Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Older struggling readers in New Zealand primary schools: Using science and technology to close the gaps.

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posted on 2022-07-11, 23:40 authored by Olwyn Johnston

New Zealand’s reading achievement data has been in decline for decades. The focus of reading interventions for struggling readers is in the junior primary school. There are no systematic interventions for older struggling readers, leaving them with little hope of recovery to typical levels of achievement. The current intervention paradigm (Reading Recovery) follows the whole language approach, leaving too many children still struggling in the upper primary school.

The ‘Reading Wars’ are a long running, often acrimonious, philosophical debate surrounding the most efficacious pedagogical approach between top down (whole-language) and bottom up (word-level) approaches. Quantitative, empirical research over the past 50 years has converged to demonstrate that the bottom up approach is more effective and efficient, teaching novice readers the skills of proficient readers rather than to guess at unknown words, a hallmark of struggling readers. Even so, New Zealand teachers have a strong pedagogical link to the constructivist whole-language approach to the teaching of reading, which is enshrined in curriculum documents, policy, programmes and professional development.

This research of this thesis comprises two studies. The first follows the work of Chapman and colleagues (2015b) who surveyed teachers of Year 0 to 3 students to investigate their knowledge and self-efficacy in literacy teaching. A total of 65 teachers of Year 4 to 8 students completed the same survey. These teachers represented all areas of New Zealand, all school sizes and all deciles, excepting decile 10. Of these 88% had no formal training in literacy pedagogy and 95% were graduates or postgraduates. Confidence was surveyed using a Likert scale and knowledge of language by short response answers. Findings showed that teachers’ confidence was positive overall. However, respondents expressed less confidence teaching children who are English language learners or who have reading or spelling difficulties. Respondents also expressed low confidence in their ability to explain metalinguistics to parents. The latter point was borne out in the knowledge section of the survey where there was a mismatch between the reported levels of confidence and their actual ability to complete tasks designed to examine their knowledge of literacy. These findings demonstrated a lack of deep knowledge of the English orthographic code. These findings align to an OECD (2019b) study that found that less than a half of New Zealand graduating teachers feel adequately prepared to teach mixed ability classes. Furthermore, Nicholson (2008) noted that a majority of teachers report low confidence in being able to teach reading to struggling readers.

Study Two used a quasi-experimental design with a control group and two intervention groups. A ‘word-level only’ intervention group followed lessons developed from the science of reading literature. A ‘word-plus-screen’ intervention group followed the same lessons with the addition of the teacher projecting a novel into a large screen and reading aloud to the students, whilst explicitly making connections to the lessons of the word-level intervention. 152 students who were classified by previous and current year teachers as being either below or well-below curriculum expectations for reading, were involved in the study. Results showed that the control group slipped further behind curriculum expectation achieving an average of a third of the reading growth in a measure of reading comprehension of typically achieving readers. The word-level intervention had minimal effectiveness with students making half the progress of typically achieving readers the same measure of reading comprehension. Some anomalies were noted with a decrease in achievement at the end of the intervention followed by a recovery which may have continued beyond the scope of the research. The word-plus-screen intervention group made accelerated progress on all measures including one and a half times the expected improvement of their typically achieving peers on the measure of reading comprehension. Extrapolating results indicate that students experiencing the word-plus-screen intervention could potentially return to the levels of their same age peers within approximately three years regardless of sex, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

In the absence of effective intervention the reading achievement of older struggling readers is likely to improve slowly, if at all. However, intervention combining science and technology indicate closing the achievement gap is feasible. This will require a change in the pedagogical approach to the teaching of reading.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Education

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

160304 Teaching and instruction technologies

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

4 Experimental research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Johnston, Michael