Teaching approaches and strategies that work

Keeping children engaged and achieving in reading

This Education Review Office (ERO) report is one of a series of reports on teaching strategies that work. It features strategies and approaches that we observed in 40 primary schools selected from across New Zealand. These schools came from a database of 129 schools, all with rolls of 200 or more, in which the proportion of students in the upper primary years (Years 5 to 8) achieving at or above the expected standard had increased. In each case achievement levels were also above average for the decile.

We asked leaders in each school what they saw as the reasons for their school’s positive achievement trajectory and then investigated the teaching strategies that had been implemented, and the outcomes.

This report shares some of the strategies and approaches used by schools that had focused on improving achievement in reading. It also shares some of the simple strategies used in classrooms where achievement in reading had been accelerated.

Why ERO focused on reading programmes

Reading is a critical skill that enables children to engage with all aspects of The New Zealand Curriculum. Reading proficiency provides a doorway into the world. Children’s success in all learning is largely the consequence of effective literacy teaching. Literacy learning builds cumulatively on each learner’s existing proficiency.

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.[1]

Although many New Zealand students achieve well, by international standards our results are not improving when compared with other countries. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS-2016) results highlight minimal progress and then a decline in achievement in reading since the beginning of the century (as shown below). In 2011, the number of countries that significantly outperformed New Zealand exceeded the number of countries that New Zealand significantly outperformed. Results from different groups of children indicate that the 8-point decline in the mean score, from PIRLS 2011 to 2016, is across the board as it is visible in both genders, across ethnic groups, and in children across socio-economic backgrounds.

Relative standing of countries in three cycles of PIRLS, 2001 to 2015/16

Source: Ministry of Education, PIRLS 2016: New Zealand’s Achievement, December 2017

There is also still a wide variance in our children’s achievement. New Zealand has a group of children that demonstrate advanced reading comprehension skills. However, results also highlighted the wide difference between our highest and lowest achieving students. It is concerning to see that in the 2015/16 results not only have we not successfully closed the gap but we have less children achieving at the highest level and the lower-performing children achieved lower scores than was the case in previous cycles as shown below. Out of English speaking& countries New Zealand had one of the largest ranges in reading ability. Those children who did not reach the bottom benchmark in the study (10 percent) had difficulty in locating and reproducing explicitly-stated information and making straightforward inferences from a simple passage of text.

New Zealand Distribution over time PIRLS 2001 – PIRLS 2016

Source: Ministry of Education, PIRLS 2016: New Zealand’s Achievement, December 2017

New Zealand was one of 15 countries (out of 50) where informational reading was a weakness relative to their overall reading performance.

Another international assessment study also shows a decline in secondary school reading results, which is likely to be influenced by the rate of progress in upper primary school years. According to recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, the reading achievement of our 15-year-olds is steadily declining.

The 2014 National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) on English: Reading showed that similar percentages of children at Year 4 and Year 8 scored above the minimum score associated with their expected curriculum levels. This is different to many other curriculum learning areas where considerably fewer children achieve as well in Year 8 as they do in Year 4. However Year 4 achievement in all other areas is higher than it is in reading. Overall, students were generally positive about reading, with students in Year 4 rating themselves higher& on average on the scale than students in Year 8. A greater proportion of boys than girls expressed negative views about reading at both year levels.

Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (asTTle) norm data indicates the need for many children to progress through the levels more quickly in upper primary school. If most children were progressing well, our national norms would show changes of about three sub-levels every two years. However, data for the reading asTTle norms for the 2010 cohort indicated that the achievement trajectory does not ensure most children will reach Level 4A by the end of Year 8.

Declining rates of achievement in reading must be reversed so students are prepared for the demands of the secondary curriculum and, later, for success in further education and employment. We can only raise reading achievement by improving the teaching of reading.

What ERO already knows about improving reading in primary schools

Reading and writing in Years 1 and 2 (2009)

ERO found that effective teachers inquired into ways of improving their teaching,and worked 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 evidence based, deliberate and gave children opportunities to practise new skills and knowledge during the instructional classroom programme. 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.

Raising achievement in primary schools: Accelerating Learning in Mathematics (ALiM) and Accelerating Literacy Learning (ALL) 2014

In schools where teachers’ involvement in the ALiM and ALL project had accelerated children’s progress:

  • students were active partners in designing their learning plans; they were supported to monitor their own progress; knew what they needed to learn next; and were able to provide feedback about the teaching actions that worked for them
  • parents and whānau were formally invited to be part of the process and were involved in workshops to develop home activities and frequent, regular three-way conferencing in which teachers emphasised progress and success
  • teachers involved knew they were expected to critique the effectiveness of their practice and to make changes; had a willingness to seek both positive and negative evidence of progress; and were open to new practices that would make a difference.

Raising Achievement in Primary Schools (2014)

ERO reported that strategic and successful schools had a long-term commitment to improvement through deliberate, planned actions to accelerate student progress. These effective schools were highly strategic and evaluative when trialling new approaches and innovations. Five capabilities that made a difference in schools’ effectiveness in accelerating student progress were:

  • leadership capability
  • teaching capability
  • assessment and evaluative capability of leaders and teachers
  • leaders’ capability to develop relationships with students, parents, whānau, trustees, school leaders and other teaching professionals
  • leaders’ and teachers’ capability to design and implement a school curriculum that engaged students.

These schools also had a focus on equity and excellence.

Educationally powerful connections with parents and whānau (2015)

In the best instances, teachers involved most parents in setting goals and agreeing on next learning steps with their child. Teachers responded quickly to information obtained from tracking and monitoring student progress and persisted in finding ways to involve all parents of students who were at risk of underachieving, and in finding ways for students to succeed. During conversations with parents and whānau, teachers aimed to learn more about each student in the wider context of school and home, to develop holistic and authentic learning goals and contexts for learning.

Continuity of learning: Transitions from Early Childhood Services to Schools (2015)

This ERO report stresses how critical an effective transition into school is for a child’s development of self-worth, confidence, resilience, and ongoing success at school. Schools that were very responsive to ensuring children successfully transitioned could demonstrate they had real knowledge about their newly-enrolled children. They took care to translate that knowledge into providing the best possible environment and education for each and every child. Leaders made sure transition was flexible and tailored to the individual child.

Raising student achievement through targeted actions (2015)

ERO emphasised the importance of schools identifying the specific needs of individual students and creating a plan based on those needs to raise student achievement for all. The most effective schools had a clear understanding of which students they needed targeted actions for to accelerate progress. Teachers were able to monitor their actions to determine if these resulted in positive outcomes for children.

Other factors contributing to success included a strong commitment to excellence and equity; high quality leadership; the quality of teamwork and professional learning conversations when taking actions; and building school capacity to sustain& improvement into the future.

Extending their language – expanding their world: Children’s oral language (Birth – 8 years) (2017)

This ERO report highlighted the importance of supporting oral language learning and development from a very early age. Early childhood services and schools need to position oral language as a formal and intentional part of their curriculum and teaching programmes. Oral language interactions build children’s understanding of the meaning of a larger number of words, and of the world around them. This understanding is crucial to their later reading comprehension, and literacy in general. Early language skills also predict later academic achievement and success in adult life.

What we found in the schools focused on reading improvements

The schools with considerable improvements in reading achievement in Years 5 and 6 undertook carefully considered whole-school or whole-syndicate review and development. They completed assessments that identified the challenges for children and teachers and then accessed professional learning and development (PLD) that focused specifically on the teaching that needed to improve. Well-considered improvement plans outlined individual responsibilities, actions and associated timelines. School boards dedicated funds to resource the new programmes and provided for additional staff, and were well informed about the impacts of their funding.

Most of the schools featured in this report had undertaken an extensive review before beginning their changes. Leaders and teachers looked into assessment data together to see initial trends, successes and challenges. As well as looking at individual children’s scores, they also looked more deeply into groups of children’s assessment responses to identify strengths and specific needs. Teachers examined any contradictions between assessment results to identify any inconsistency in teachers’ expectations or confidence with using the assessment. In the best instances, they included parents’ and children’s views when undertaking such reviews.

The focus on assessment continued throughout their trials and improvements.Teachers worked in pairs or in syndicates to identify the next steps for children at risk of not achieving. Teachers in one school had reduced the number of reading assessments to allow time to look more deeply into the information they did collect. The teachers had accessed a New Zealand Council of Educational Research (NZCER) webinar to extend their data literacy and analysis from the standardised Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT) they used. Teachers also used tasks from the Assessment Resource Banks (ARBs) to check how well children were mastering new strategies trialled. Teachers recognised it was vital to check how well new approaches and strategies were working for children.

Teachers in these schools participated in considerable Professional Learning and& Development (PLD) facilitated by either an external provider or lead teachers within the school. Leaders expected external providers to focus on the specific skills the children and teachers in the school needed. In many instances, facilitators built teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge. Where appropriate, they modelled practices and supported school leaders to observe teaching and manage coaching and mentoring so improvements would be sustained after the PLD. Lead teachers in schools accessed a wide variety of research related to the teaching of reading and selected the approaches and strategies most likely to benefit their children. The rationale for their approach was clear and known by teachers and, at times, known by the children.

Leaders used a variety of strategies to make sure teachers understood the reading processes children experienced across the school. In some schools, at the beginning of the year, teachers changed to teaching other year levels to better understand what came before or next for children’s learning. In other instances, teachers collaboratively developed clear expectations about the content of their reading programmes and the children’s expected progress. Deliberate teaching actions were outlined, implemented and then monitored by leaders. Teachers in these schools focused on implementing consistent strategies that children could build on as they moved through the school.

Many of the schools trialled new strategies with small groups of children before implementing them more widely across the syndicate or school. In some cases, this practice began when teachers in the school joined the Ministry of Education’s Acceleration Literacy Learning (ALL) project. Teachers observed practices implemented by literacy leaders before applying them in their own core reading programme. Many of the schools were using this approach to reduce the number of withdrawal programmes children participated in. Leaders used a team problem-solving approach instead, where every teacher was responsible for ensuring every child could succeed.

New approaches evident in some schools had vastly improved the confidence and& self-efficacy of reluctant readers in Years 5 and 6. Mixed-ability grouping allowed children with different reading ages to work together and support each other. Teachers grouped children to match their interests and needs rather than their reading ages. They introduced reluctant readers to text that matched their chronological ages and interests, and gave them strategies to succeed with the text. Children recognised each other’s strengths and needs, and used these to support their peers. Children, teachers and parents enthusiastically shared the& benefits of these new approaches.

Children enthusiastically talked to ERO about the reading tasks that contributed to their success. They liked having choices about texts and activities. They also appreciated when the tasks were interesting and complex enough to challenge them. Some children particularly liked the competitive nature of things like book challenges or online programs where they could compete against themselves. They enjoyed knowing the purpose of their reading, and knowing when they had achieved their goals. Children valued specific feedback from their teachers and peers, and some told us that sometimes their teachers shared their personal teaching goals so they could give feedback too.


[1] Tunmer, W.E., & Prochnow, J.E. (2009). Cultural relativism and literacy education. In Openshaw, R., & Rata, E. (Eds),
The politics of conformity in New Zealand (pp. 154 190). Malaysia: Pearson.