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Porirua Literacy Project Champion

By Donna Gemaries

Cat and KittenWhy does Cat begin with a C yet Kitten begin with a K?

Joy Allcock asked this question when she spoke to Plimmerton Rotary last week and it’s probably fair to say that no one in the room knew the answer. Joy was presenting information about the Porirua Literacy Project and she explained the need to teach children to understand how written English works.  

Although the funding for this project is still being finalised, twenty-one Porirua schools from northern, western and eastern Porirua have signed up to take part in it in 2014. 

Joy was originally an occupational therapist, an assessment driven profession and she has taken this focus into her interest in literacy. She has been searching for answers as to why so many children are struggling with reading, writing and spelling. Well, a revolution is on the way. Joy thinks she has found some answers that will help lift the literacy achievement of our children. You can check out her web site here.

Everyone needs to be literate – our economy depends on this.  English is the international language of business but many people teaching it do not really understand its structure. Joy is not knocking our teachers; in fact she is very supportive of them and in awe of the skills and knowledge of teachers in Porirua city. However, teachers have not been trained to teach the system that underpins the English language, which is a disadvantage for them and their students. It is something that needs to be remedied.

Joy presented some statistics from the US that show there is a definite link between illiteracy and crime. 85% of juvenile offenders in the US justice system can’t read above a 9-year-old level. Our prison population shows the same kind of picture. Joy explained the Matthew Effect where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer - those who learn to read early do better and better at school, and those who do not learn to read in their early years fall further and further behind. Research shows that if you haven’t learned to read well by the age of 9 years then you can't catch up with your peers. 

New Zealand has a long tail of literacy underachievement. An international study of 10 year olds (PIRLS) shows that New Zealand has slid from the top of the list of schools taking part in this study to 23rd. New Zealand has not got worse – we have stayed exactly the same for 10 years, but other countries have got better. Another international study for 15 year olds (PISA) places us 7th in the list of countries taking part. This could be interpreted as us improving but in reality, many of our lowest achieving students do not take part at this age. Many have already dropped out of school by the age of 15.  Without literacy skills they cannot be independent learners at school so they leave early and contribute to the alarming numbers of illiterate adults in New Zealand society.

25% of children in New Zealand classrooms are failing to learn to read. Despite many initiatives being introduced over the years, this figure has not changed. What we have done is not making a difference. Every school in New Zealand has children not achieving.  It is not just a problem for children from poor socioeconomic circumstances. 

How do we help all children access literacy?

In 2009, Kerry Delaney, the principal of Titahi Bay School (Decile 3) asked Joy to do some Professional Development with the staff and they changed classroom practice in the junior school in 2010. By 2012, 30% more students were achieving at national expectations - 91% of year 3 and 4 students were reading as they should be and 82% were writing as they should be, compared to 60% for reading and 49% for writing before this change in practice was introduced. 

Joy’s theory is captured in her idea of working with what children already know as a starting point - using language as the pathway to literacy. She asked us to imagine a 5-year-old’s brain containing 5 buckets.

Bucket 1 - Vocabulary breadth.
These are all the words a child has ever heard. Some children have a large bucket of these words and some have a small bucket but every child comes to school with a bucket full of words they have heard. Children can use what is in this bucket to recognise the sounds of English.

Bucket 2 - Vocabulary depth or the understanding of vocabulary. 
The words that children understand and can use correctly depend on their exposure to conversation, explanation and on their experiences in the world. This bucket will have fewer words in it than Bucket 1.

Filling buckets 1 and 2 is everyone’s job.

Buckets 3, 4 and 5 are not very full and they might be totally empty. Filling these buckets depends on explicit teaching and for the most part this is the job of teachers. 

Bucket 3 contains words that children can read by sight. They have learned to ‘read’ these words by seeing them over and over again. 

Bucket 4 contains knowledge of the alphabetic code. Knowledge of the letters of the alphabet is part of this, but the way the alphabetic code works needs a lot more than just alphabet knowledge. This has not been taught well in the last 30 years. We need to use this code to translate print into words. Some children need explicit instruction in this.

The final bucket, Bucket 5 is empty as it contains knowledge of the spelling system that underpins written English. Teachers often don’t know much about this either! 

We need to teach the code and the system of written English. This is the focus of the Porirua Literacy Project. Teachers can make a difference. Since the February 2013 Education Gazette article about the results at Titahi Bay School, they have had teachers visiting them from all over the country. The method they used is a way of thinking rather than a programme.

Massey University has designed the research project and will evaluate the results. Joy has already held two training workshops for teachers taking part in the project next year. These have been attended by about 90 teachers from Porirua schools.

What can we do as parents and grandparents to help our children to be ready for school?  Joy suggests building vocabulary and experiences and talking about what is happening in the child’s world. She also suggests we play with sounds in words, reading rhyming books and playing sound-based games. Instead of playing “I spy with my little eye something beginning with a letter”, we could play “I hear with my little ear something that sounds like ‘ar’, or ‘p’ or ‘t’ ”. Joy reminds us to tune into sounds. Show children how letters are used to represent sounds, using family names to start with – John has a J to write his ‘j’ sound, Sharon has a SH to write her ‘sh’ sound but Sean has just an S for his ‘sh’ sound.

So why does cat start with C and kittens start with K?

Joy got us to work this out by asking us to think about the spelling of words that start with K – kind, keep, kitchen, kettle, kite, key, kept, kiss, then words that start with C – cat, cup, cot, clap, cry, curtain, car, clue. None of the words starting with C have an I or E after the C (if they did the C would sound like ‘s’ – circle, cent, circus, ceiling). So, we use a K if the next letter is an I or an E, or if the next sound you hear after the ‘k’ is a long ‘e’ sound (key, keep), a short ‘e’ sound (kettle, kept), a long ‘i’ sound (kind, kite) or a short ‘i’ sound (kitchen, kiss). 

There is a system to English spelling after all!

March 2014 is Rotary International Literacy Awareness month. Let’s get Plimmerton Rotary Club behind the Porirua Literacy Project. Let’s make our Porirua schools into leaders of literacy - locally, nationally and internationally.

Editor's note:

Just before this meeting, Joy received feedback from a primary school in Petone. The editor followed up on the feedback and received this message from Jacqui Pennington, New Entrant teacher at Sacred Heart Petone Primary School.

'The results we have just collated are amazing. In writing last year we were not meeting our target of 85% students meeting National Standard. We are now exceeding the target with 89% at or above. This however for me has not been the only exciting result, it’s the buzz in the staffroom as colleagues discuss what they are doing and seeing in their classrooms. It’s the way the whole school has been able to embrace the programme'.

Porirua Literacy Project Champion


This section is for teachers, parents and anyone keen for our children to succeed. It's about New Zealand's average flat-line literacy achievement and the underlying increase in inequality. See it here >>



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New Zealand's education ranking has fallen from seventh to 13th in reading, according to a report based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

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