An innovative research-based approach to how New Zealand children are taught to read – developed with funding from A Better Start National Science Challenge – is to be extended across the country with a $10 million Ministry of Education contract.

The Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA), led by A Better Start’s deputy director Gail Gillon and Successful Learning theme leader Professor Brigid McNeill, is being rolled out this year to over 1000 new entrant/Year 1 teachers and literacy specialists around New Zealand.

BSLA builds on research-based evidence about the most effective methods to teach children letter-sound knowledge, phonological awareness, vocabulary, oral language, reading and spelling. The approach uses quality children’s story books and fun, game-based phoneme awareness activities to build these critical foundational skills.

The $10m funding over the next two years will support the upskilling of approximately 5000 teachers and literacy specialists through new University of Canterbury micro-credential professional development qualifications.

Professors Gail Gillon and Brigid McNeill have led the development of the Better Start Literacy Approach over several years. It’s success in developing children’s oral language, early reading and writing ability has been proven through controlled research trials as part of A Better Start National Science Challenge.

Professor Gillon welcomes the new funding saying it will help lift the literacy skills of more than 70,000 children by 2023.

“It’s very exciting to be able to extend the impact of our research into improving literacy outcomes for young tamariki right across New Zealand,” says Professor Gillon, who is also a Deputy Director for A Better Start.

“This is a very significant enhancement to New Zealand’s current early literacy curriculum. We know that we need a more systematic and science-based approach to early literacy teaching to help reduce current educational inequities.”

An independent report, produced by Wellington-based analytical firm ImpactLab, forecast that every dollar invested in the Better Start Literacy Approach will result in $30.71 of measurable good being returned to New Zealand once the approach is fully rolled out. This takes into account the association between improving reading outcomes and increasing academic achievement, obtaining employment, improving mental health and reducing risky behaviour and offending.

“We want all children to experience early reading success,” Professor Gillon says. “Early reading success in turns sets up a positive cycle and leads to stronger educational achievement and healthy well-being.”

Professor McNeill says the Better Start Literacy Approach is strengths-based and supports teachers to engage in positive ways with children’s whānau.

“We know how important children’s whānau are to children’s learning and well-being so the Better Start Literacy Approach includes workshops for whānau to help them support their children’s reading development,” Professor McNeill says.

Central to the Better Start Literacy Approach is the Ready to Read – Phonics Plus early readers, developed by the UC research team and recently published by the Ministry of Education as part of its new Early Literacy Approach.

Professor Gillon says the Better Start Literacy Approach and the new readers have been specifically designed and developed for children in New Zealand.

“The new Ready to Read Phonics Plus books and activities have a distinctive New Zealand character that tamariki can relate to in their learning.”


  • Courtesy of the University of Canterbury
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