New Zealand’s Literacy Gap: A Call to Action for Student Teachers

First published on The Aotearoa Project, April 29, 2015.


“… no school system can claim to be just which is organised in such a way as to favour children who have been socialised in one, rather than another part of the social structure of the community that nourishes them. Wherever a school system is simply an extension of the homes of an urban middle class, or of a dominant culture, or both, it is inevitable that the children from those homes will be in the best position to profit from it.”

– John Watson, ex-director of New Zealand Centre of Educational Research, 1965.

This piece is about the racism that is embedded in New Zealand’s education system and ultimately produces our nationwide ‘literacy gap’. The gap sees a disproportionate number of Maori and Pasifika underachieve and fall increasingly far behind their white counterparts as their education progresses in New Zealand schools. While poverty is an all-important factor here, this essay argues that education is failing to play its role in providing a route out of the poverty trap for Maori and Pasifika in particular, where social interventions fail or are lacking.

In New Zealand, providing this opportunity for socio-economic mobility would require teachers to be well trained in promoting and providing literacy skills specifically to those Maori and Pasifika children most affected by neocolonialism. This essay encourages student teachers to begin to take a strong position on the literacy gap, to demand training that will enable them to close the gap in their own classrooms, and to protest heartily where education faculties are failing to provide adequate training.


Last year, only one third of Māori and Pasifika Year 13 students gained university entrance – down from half in 2013. Entrance has been made harder, according to Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan, in response to reports that 22% of Māori and Pasifika students and 11% of European students are dropping out of university after their first year. One ironic consequence will be that fewer Māori and Pasifika will be able to train as teachers, become doctors and professors of education, and influence the very system that is neglecting to provide the social, economic and educational conditions for their success.

With trademark arrogance, education minister Hekia Parata states that the increased difficulty is in the interests of the very students who are being filtered out of higher education or forced to pay for a foundation studies year. Claiming no responsibility as minister for the exclusion of such a high proportion of Māori and Pasifika from higher education, Parata merely explains that “It is not in the interests of any students to begin their university studies without the skills or experience necessary to succeed.” More difficult assessments amount to a purported ‘clarification’ of university requirements.

Whose responsibility is it, if not the government’s, to ensure that Māori and Pasifika gain the skills necessary to succeed? Statistics have repeatedly revealed systemic Māori and Pasifika exclusion from equal educational opportunities since the settler period. These statistics should be raising alarm with Parata, alerting her to the racism inherent in a system it is her job to improve with policy. They are not cause for her to advocate that more Māori and Pasifika heed the message that they are simply not university material.

Neocolonialism – the ongoing, active privileging by those in power of white, middle class interests at the expense of those of Pasifika and tangata whenua – dictates that 1 in 3 Māori children grow up in poverty. Our education system has proven time and time again that it is not only insufficiently responsive but that it also exacerbates this disadvantage. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 report notes a correlation between educational achievement and socio-economic status that is marked in New Zealand in comparison with other countries. The average reading scores of five-year olds in decile 1 schools are almost half those of their peers in decile 7-10 schools. Māori and Pasifika students have long suffered from our wholesale refusal to address the root causes of this problem.

A warning to this year’s student teachers: you are being trained to perpetuate a racist education system, so prepare to speak out. The principal theory of literacy acquisition informing policy and teacher education in New Zealand, called ‘whole language’ theory, is derived from the learning experiences of white, middle-class children. This theory gained traction and was institutionalised contemporaneously with neoliberalism, in the 1970s and 80s. Universities, given their statutory role as society’s critic and conscience, should now be fiercely critiquing it – following the near lone voices of Massey’s Bill Tunmer and James Chapman.

Whole language theory posits that children do not need to learn language (even a highly complex language like English) through explicit teaching, but simply through exposure to text. Its principal text in New Zealand is John Smith and Warwick Elley’s 1997 Learning to Read in New Zealand, which states that:

Children are assumed to acquire their word attack skills incidentally, while reading and rereading favourite books, repetitive texts, poems and songs. The majority of New Zealand teachers lean more towards this position … arguing that reading and writing are best acquired ‘naturally’ in the same way we learn to speak and listen.

The problem with this theory is the same as the problem with free market ideas of an ‘invisible hand’ being a suitable determinant of who can flourish in the market. Ultimately, it is those with pre-existing capital (in this case, educational skills) who prevail, and overwhelmingly due to colonialism, those people are white. Highlighting the flaws in the logic of this year, New Zealand Centre of Educational Research reports have shown that the primary indicator of educational achievement in New Zealand is not individual effort, but the educational levels of a child’s mother.

As stated, one third of Māori children live in poverty in New Zealand. Of course, Māori mothers are thus overall, by extension and by virtue of racist historical processes, generally less endowed with educational capital accumulated in white institutions than their white counterparts. What’s more, children growing up in conditions of poverty are said to experience 3 million fewer verbal utterances per year than their wealthier peers. This greatly affects literacy development. Most Pakeha children generally enter school equipped with bigger oral vocabularies, more phonetic awareness and a greater capacity to rhyme and recognize syllables, more knowledge of written letters, and more confidence and motivation in using language. The sad fact is that the system continues to prove itself incapable and unwilling to assist students who do not enter school with this capital. Those children do not only stay behind, but fall increasingly far behind until now they meet a minister who tells them they’re better off as labourers or in the service industry. 

Clearly, we need to rethink our basic position on literacy. Rather than insisting literacy is acquired incidentally, when we know that it is developed through previously gained educational capital, we need to be asking how literacy is or can be acquired by children who have small vocabularies, little phonetic awareness or letter knowledge, low motivation and confidence.

There is a precedent for this kind of approach both in New Zealand and abroad. Between the 1930s and 60s, the work of Clarence Beeby, Gordon Tovey, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Apirana Ngata, Alan Simpson, Elwyn Richardson, and Cliff Whiting is worth investigating for its deep, authentic and effective consideration of English literacy acquisition and Māori and Pasifika learning needs. In the U.S., literacy expert Louisa Moats is a powerful advocate for the incorporation of ‘code-based’ instruction for students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

It is high time both those administering our neocolonial public education system were held to account, and that the true causes of Māori and Pasifika underachievement were addressed. I want to encourage today’s student teachers to determinedly and vociferously demand teacher training that will help them contribute to the closing of New Zealand’s literacy gap.

Yes, education faculties employ the use of te reo and tikanga Māori to fulfil bicultural requirements, but this is nowhere near sufficient when what is clearly and urgently needed is a total reconceptualisation of literacy teaching that accommodates Māori and Pasifika literacy learning needs. I urge this year’s students to do these two things.

First, examine current gestures toward ‘biculturalism’ critically by asking whether the skills offered will truly equip new teachers to close the literacy gap in their classrooms.

Second, challenge yourselves about where and when your commitment to children’s learning and education’s social role begins. Many students perceive it as beginning on their first day, wielding a whiteboard marker and a wad of worksheets. This is similar to the belief that the responsibilities of parenthood begin the day a child is born – something all pregnant women know not to be true. The raising of children is a collective responsibility met through the insistence on personal, family and social conditions that are healthy for children.

It is similar with education: It is not only through direct classroom contact with you as a teacher that the lives, opportunities and learning of your students are profoundly affected. Educational conditions are shaped by the global political economy and its vested interests; by the tasks and priorities that are assigned to public education by those in power. Since the 1980s neoliberal reforms, it has been the New Zealand Treasury and not our Ministry of Education that has determined the role education is to play in our society, or rather our economy. Successive ministers have translated this assigned role into policy and monitoring systems. From this policy, the Teachers Council creates criteria for the teacher education programmes administered by education faculty management. Many lecturers deliver these programmes with a reluctant ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ or even ‘tow the party line’ attitude that is not good enough and must be challenged.

Teacher education is a crucial pivot point within this overall mechanism. It is the place where the rubber hits the road in education, where theory begins its transfer into practice. It represents a rather electrifying equation: teacher education is where a distilled system of power and policy meets a cohort of student teachers who represent an infinite quantity of future classroom time. Teacher education is where two diametrically opposed motivations meet: the institution’s contractual obligation to fulfil its state-funded role of ensuring compliance, and students’ social responsibility to think critically and independently in the interest of social justice. Students have a social responsibility to critique institutional practice that fails to address social needs. Students of education must begin demanding that education faculties develop sound and robust policies that support the literacy education of Māori and Pasifika and that can withstand political change. A committed teacher will not wait until their first day in a classroom to demand educational conditions that are just, in the same way that a committed parent would not wait until a baby is born to begin taking care of her living conditions. Just educational conditions, such as the mainstream capacity to help Māori and Pasifika children who grow up in poverty become literate, must be demanded from the moment teachers commit themselves to or enter the sector.

Students studying to become teachers can make their demands known by their independent selection of reading materials and topics for discussion; by critiquing courses in a way that demands recognition, including through doing so publicly; by walking out of lectures that are tokenistic or encourage uncritical complicity with the status quo; by organising discussions about the university’s role in education; and by staging protests, including through the use of the university’s own assessment programmes and examination schedule. There are precedents for this.

Currently education faculties use familiar and modest amounts of tikanga and te reo Māori to address the issue of racial inequality in education. This material is important and has found its way into the curriculum through Apirana Ngata’s legacy. Ironically, as a staunch advocate of sound and effective English literacy instruction for Māori and Māori socio-economic mobility, Ngata would turn in his grave knowing his work was being diluted and implemented as a substitute rather than a complement to quality literacy education for Māori. What Māori and Pasifika students require of our education faculties is nothing short of a complete reconceptualisation of how teachers are to be trained in literacy education.

Teacher training is an absolutely crucial component in the clockwork of our education system. The training that teachers receive to inform their careers is not to be dismissed as a negligible quantity of time, as just a year, or three, for a piece of paper – because it is not. It is some of the most significant, socially formative and incalculably precious time there is.

Student teachers: speak up and make it known, loud and clear, that you demand your university’s support to gain the knowledge and skills you need to close the literacy gap in your classroom. Speak up and make it known hat you refuse to passively perpetuate a racist system, while both social inequality and their status as tangata whenua dictate that Māori and Pasifika students are required in our tertiary institutions and in our highest positions of influence now more than ever.

For those who are not student teachers: send these reflections on. Encourage those you know who are in teacher training to reflect on these issues, and to critically evaluate their training programmes in relation to New Zealand’s literacy gap. Encourage student teachers you know to inform themselves on the gap, and hold education faculties to account when they are clearly not providing the training Māori and Pasifika students need from New Zealand’s teachers today.

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