Reading the Signs: Why Literacy Rates Are Falling

Podcast: the detail

Young people don’t read as much for fun as they once did and we rely more and more on digital devices. Does this contribute to declining literacy rates?

It may seem counterintuitive that in 2022, with the vast knowledge we have at our fingertips, student performance in the building blocks of education is deteriorating.

But in Aotearoa, that is exactly what is happening.

Since the late 2000s, the performance of New Zealand students on international standardized tests measuring performance in numeracy, literacy and science has slowly but steadily declined.

The declines are rarely so dramatic in any given year that they sound alarm bells – but over time they add up.

Last December, 13-year-olds recorded their worst score ever in trends in international math and science study.

In 2019, 15-year-olds recorded their worst score on the PISA test.

“We don’t know exactly why,” says Dr. Nina Hood, who runs Education Hub, a nonprofit research organization.

“One of the things we know is that over the last 10 years the proportion of young people who read for pleasure has gone down.

“What we know in terms of reading is: the more you read, the better you read.”

There is also the impact of digital technologies.

“Over the past decade, the amount of time young people — all of us — spend on digital devices has increased,” Hood said.

“And while the research is a little spotty…I think we can guess there’s something going on around the increase in device use and the decrease in literacy.”

Bronwyn Yates, te Tumuaki from Literacy Aotearoa, works with adults with low literacy to help them improve.

She says that one of the main difficulties in this area is the lack of understanding from people who have never struggled with literacy about the daily difficulties faced by people with low levels of functional literacy.

She gives the example of waking up in the morning and going to the fridge.

“[Think about] all the literacy components of having a fridge: being able to buy a fridge, having the money to have a fridge…the choices you make about which fridge you’re going to have.

“Come out of the fridge, you put in your kai: again, you have power. You have to make sure you pay for your power on time, to read when it’s due.

“Then there are your children: they are getting ready for school. Some of them didn’t do their homework last night, because they asked you for help, and you are a little whakamā – a little embarrassed – by the fact that you couldn’t’ doesn’t help them with that.

“There are all these different aspects as to how literacy can affect, not just how you get up in the morning, but the dynamics within the home, workplace and school.”

Of course, some people just aren’t good at reading or just don’t enjoy it. Some people have difficulty learning to read in the mainstream education system – people with dyslexia, for example.

One argument could be that a more responsive society would find a way to maximize the skills of these people, rather than trying to fit them into an outdated mould.

Hood says she sympathizes with that argument, but that literacy isn’t just a “nice to have.”

“We need to take a strengths-based approach to education.

“We know that we have a large number of neuro-divergent people in our school system. We have children with a range of different interests and abilities.

“At the same time, I don’t think that can be an excuse for why we don’t help a child to be able to read and write.

“The vast majority of young people, given the right instruction and support, can learn to read and write.

“You gave the example of a child with dyslexia: children with dyslexia can read and write. They can be taught to read and write. It’s just to make sure that the way they are taught to read and writing works for them and their particular needs.”

Hood says one of the difficulties in this area is that there is no silver bullet: encouraging more reading for pleasure, re-examining the role of technology in the education system are things that take time measured time and minds to maximize.

But she says she supports a coordinated approach, where young people’s reading is encouraged and funded; where the value of libraries is appreciated; where teachers are supported and educated on how to cultivate literacy in all subject areas; where technology is used purposefully and judiciously; where students falling behind are identified and supported to catch up.

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About Shirley L. Kreger

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