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It’s science, not politics.  Yeah, right.

Updated: Jul 8

A little while back I was talking with a colleague about the state of writing in schools. I said I wanted to avoid the politics that pervades the debate, to which he responded “It’s not about the politics, it’s just science.”  I don’t think it’s that easy.


A quick google of literacy led me to the ‘reading wars’, mostly in the US, which possibly date back as early as 1690.  There are some heady names.  Benjamin Franklin.  John Dewey.  Marie Clay (a kiwi!).


There’s also a lot of jargon … cognitive load theory, morphemes, orthographic code, phonics, whole language, reading recovery.  I tried to get a simple definition of ‘structured language’ and was quickly bamboozled.


PISA and NCEA data paint a worrying picture of literacy in New Zealand. Recent visits to US schools left me feeling that New Zealand is facing a literacy crisis. So it’s great to hear the government announce $67 million towards raising literacy in New Zealand schools.  I genuinely hope it makes a difference.


I’m especially interested in writing at high school.


A common observation of high school Principals in NZ and the US, is that teachers don’t see themselves as teachers of literacy.  My experience as a school leader was that teachers’ ability to write reflects the long-term decline in students’ writing ability.  Mine included.  This showed up at student report writing time, and partly explains why many schools have moved away from written reports.


Society-wide declines in writing ability is a gradual, cumulative process.  It didn’t  happen during COVID, or in the years following the launch of Twitter, etc. It took place over time.


Multiple factors have impacted on students’ ability to write. Today less students arrive at school having learnt to write at home.  Less students read regularly.  Students increasingly write (text) on social media rather than in a formal setting.  Teachers, like everyone else in our society, are part of that trend and so, without specific training how to, are less able to teach writing.


Turning that trend around will similarly take time.  We’re changing the current of the river, not flicking a light switch.


To make, and sustain positive change, teachers need clarity about how to write; a simple rubric that they and whānau can engage with easily.  Schools need to teach writing purposefully and methodically, while ensuring teachers’ professional autonomy to adapt it (appropriately) to their courses and students.  And simple, fast data is needed to inform teaching and other supports.


Writing is important.  


Research shows that students’ ability to write aids their reading, just as the opposite is true. Even more, writing is the ability to share ideas and thoughts with others.  We need students (and teachers) to be good writers for a civic and just society.  It’s a shared and important responsibility. 


We’re all teachers of literacy.


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