Overview

The early years of primary school are a critical time for children. This is when they learn the reading and writing skills they need to engage with all aspects of The New Zealand Curriculum. When children start school, each child’s literacy experience and knowledge is different. How well this experience and knowledge is recognised and used in their education on a daily basis is, to a large extent, in the hands of their teacher.

This Education Review Office (ERO) evaluation focused on how effectively reading and writing was taught in the first two years of schooling, and on how well teachers used assessment information to plan and evaluate their teaching. ERO was also interested in how school leaders and boards of trustees set and monitored achievement expectations to ensure children were progressing and achieving appropriately, and how this information was shared with parents.

ERO collected evidence for this evaluation from 212 primary schools having an education review during Term 1 and Term 2, 2009. The schools in this study included full primary schools, contributing primary schools and composite schools of varying sizes and deciles in urban and rural locations.

Teaching practices

ERO found that about 70 percent of teachers made good use of a range of effective reading and writing teaching practices in Years 1 and 2 classes. Effective teachers were more likely to inquire into ways of improving their teaching, and work collaboratively with other staff to share good practice. These teachers had a sense of urgency about developing the child as a reader and writer. Their teaching was evidentially based, deliberate and gave children opportunities to practise new skills and knowledge during the instructional classroom programme.

In contrast, the remaining 30 percent of teachers had little or no sense of how critical it was for children to develop confidence and independence in early reading and writing. These teachers had minimal understanding of effective reading and writing teaching, set inappropriately low expectations and did not seek opportunities to extend their own confidence in using a wider range of teaching practices. In these classrooms learning opportunities to motivate, engage or extend children were limited.

Using assessment information

The majority of teachers were good at using assessment to reflect on and improve their teaching of reading and writing. These teachers were adept at using a variety of assessment sources to make judgements about children’s literacy progress and achievement. They also applied a ‘teaching as inquiry’ process to find out what children had already learnt and what changes to make to their teaching, based on what children needed to learn next.

Teachers who did not understand or use reading and writing assessment processes well were more likely to focus on whole-class teaching and activities without a strong instructional literacy emphasis. They used assessment sporadically and did not use the information gained to reflect on or improve their practice.

Teachers were slightly better at assessing reading than writing. Forty percent made little use of assessment in writing compared to the 33 percent demonstrating limited use of reading assessment. The lack of confidence with assessing and teaching writing in some schools resulted in programmes that were not matched to each child’s writing development stage, or were focused on narrow writing opportunities. In some cases this may have resulted from confusion about the use of writing assessment tools, or stemmed from a lack of understanding about how children learn to write.

Improving and monitoring achievement

Although many classroom teachers used assessment information well, school leaders were less clear about how they should use data to set and monitor appropriate reading and writing achievement expectations for children in Years 1 and 2. It is of concern that only about a quarter of school leaders set expectations that strongly promoted high levels of reading and writing achievement for children in their first two years. Furthermore, in nearly two-thirds of schools, leaders used limited or poor processes to monitor the progress and achievement of these young children.

Effective schools set clear, well-founded expectations for achievement in reading and writing that challenged their Years 1 and 2 children to succeed. They based these expectations on data they had collected, and on nationally-referenced assessment information. Staff knew about these expectations and where they fitted with those for later primary schooling. They used reference points at different stages or year levels to follow children’s progress.

In the best schools, leaders understood how to use achievement data in their self review. They used their data to inquire into what teaching practices were working, whether these should be modified and where resources were needed to help children who were not succeeding. Leaders were highly involved in managing their own professional learning and development (PLD) through using capable literacy teachers and a range of development and monitoring strategies to support all teachers in the school to enhance their literacy content knowledge and skills.Boards make many significant investment decisions about resourcing personnel and materials for interventions to support diverse literacy learning needs for Years 1 and 2 children. They need to know how well their investments are working. Where school review processes were not robust, trustees lacked the necessary information to make or approve these decisions. In effective schools, trustees received valuable information through well-planned evaluation of interventions so they knew what worked best and whether they needed to look at other options.

This report highlights the need for teachers, schools leaders and board members to be clear about their important roles in setting achievement expectations and monitoring how their teaching practices and processes help Years 1 and 2 children to be successful young readers and writers. All children are entitled to explicit and direct teaching in a supportive environment that builds on what they bring when they start school.

Next steps

ERO recommends that school leaders, teachers and trustees use the findings in this report to reflect on the quality of teaching, assessment and monitoring of reading and writing for children in their first two years at school. In particular, ERO recommends that:

School leaders

  • develop their capability to use achievement data from Years 1 and 2 for monitoring and self review;
  • give trustees regular information that clearly identifies the extent of underachievement in Years 1 and 2 and outlines strategies to increase children’s progress; and
  • actively promote and/or lead opportunities for teachers to discuss achievement data and develop their theory and content knowledge to improve teaching for children in Years 1 and 2.

Boards of Trustees

  • ensure, where possible, that children in Years 1 and 2 classes are taught by teachers who are knowledgeable and confident in teaching early reading and writing; and
  • monitor the impact of interventions on raising student achievement, giving particular regard to the board’s significant investment in staffing and resources for Years 1 and 2 children.

Teachers

  • participate in ongoing opportunities to extend their understanding of the theory and content knowledge so they are confident in using effective teaching of reading and writing for Years 1 and 2 students; and
  • develop their capability in using reference points to monitor children’s progress towards expected achievement levels.

The Ministry of Education

  • develop writing assessment tools for Years 1 and 2; and
  • support beginning teachers so they can confidently use and analyse data from a range of reading and writing assessment tools, and are introduced to a repertoire of teaching approaches that cater for all Years 1 and 2 students’ literacy needs.