14 Jun 2022

Reading the signs: Why literacy rates are falling

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 14 June 2022

Young people aren't reading for pleasure as much as they used to and we're relying on digital devices more and more - is this contributing to declining rates of literacy?


Photo: 123RF

It might seem counterintuitive that in 2022, with the vast knowledge available to us at our fingertips, student performance in the building-blocks of education is worsening. 

But in Aotearoa, that's exactly what's happening. 

Since the late-2000s, the performance of New Zealand students in international standardised tests measuring numeracy, literacy, and science performance has been slowly but steadily declining. 

The drops are rarely so dramatic in any given year as to ring alarm bells - but over time, it's added up. 

Last December, 13 year-olds recorded their worst-ever score in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. 

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

"We don't exactly know why," says Dr Nina Hood, who runs Education Hub, a non-profit research organisation. 

"One of the things we know is that over the last 10 years, the proportion of young people who are reading for pleasure has decreased. 

"What we know in terms of reading is: the more you read, the better you get at reading." 

There's also the impact of digital technologies. 

"Over the last decade, the amount of time young people – all of us – are spending on digital devices has increased," Hood says. 

"And while the research is a little bit patchy...I think we can intuit that there's something going on around increasing use of devices and decreasing literacy." 

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

She says one of the key difficulties in this sphere is a lack of understanding from people who have never struggled with literacy about the everyday difficulties people with low functional literacy face. 

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

"[Think about] all the components of literacy that are related to having a fridge: being able to buy a fridge, have the money to have a fridge...the choices you make about which fridge you're going to have.   

"Come out of the fridge, you're putting your kai on: again, you've got power. You need to make sure that you're paying your power on time, to read when that's due. 

"Then there's your kids: they're getting ready for school. Some didn't do their homework last night, because they asked you for help, and you're a little bit whakamā – a bit embarrassed – about the fact you couldn’t help them with that. 

"There're all these different aspects as to how literacy can affect, not just how you're getting up in the morning, but the dynamics within the home and the workplace, and school."

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

An argument might be that a more responsive society would find a way to maximise the skills these people do have, rather than trying to fit them into an outdated mould. 

Hood says she sympathises with that argument, but that literacy isn’t simply a ‘nice-to-have’. 

"We need to take a strengths-based approach in education. 

"We know we have a huge number of neuro-divergent people going through our school system. We've got children with a range of different interests and capabilities. 

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

"The vast majority of young people, if they are given the right instruction and the right support, they can learn to read and write.  

"You gave the example of a dyslexic child: dyslexic children can read and write. They can be taught to read and write. It's just making sure the way they're taught to read and write works for them and their particular needs." 

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

But she says she supports a coordinated approach, where reading among young people is encouraged and resourced; where the value of libraries is appreciated; where teachers are supported and educated in how to cultivate literacy across disciplines; where technology is used in a targeted, judicious way; where students who fall behind are identified and supported in getting back up to speed. 

Find out how to listen and subscribe to The Detail here

You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter

Newsroom, RNZ and PIJF logos

Photo: Newsroom/RNZ