of the teaching of reading and writing in the first two years of schooling examines the systems and practices schools use to promote high levels of children’s achievement in these two areas of literacy.

National Administration Guideline (NAG) 1 requires each board of trustees, through its principal and staff, to develop and implement teaching and learning programmes, giving priority to student achievement in literacy and numeracy especially in Years 1 to 4 [i(b)]. The NAG also requires, through a range of assessment practices, to gather information that is sufficiently comprehensive to enable the progress and achievement of students to be evaluated giving priority first to student achievement in literacy and numeracy especially in Years 1 to 4 [ii(a)]. [1]

Why focus on the early teaching of reading and writing?

Reading and writing are critical skills that enable children to engage with all aspects of The New Zealand Curriculum. Children’s success in all learning is largely the consequence of effective literacy teaching. Literacy learning builds cumulatively on each learner’s existing proficiency. Teachers of Years 1 and 2 have a vital role in getting children off to a good start.

What teachers do, and how well they do it, matters. The quality of teaching can influence the effectiveness of the learner’s participation, involvement and achievement. The 2003 Best Evidence Synthesis refers to quality of teaching as ‘the most influential point of leverage on children’s outcomes’. [2] International evidence suggests that quality of teaching and the quality of the learning environment generated by the teacher and the children, is a significant factor in the variance in children’s grades (59 percent or higher). [3]

Becoming literate is arguably the most important goal of schooling. The ability to read is basic to success in almost every aspect of the school curriculum, it is a prerequisite skill for nearly all jobs, and is the primary key to lifelong learning. Literacy determines, to a large extent, young children’s educational and life chances and is fundamental in achieving social justice. [4]

Expectations

Research in the United States indicates a pattern of teachers underestimating and predicting least accurately the responses of low achievers. [5] Reduced expectations of progress and achievement are especially significant in schools serving low-income families. There is also some evidence in New Zealand to suggest this. [6]McNaughton et al [7] found at least some teachers in decile 1 schools set or assume lower levels of reading text progress for the first year of instruction for children in their schools. Similarly, a study of Otara and Mangere schools [8] found examples of teachers having considerably lower expectations of school-related skills than Māori and Pacific children actually had when they entered school.

Although high teacher expectations are important, they are not sufficient on their own to enable children to achieve. [9] Expectations for high standards must be accompanied by good teaching that is mindful of the diverse nature of children’s learning needs. Breaking the pattern of inappropriately low expectations for some children (particularly Māori and Pacific, low achievers and those with special learning needs) is at the core of good teaching. Sound evidence of achievement at classroom and school level is crucial. Good teachers know how to use the information from different forms of assessment to create a responsive teaching environment for their children.

Although New Zealand students achieve very well by international standards there is still a wide variance in their achievement. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS-2005/06) showed that the mean reading score of New Zealand children at Year 5 was higher than the international average. New Zealand has a relatively large group of children that demonstrate advanced reading comprehension skills. However, PIRLS results also highlighted the wide difference between our highest and lowest achieving students. As many as eight percent of children perform at the lowest literacy levels, hence the importance of high quality early teaching. [10]

Schools in this study

During Terms 1 and 2, 2009, ERO evaluated the quality of teachers’ literacy practices in Years 1 and 2 in 212 schools having an education review. Fifty-two percent of these were full primary schools, 45 percent were contributing primary schools, and the remaining three percent were composite schools. The types of schools, roll size, school locality (urban or rural), and decile ranges of the schools are included in Appendix 1.

Evaluation framework and approach

Two overarching evaluative questions guided this evaluation:

  • How well do teachers assess, plan and teach reading and writing to children in Years 1 and 2?
  • How well does the school promote and monitor high achievement expectations in reading and writing in Years 1 and 2?

ERO collected evidence for the two overarching evaluative questions and a set of investigative questions by observing teacher practice, talking with key groups of teachers and senior staff members and looking at school documents relevant to their inquiry. Reviewers used information from discussions, observations and documents to evaluate teachers’ professional judgement about the instructional teaching strategies they selected and the confidence they demonstrated with the practices they then used. ERO reviewers recognised that they were not able to see the eventual outcomes resulting from the lesson.

Reviewers recorded their judgements on a separate synthesis sheet and reported to each school in its individual ERO report. The complete evaluation framework, including the investigative questions, is detailed in Appendix 2.

As well as the synthesis sheet, there was a school questionnaire. Reviewers used the information from this questionnaire to scope their evaluation, and responses were aggregated to write this report. Responses were received from 70 percent of the schools in this evaluation and information from these questionnaires supports the findings in this evaluation. The findings also include extracts from review officers’ comments about practice in unidentified schools. These comments show a continuum of practice in the teaching of reading and writing.

The findings in this evaluation are discussed under three sections:

  • reading;
  • writing; and
  • expectations for achievement.