Literacy@Massey, News

The problem with literacy – Conversations that Count – Ngā Kōrero Whai Take

What’s gone wrong with our literacy approach in Aotearoa, and how can we create better outcomes for our learners? To kick off our new season, we have a challenging but optimistic discussion about education in Aotearoa. For this kōrero, host Stacey Morrison is joined by Massey University’s Dr Christine Braid and co-principals of Te Kura o Takaro, Helena Baker and Josie Woon.


My journey with te reo Māori

By Sujatha Gomathinayagam, Kaitakawaenga | Facilitator, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

Last year I facilitated a teaching and learning session which focused on the contexts and expectations around Te Tiriti led teaching. This session prompted me to think whether the principles and values of Te Tiriti o Waitangi were visible and recognised in my professional practice and engagement with the teaching community that I serve.

Massey University is on a journey of being a Te Tiriti led university.

Within my role as a Facilitator at Tātai Angitu, I reflected on my own engagement and application of Paerangi, Massey University’s learning and teaching strategy. I could vouch for the fact that I was confident in the understanding of the significance – ‘the why’ of Te Tiriti led teaching and to some extent I was also sure about ‘the how’ of weaving the principles of Te Tiriti in teaching.

The main issue for me was to propel myself to actively use te reo Māori and for that, the first practical step was to enrol in a te reo Māori course and commit to active learning. So, I enrolled in Te Ara Reo Māori, a course run by Te Wananga o Aotearoa, to study the language and enhance my language competency. The course affirms some of my previous knowledge while adding key insights and new skills around the language and its application.

The language learning journey is interesting and challenging, and my progress is slow and steady, but I realise that a small beginning is better than none.

Like the whakatauki reiterates- “ahakoa he iti he pounamu”, although small, it is precious.

Watch this space e te whānau! I will post some snippets of my process and progress in my language learning journey.


Kāhui Ako o Kaipara

Vanessa Paki rāua kō Ngawai Haitana-Tuhoro, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

This article reports on the initial findings from four early childhood services and six primary schools participating in Kāhui Ako o Kaipara. The aim of Kāhui Ako o Kaipara is to support and strengthen early learning practice through the provision of professional learning, development, and design of their local curriculum, including common languages and approaches which recognise tamariki transitions between early childhood and primary. Qualitative data through online cluster wānanga is analysed to highlight the emerging developments undertaken by early childhood and primary school teachers in developing a shared vision for cross-sector transitional pathways.

In 2021, Tātai Angitu secured the contract to work with Kāhui Ako o Kaipara (2021-2022) which is a SELO 3 (Strengthening Early Learning Opportunities) programme funded by the Ministry of Education. Kāhui Ako is the partnership between a group of education services and training providers that form around tamariki learning pathways and work together to help tamariki achieve their potential.  The aim of Kāhui Ako o Kaipara is to support early childhood and primary schools to play an active role in their local Kāhui Ako, identifying and working towards achievement objectives that supports enhanced outcomes for tamariki, whānau, and their communities.

The delivery of Kāhui Ako o Kaipara is a Hybrid model to include in-service individual visits and cluster wānanga. The delivery model can also be fully online to meet the needs of our communities as a response to the COVID pandemic. There is an online platform used to share and collaborate across sectors and within each service throughout the duration of the programme for ongoing support. 

Phases of Kāhui Ako o Kaipara PLD

Phase One: Shared vision for learner transitionPhase Two: Effective Curriculum PracticesPhase Three: Local curriculum
This phase begins with the collaboration of a shared vision for learner transitions through a whānau lens. Kāhui Ako o Kaipara will collaborate, collect, and collate whānau, hapū, iwi and community voice within the Kāhui o Kaipara as an inquiry approach, which will support the co-construction of transitional pathways for learners in Kāhui o Kaipara.In this phase of work, we examine our pedagogy and how we model and interpret our foundational curriculum documents Te Whāriki and New Zealand Curriculum and where our interpretations connect and the relationship between them.

The last phase moves into the importance of relationships with mana whenua transitioning through a tangata whenua lens and how they can be interpreted into local curriculum planning, teaching, and learning. The journey into cultural capabilities in this phase sets out the foundation for sustained opportunities for Kāhui Ako o Kaipara into the future.


Research tells us that a successful start to school is linked to later positive educational and social outcomes, recognising the complex interplay of personal and environmental features that help to shape transition experiences (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1997; Sameroff, 1975; Peters, 2010). We all benefit when tamariki and whānau view transition as a positive encounter where their stories and aspirations for education is regarded as valuable, relevant, and attainable. We also know that the transition to school is successful when tamariki and whānau report a sense of belonging.​ But sometimes making a transition often involves meeting difference and unfamiliar territory (Ackesjö, 2013). This difference is not necessarily problematic as some discontinuity is a basis for learning; some what the next situation to be different and look forward to new achievements and where this difference of learning can be seen as a transition to manage change and build resilience. However, difficulties arise when the challenges can be disconnected, where opportunities for partnership and understanding into the new setting of possibilities are not taken up.

The focused on developing a shared vision for learner transitions and the engagement from each setting to share their current ‘state of play’ around transitions in Kāhui Ako o Kaipara reinforced the importance that “…almost any child is at risk of making a poor or less successful transition if their individual characteristics are incompatible with features of the environment they encounter” (Peter, 2004, p.2).     Teacher’s experiences and knowledge of time, place, and culture positioned the diverse richness in context and histories from each individual setting to hearing about their current social realties, educational practices and challenges, and future possibilities. Teachers also spoke about a shift in discourse to a whānau lens for transitional pathways in particularly on the significance of Māori values, practices and ‘culturally constructed’ lived eperiences’ (Hohepa & Paki, 2017). Even though similar transitional practices between both sectors were highlighted, more work and understanding between the two curriculums, assessments and pedagogies for sustained transitions emerged. Another key finding from this phase reinforced the importance for building sustained relationships with whanau, hapū, iwi and their communities to include in their shared vision. The koha (gift) here is that adjustments to context and strategies that draw from cross-sector and cross-cultural understandings to support more positive experiences will play a critical component to developing a shared vision.

From the discussion of shared vision, the next part of this phase moved to how Kāhui Ako o Kaipara will collaborate, collect, and collate whānau, hapū, iwi and community voices into an inquiry approach, and to support the co-construction of transitional pathways for learners throughout the duration of the programme. In mixed sector discussion groups, teachers were asked to discuss what key aspects are important for effective transition to take place? Teachers highlighted the following key points:

The final work for this phase asked teachers to identify which key aspects about transition will their service further develop as an inquiry? For this exercise, each early childhood service was put into their own focus group with one group to include all primary school teachers (smaller group) as a funnel to capturing the bigger picture from the collective discussions to now bringing it back to their own service and making a difference. In this exercise, transitional pathways for Kāhui Ako o Kaipara highlighted a reflective nature in understanding each context and knowing their stories to developing their initial inquiry. Below are some of their initial focus areas and feedback from each service that will be further explored in phase two to their designing of a culturally responsive and local curriculum based on learning priorities and aspirations for tamariki and whānau in their unique setting.

Early Childhood Service #1
“Be more connected with schools due to COVID. To play with a range of different resources from school to become familiar with their new place.”

Early Childhood Service #2
“More visits with children, more telephone and zooms with tamariki and whānau to connect. We thought about portfolios for tamariki to take to schools to understand the child’s connection. We talked about getting back into school visits and to invite teachers into our centres.”

Early Childhood Service #3
“We feed into a lot of schools with new staff and what we know about the schools and what they know about us is something we would like to capitalise on. A key point was, to let schools know who we are and what the schools are like for each school to support tamariki and whānau. Story Park and Educare could be another way of sharing information to schools.”

All Primary Schools
“We talked about building and maintained relationships, realising that staff changes are happening. We also talked about anxiety with transition and so reciprocal understand between the two sectors is critical and wanting to know more about Te Whāriki and vice versa for ECE settings. Social competence is another aspect of importance for continuity. It’s all about reciprocal understandings. Portfolios would be better if shared before their transition but also including a whānau story.”

Further data captured in their online chat rooms for this exercise identified that their inquiry would also consider and:

  • Affirm the whānau and their language, culture, and identity.
  • Build on the learning and learning experiences that the child brings with them.
  • Foster a child’ relationship with kaiako and other tamariki.
  • Consider the ‘whole’ child, their family, whānau and wider community.
  • Enable kaiako in early childhood and primary to ‘speak the same language’ in relation to each child and cross sector partnership.
  • Teachers to be supported of each other in each sector and across each sector.
  • Explore relevant and similar approaches to meet the needs of each child and their whānau.
  • Minimise tamariki and whānau stress related to transition through respectful and trusting relationships.

How to, who will and what for in this last exercise highlighted for the group that learning is a journey that begins before birth and continues throughout life. The exploration and discussion between curriculums (see below) provided opportunities for teachers to think about and consider the relationships at play between the curriculums. Teachers spoke about the importance of supporting tamariki by affirming their identity and culture, connecting with, and building on their funds of knowledge and having positive expectations for their learning and wellbeing (Ardern, 2019; Cram, 2014). For Kāhui Ako o Kaipara, we will continue to work together and understand how Te Whāriki, the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa all have a similar vision in this programme of our mahi as we move into Phase Two.

A Similar Vision

Te Whāriki aspires for children to be competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.

The New Zealand Curriculum, a curriculum for English-medium schooling has a vision for young people who are confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners and who in their school years will continue to develop the values knowledge and competencies that will enable them to live full and satisfying lives.

Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, aspires to develop successful learners, who will grow as competent and confident learners, effective communicators in the Māori world, healthy in mind, body, and soul and secure in their identity and sense of belonging. They will have the skills and knowledge to participant in and contribute to Māori society and the wider community.

Working across educational sectors has emphasised the importance of building a shared vision for learner transitions in Kāhui Ako o Kaipara. The collective understanding in this first phase of the programme identified diverse principles of educational entitlements where shared values, practices, aspirations, and opportunities is a dynamic process for continuity and change that also includes personal values, and values associated with professional and cultural bodies of knowledge. Phase two of this programme shifts to teaching practices, how we model and interpret our curriculum documents, and where our interpretations and the relationship between each curriculum connect.

On behalf of Tātai Angitu, we would like to acknowledge Kāhui Ako o Kaipara and thank all our teachers for their commitment and participation in this programme. Our photo below captures some of our wonderful teachers from Kāhui Ako o Kaipara where their consent was given.

Ackesjö, H. (2013). Transitions–times of reconstructions. International Journal of Transitions in Childhood, 6, 16-27.

Ardern, J. (2019). Child and youth wellbeing strategy – Interview. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Te Tari o Te Pirimia me te Komiti Matua. Retrieved from:

Bronfenbrenner, U. & Morris, P. A. (1997). The ecology of developmental processes. In W.Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.)  Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 1. Theoretical models of human development (5th ed.) (pp. 993-1029). New York: John Wiley.

Cram, F. (2014). Measuring Māori wellbeing: A commentary. MAI Journal, 3(1), Retrieved from: journal/mai-journal-2014-volume-3-issue-1

Hohepa, M., & Paki, V. (2017). Māori medium education and transition to school. In Pedagogies of Educational Transitions (pp. 95-111). Springer, Cham.

Peters, S. (2004). ” Crossing the border”: An interpretive study of children making the transition to school (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Waikato).

Peters, S. (2010). Literature review: Transition from early childhood education to school. Report commissioned by the Ministry of Education. Wellington: Ministry of Education.


We need a new approach to teaching literacy

Young New Zealanders are turning off reading in record numbers – we need a new approach to teaching literacy.

Meet Otis. He’s eight years old and until recently he didn’t want to read or write. Then his teacher changed the way she taught and things began to improve.

After a few weeks, Otis (not his real name, but he’s a real child) wanted to read and write at every opportunity. With this new-found knowledge and motivation his skill increased too. And his confidence.

So what was different? Technically, Otis’s teacher had begun using what is known as a structured approach to teaching literacy. Essential for children with a literacy learning difficulty such as dyslexia, it has been shown to be beneficial for all children.

The structured approach is a departure from what is known as the “implicit” teaching approach most teachers have used in the classroom. There are now calls for “explicit” instruction to be adopted more generally, including a petition recently presented to the New Zealand Parliament.

New data suggest this is an urgent problem, with growing numbers of young people turning off reading. According to a recent report from the Education Ministry’s chief education science adviser, 52% of 15-year-olds now say they read only if they have to – up from 38% in 2009.

The report made a number of recommendations, including that the ability to “decode” words become a focus in the first years of school. The importance of decoding to literacy success was reiterated by learning disability and dyslexia advocacy group SPELD NZ. It called for a change in teacher training and urgent professional development in structured literacy teaching.


Structured literacy teaching means the knowledge and skills for reading and writing are explicitly taught in a sequence, from simple to more complex. Children learn to decode simple words such as tap, hit, red and fun before they read words with more complex spelling patterns such as down, found or walked.

Learning correct letter formation is a priority. Mastery of these skills builds a strong foundation for reading and writing, without which progress is slow, motivation stalls and achievement suffers.

children's books with words and pictures

The simple spelling in structured literacy texts helps children decode the words and build confidence.

The books children first read in a structured approach employ these restricted spelling patterns. Reading these with his teacher’s help, Otis built on his skills with simple words and progressed to decoding words with advanced spelling patterns.

These structured lessons also allowed him to master letter and sentence formation, so he made progress in writing too.


By contrast, an implicit approach to teaching reading essentially means children have lots of opportunities to read and write, and learn along the way with teacher guidance.

Unfortunately, children like Otis can get lost along the way, too.

Implicit reading books use words with a variety of spelling patterns – for example: Mum found a sandal. “Look at the sandal,” said Mum.

When Otis tried to read these books, he looked at the pictures or tried to remember the teacher’s introduction before attempting the words. But he was not building his skills and was getting left behind.

Otis is not alone, and New Zealand’s literacy results support the calls for change. Despite many interventions and the daily hard work of teachers, it is common for schools to report 30% of children with low reading results and 40% with low writing results.

However, a Massey University study in 2019 found reading outcomes improved when teachers were trained in a structured approach. The results were particularly good for children with the lowest results prior to intervention.

Overall, the findings suggest the change in teaching had a positive effect on children’s learning.

An example of how structured literacy is taught in the US; methods vary depending on the country.


Fortunately for children like Otis, more teachers are now seeking training in a structured approach. One project based on the Massey research involved more than 100 teachers in over 40 schools. Teacher comments suggest the knowledge and training support has helped them change their teaching for the benefit of the whole class.

Further signs of hope include recent Ministry of Education efforts to develop structured approach teaching materials, and the resources now available for teachers on the ministry’s Te Kete Ipurangi support site.

No one pretends change is easy in a complex area such as literacy teaching. But every child like Otis has the right succeed, and every teacher has the right to be supported in their approach to helping Otis and his peers learn.

With courage and effort at every level of the system – not just from classroom teachers – a structured approach to literacy teaching can improve outcomes and have a positive impact that will stay with children for the rest of their lives.The Conversation

©Written by Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Taking a look at decodable texts

Texts that fit within a decodable label use words that are carefully controlled by the spelling patterns. These texts give learners multiple opportunities to apply their developing decoding skills in real texts.

The spelling patterns used follow a scope and sequence whereby early reading texts use words with a restricted word pattern along with a few high utility words (e.g., I, the, my) to make a sentence work. The texts use a limited number of letters in the first instance and only consonant-vowel-consonant words. As the sequence progresses more letters are introduced but the scope of c-v-c stays the same. Once c-v-c is mastered, the scope then advances to include consonant clusters and vowel teams.

The controlled nature of decodable texts means the texts can seem to have no meaning. In addition, they are often accused of being boring. Some critics believe that using decodable texts will put children off reading. It is true that the sentence cadence is less natural than speech due to restrictions involved in keeping to words of one syllable. The texts are not as rich as regular picturebooks or other reading series books that do not control for spelling patterns. But decodable texts can be a good story and are they are engaging texts for children learning to read for themselves.

The way a well-constructed decodable text engages children has similarities to the way a good picturebook works. A well-designed picturebook, one that is for reading aloud to children, allows the pictures to tell the story that cannot be told as effectively in the words (Nodelman, 1988). There is a magic in the space created by what the words can say and what the pictures can portray. The role of pictures is in creating layers of meaning, especially for meaning beyond a surface interpretation (Braid, 2008).

An example of how effectively the words and pictures work together in a picturebook is My cat Maisie by Pamela Allen. When a stray cat arrives at Andrew’s house, Andrew is really pleased because he knows lots of marvellous games to play with a cat. The words clearly tell what Andrew says and does: Let’s be helicopters and whizz round and round.

The words do not say how Andrew or the cat feel about the activities, but the pictures very clearly portray a happy Andrew and a rather unhappy cat. When reading this aloud to children (and adults), they laugh nervously as they fill in the gaps of what this activity means to a cat. Throughout the book, the words and the pictures work together to advance the story. The book is a powerful reading experience because carefully crafted words leave a space for the reader to fill in the gaps using the pictures to make a full story1.

The picturebook technique is evident in well-made decodable texts where the books tell a story even with very limited text. Books from two different series, Sunshine decodables and Little Learners Love Literacy, are used to show how the elements of a picturebook are used to advance a good story within the limits of using words from a scope and sequence.

In the Sunshine Phonics series, the text in The big box tells the story of children making things from an empty cardboard box. One of the pages has Nat imagining that the box will be a hut. The words say The box will be a hut and leave the pictures to show what this will look like, painted pink and white with flowers.

The picture of the finished hut shows it still looks like a cardboard box. When I pointed this out to one child who had read the book, she began a conversation about what would be needed for the box to be like it was in Nat’s imagination. The picture provides at least half of the narrative, which is exactly what a well-constructed picturebook does.

In another story in the Sunshine Phonics series, The big bug, the text tells of an annoying bug in the house. The text on the final page reads ‘The fan gets rid of the bug’. The picture shows Gus the cat cheekily turns on the fan to blow the bug out the window. The pictures advance the story and add humour and there is much to discuss with the children when reading.

Children are observant and find these picture features intriguing and satisfying. When I remarked to a child who had read the book that it was a clever solution for the fan to get rid of the bug, he delighted in showing that it was actually Gus that was clever. It is particularly powerful for children when they have successfully read the words and then combine that sentence with their observations of the illustrations. It now feels like a story.

A third example of the words and pictures working together from the Sunshine series is the book Tip it. In this book, Dan is at the tap filling a bucket with water. The words state: ‘Dan is at the tap’. Mystery is set up. Page turn. ‘Dan tips it’. The picture shows he tips water on his sister Nat. The children reading this text find this picture hilarious. But wait. Page turn. Now the text reads: ‘Nat is at the tap’. Suspense. Prediction. Turn the page and the text says: ‘Nat tips it’.

The text does not need to add the phrase ‘tips the bucket of water over Dan’ and it would be a lesser experience if it did. The picture shows Dan being surprised by a bucket of water over him. The children reading this text are most engaged with its simplicity and humour. They also feel pleased with themselves as readers because they are successfully reading the words.

In the Wiz kids’ series (Little Learners Love Literacy), one of the levels includes five books with stories about Viv and her dog Bob. Over the five stories, the characters are introduced: Viv (the pictures show she is a scientist), Bob (Viv’s dog), and Vog (an alien). Each short story builds from the one before.

In story one, Viv is in the lab and so is her dog Bob.

In story two, Bob the dog is hot and Viv has to get a fan so he is not hot.

Vog the alien is introduced in story three and in story four Vog leaves his planet. In story five, Vog’s space pod crashes on Viv and Bob’s lawn, bringing the characters of this set together.

The pictures in these deceptively simple books bring humour and add to the narrative. There is development of character and the connections from one story to the next stimulate the wondering of what Viv and her dog Bob are going to get up to next.

Further connections between books occurs in the Little Learners Love Literacy series. For example, in the story The Shed Shop, Tim and Pip have the job of cleaning up a junk filled shed. In the process of the clean-up, they get money for a number of items. In the next book in that level, The Munch Bunch Fun Park, the story begins ‘Pip and Tim had a lot of cash’, which is a satisfying link for a reader as they recall the plot and characters of the previous book and enjoy the next instalment.

Connecting with characters and plot is vital for engagement with story and it is my experience that children do this with these cleverly constructed decodable texts, even with the restricted words. Many children identify with the characters and the plot as found in the Sunshine and Little Learners series. I hear teachers saying that the children can’t wait to know what the characters will do next. One teacher told of a child who was impatiently waiting for the arrival of the next set of Sunshine books, so he could find out what Sam was going to do next. The anticipation and desire reminded me of children waiting for the next Harry Potter. There is no need to worry that children will not be making sense of the story. They do this and they connect with characters.

There are other reasons decodable texts are important:

  1. The books allow learners to learn about print from small units to larger, from short vowel (c-v-c) to vowel teams (c-vv-c) to multisyllable.
  2. The books are dependable for early readers. Teaching focuses on the word patterns and the skills needed to decode (and spell) these words. The books do not present children with challenge beyond what they have been taught/are learning.
  3. The books give the learner multiple opportunities to secure the particular word pattern being taught. Children have the opportunity to overlearn one spelling pattern (e.g., c-v-c) and secure the necessary orthographic map.
  4. The use of decodable texts allows teachers to teach in a way that does not rely on the pictures for successful decoding.
  5. Meaning can be brought in after the decoding e.g., The van is in the bog (yes look it is in the muddy bog); Tim is sad (look at the picture and see he IS sad). Children can decode using the print, then check the picture. The picture gives confirmation of success in the process.
  6. The texts are a surprising source of vocabulary development because it is unusual for children to hear words such as sob, suds, bog, dam, or dip. One teacher found that she needed to show the children what it means to ‘dip in’ the pool and she did this by using a teabag.

Decodable texts are not the only texts necessary for teaching reading. Children need a wide range of books read to them as well as access to texts that are less controlled as their skills increase. But decodable texts are a key resource in teaching beginning readers. Decodable texts will never be favourite read-alouds because the sentence structure is restricted. But being a delicious read-aloud or great literature is not the purpose of these texts. The main purpose is to be a text where code skills can be successfully applied. Creating a good decodable text means to know and keep to this purpose.

It is wrong to suggest that decodable texts are not engaging for children or that there is no meaning to the stories. There is power for the learner in being able to successfully read the words then use the illustrations to make connections between what the words say and what the pictures tell. Not only do the stories in decodable texts have meaning, but the books enable the children to BE successful readers. That is a powerful combination.

©Written by Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

With thanks to Sunshine Books for permission to use images 1,2,3
With thanks to Little Learners Love Literacy for permission to use images 4,5,6


Allen, P. (1990). My Cat Maisie. Australia: Penguin Books.

Braid, C. (2008). How do I look? Layers of meaning in the picturebook. Massey University Printery.

Dixon, B. (2014). The shed shop; The Munch Bunch fun park

Dixon, B. (2020). Hot Dog Bob; Pop; Vog; Vog in the pod; Bam!

George, P. (2020). The big bug; The big box; Tip it!

Nodelman, P. (1988). Words about pictures. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

1The explanation of how picturebooks work does not suggest the use of pictures to work out words when children are reading for themselves. The pictures are an important part of the narrative but not a useful one for decoding a word.


Getting it, not guessing it: examining the 3-cues model

When we discuss problems with our literacy outcomes in New Zealand, behind the data is the story of each child who is having difficulty learning to read and write. These are the stories of children who may not want to go to school because they ‘feel dumb’ when they do not learn to read. In my years of teaching, I recall a group of children in my classes whose reading outcomes were always below the expected level. I worked hard so felt my efforts would make a difference. However, I could not accelerate their reading outcomes, no matter how hard we all worked. I feel uncomfortable to think these children in my class may have hated coming to school and ‘felt dumb’. But my discomfort is nothing compared to the broken mana of the child and the heartbreak of the family who has to watch.

To improve outcomes for all learners, it is necessary to examine the models that inform our teaching of reading. One particular model that is in our teaching DNA is the 3-cues of reading. I remember learning about the 3-cues in 1986 when I trained in Reading Recovery. The idea of cue integration (using a combination of meaning, syntax, and print cues) to work out words was very appealing, and I believed it was the answer to all reading difficulties. I ‘believed’ in this model for the next 30 years and I understand how difficult it is to let it go.

The cognitive dissonance of confronting a long-held belief is not easy. Changing a belief will require a change in teaching, unlearning particular ways we have taught children to read. But for the sake of our learners, it is important to examine our beliefs and ensure the models we use are ones that provide us with efficient and effective pathways for teaching for all learners.


The key premise of the 3-cueing system (Fig. 1) is that successful reading involves using a combination of cue sources: sentence meaning, sentence structure, and the print on the page (or visual cues). The 3-cues model suggests that integration of all the cues is the ultimate aim for success as a reader.

Integrating the cue sources may appear to bring success with a particular word in that moment but integrating cues does not provide ongoing success. Ongoing success comes from the skill of efficiently and accurately processing the printed code. Word patterns map into long term storage when a reader pays close attention to the word, all through the word (Ehri, 2014).

Fig 1: A diagram to show the 3-cueing system

Storage of words is an absolute necessity for reading competency. When a learner spends time focused away from the print, using strategies such as looking to the picture or thinking about what would sound right, they miss the opportunity to take the word patterns into long term storage (Snow & Juel, 2005).


The 3-cues model emerged from a research study (Goodman, 1967) that found participants were able to read more accurately and fluently when the task involved reading in a context as opposed to when participants were given words in a list. Goodman concluded that it was the context cues such as meaning and syntax that enabled reading to be accurate and fluent. However, all attempts to replicate the results in Goodman’s study have failed. Instead, researchers repeating his experiment found that good readers read words in and out of context equally well and it was poor readers who read better in context and who struggled with a list (Nicholson, 2004).

The 3-cues model has been the main model in New Zealand for at least three decades. One reason for the dominance of the model is that integration of cues seems viable on the surface. Once we have learned to read, it is hard to have any perspective on how difficult reading really is (Dehaene, 2010) or to identify the beginning point of successfully reading a sentence.

Another reason the model is retained is that using the meaning cue for decoding a word has been conflated with reading comprehension. In my research, I found that some teachers were hesitant to direct children to use the print cue first, because they felt it was downplaying the place of meaning. I know I kept an allegiance to 3-cues because of the notion that meaning had to drive the process. Of course, meaning is the main purpose of reading, but gaining meaning from what we read is not the same as using meaning as a cue to work out a word.

A further reason for the continued use of the 3-cues model is the types of texts available for instruction. Levelled texts based on predictable sentences or on the natural language of speech require teachers to direct children to use the picture cues (meaning) because the wide variety of spelling patterns is outside a learner’s current decoding skill.

The 3-cues model has been part of teacher training and teacher manuals for decades. It is hard to unstitch the underpinnings of our own training. I resisted for many years the idea that guiding children to use compensatory strategies was teaching a form of guessing. In fact, I defended the process as being a strategic integration of cue sources. In addition, I did not know that compensation was a strategy of poor readers or that there were alternative models.


A connectionist model (Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989) gives an alternative to the 3-cues model, describing the interaction of four different processors (orthographic, phonologic, meaning, and context) in the act of reading. This model of four processors (Fig. 2) positions the first act of reading as the connection between the print (orthography) and the sounds (phonology). Making the connection between the letters or graphemes and how they represent the sounds or phonemes in words is a vital first step to reading success. Once the word is read (by connecting the graphemes to their phonemes), the meaning and context are activated to complete the process1.

Fig 2: Seidenberg & McClelland (1989)

A key difference in the connectionist model is the interaction among the processors, rather than the integration of cues as in the 3 cues model. Interaction requires capability in all parts of the reading process, whereas integration can mean one cue dominates and is used to compensate for weakness in another cue. Integrating cue sources is not a model of capability or of balance in literacy learning.

The four processors model shows the importance of teaching the skills for the printed code as a foundation for reading. There has been no case of competent reading in the absence of functional decoding (Share, 1995). For overall reading success, while decoding is not sufficient, it is absolutely necessary. Learning to decode is the first step; meaning cannot be brought to the sentence unless words can be read reliably and efficiently (Pressley, 2006). And in the words of Stanislas Dehaene (2010), there is no point in describing to children the delights of reading if they are not provided with the means to get there. By ensuring children have capability with the printed code, we give them a vital key to access the delights of reading for themselves.

Many teachers across Aotearoa have begun evaluating the reading models they use. A change in models means a change in teaching. The teaching involves careful lesson to text matching, including decodable texts and a careful scope and sequence for beginning instruction. It is heartening to hear these teachers tell the stories of children who previously hated reading lessons now eagerly waiting for it to be their turn. Often these children are still finding learning to read difficult, but they ARE learning to read. By changing the model of reading they use, teachers have empowered their learners with the skills to know they are “getting it, not guessing it”.

I cannot go back in time and change the outcomes for the learners I tried so hard to help. I hope the efforts I made, or the efforts of another teacher, enabled them to gain success as readers. We cannot go back, but we can move forward and ensure that teachers have the knowledge, resources, and support to provide the pathway of success for all learners.

©Written by Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University


Dehaene, S. (2010). Reading in the brain: the new science of how we learn to read. Penguin Books.

Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 5-21. doi:10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Goodman, K. S. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Journal of the Reading Specialist, 6(4), 126-135.

Nicholson, T. (2004). Do children read words better in context or in lists? A classic study revisited. In D. Wray (Ed). Literacy: Major themes in education. Reading processes and teaching (Vol 2 pp 29-44). Routledge.

Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: the case for balanced teaching. 3rd edition. Guilford Press.

Seidenberg, M. S., & McClelland, J. L. (1989). A distributed, developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological Review, 96(4), 523-568.

Share, D.L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine que non of reading acquisition. Cognition: International Journal of Cognitive Science; 1995 May; 55(2): 151-218

Snow, C. E., & Juel, C. (2005). Teaching children to read: What do we know about how to do it? In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulmes (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 501-520). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew Effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.

1Recent advances in functional MRI confirm that activation occurs in these areas of the brain as we read. The images also show that for poor readers there is less activation in the phonological processing area. Accurate decoding of words is very limited if there is no connection between orthography and phonology.


What is decoding? Literacy is evolving

Decoding is one of the key components needed for reading success.

Good decoding skills combine with a reader’s language comprehension to enable meaningful reading of a text.

Decoding skill requires knowledge of the alphabetic principle, which is the connection between the sounds in words and the letters associated with those sounds. A reader who has good decoding skills can read familiar and unfamiliar words accurately and rapidly, as Hoover and Gough’s 1999 research showed.

Capable readers are capable decoders; they can read a list of words, whereas a struggling reader cannot. Readers with weak decoding skills rely on the sentence’s meaning and structure to compensate for lack of skill with the code. When readers rely on compensatory strategies to read unknown words, they rarely focus closely on the word. Close focus on the spelling patterns (orthography) is essential for making a map of the word for later retrieval and for that word to eventually be recognised by sight.

Why is decoding receiving so much attention?

International and national data show there is a persistent difficulty with reading achievement in New Zealand.

Teachers are realising that the current teaching approach is not sufficient for many children. One of the key problems is the range of spelling patterns in the words in the commonly used levelled books. Learners have to be directed to use strategies other than the printed code so they can work out the words. The approach makes learning to decode hard for many children and it makes teaching of reading difficult too.

Teaching decoding skills in the classroom

In order to teach children to become strong in decoding, teachers need strong teacher knowledge about the code, support of a scope and sequence of skills and books that are decodable along that scope.

Decodable texts introduce spelling patterns gradually, giving children time to make orthographic maps and allowing teachers to teach the patterns of print explicitly and systematically.

Effective classroom practice for ensuring good decoding skills includes:
● poems, rhymes, alliteration, hearing sounds in words, phonological awareness
● securing alphabet: letter shapes, sounds, names and formation;
● explicit teaching of blending sounds for decoding and segmenting for spelling;
● multiple opportunities to read and spell words successfully; and
● children applying skills to read decodable books and write dictated sentences.

For reading to be successful, decoding skill is not sufficient, but it is absolutely necessary.

Written by Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

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Cook Islands Schools benefit from PLD support

Written by Education Gazette editors
originally published in Education Gazette, 19 November 2020

A professional learning and development (PLD) programme delivered to five schools in the Cook Islands in response to Covid-19 has helped them make strides in their practice.

A rainbow of hope over CICC Aorangi Mission House. At a time of anxiety and fear, Tereora College teacher Charlotte Cousins captured this uplifting image on her way to school and shared it with her colleagues.

As school communities across New Zealand adapted to distance learning during Covid-19 Alert Levels 3 and 4, schools and teachers in the Pacific were preparing for how they would respond if they had to do the same in their countries.

The Ministry of Education invited Massey University’s PLD provider Tātai Angitu to support five schools in the Cook Islands – Araura College, Enuamanu School, Mangaia School, Tereora College and Titikaveka College – to help them prepare for learning from a distance.

Led by Dr Lesieli Tongati’o, Tātai Angitu facilitators Misha Shamdass and Jacky Yoshioka-Braid created a bespoke PLD programme that was able to be delivered entirely online through Google Classroom, where teachers could engage with the PLD in their own time at a pace that suited them. The modulised course on blended learning was supplemented with readings, videos and tasks as well as a weekly Zoom session.

“Terrific” opportunities

Tim and Julianna Collier, New Zealand teachers from Gisborne who are teaching at Tereora College in Rarotonga, participated in the professional learning with teachers from other schools across the country.

Connecting with participants via Zoom, email and telephone, the Massey facilitators modelled the use of flexible digital technologies to teachers.

Juliana Collier working with Technology students in the new facilities at Tereora College.

“The opportunities this offers are terrific – little things happened that were special: like  seeing a colleague join a Zoom session for the very first time,” says Tim.

“Teachers are now starting to explore these ideas with their classes. The work with the PLD facilitators all took place online, using a range of different technology platforms and apps.”

A barrier to using technology in learning in the Cook Islands has been limited connectivity, but this is rapidly changing. Some of the islands, including Rarotonga and Aitutaki, have recently been connected to the world by an undersea internet cable, however, until visitors return to the islands, and commercial demand increases, there is not the speed needed to support the seamless use of IT in learning.

“The big thing about IT-infused learning is the readiness of the teachers. The PLD with Massey has helped contribute to this. Here we’ve been given the opportunity to get ahead,” explains Tim.

Tailored Support

Tātai Angitu tailored its support to meet the specific needs articulated by the schools.

Schools wanted support in a variety of areas, including transitioning to distance learning, lesson planning for NCEA subjects and levels, physical and emotional wellbeing, and leadership support.

Student Leaders conduct an assembly.
When it rains, the satellite internet connection is often lost, making distance learning challenging.

Pacific Realm countries offering the NCEA qualification were offered the same access to the PLD support that New Zealand schools received during the Covid-19 response, working with accredited New Zealand PLD facilitators who have expertise working with Pacific teachers and learners.

While Rarotonga has so far had no cases of Covid-19 and has not gone into lockdown, schools are better prepared now in case this does occur.

Copyright © New Zealand Ministry of Education. Republished with permission.

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