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Medal win for team behind pioneering children’s literacy project

06 November 2023

A Canterbury team of researchers has been honoured for an innovative approach to literacy that has so far helped more than 45,000 Kiwi children learn to read and write.


Since its introduction in February 2020, the Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) has been adopted in more than 850 schools - nearly half of all New Zealand state primary schools - and been taught by over 3650 junior class teachers and literacy specialists.

This structured literacy approach, designed for five to seven-year-olds, has been developed by a Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) Child Well-Being Research Institute team; led by Professor Gail Gillon (Ngāi Tahu) and Professor Brigid McNeill, and including Associate Professor Alison Arrow and Dr Amy Scott.

The group has been awarded the 2023 University of Canterbury Innovation Medal in recognition of the transformative impact of their work developing the BSLA and their success in using evidence-based research to boost children’s skills in reading, writing and oral language.

SDG 4 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 - Quality Education.

Professor Gillon, who is Director of the UC Child Well-being Research Institute, says the award is great recognition of the team’s efforts. “We feel very proud of the level of scale that the Better Start Literacy Approach has reached across the country. It’s based on years of our research, and the transformation of science into practice to uplift children’s early reading and writing success is truly rewarding.

“What we see from the data for over 45,000 children is how quickly they are responding to this approach. Our junior school teachers are doing an incredible job at implementing the BSLA in their schools.

“The speed at which children are developing critical foundation skills through our approach is absolutely amazing. We get continuous positive feedback from parents and teachers about how well it’s working.”

Professor Gillon says when children succeed in reading and writing early in their lives it has a long-term positive impact on their educational achievement which is, in turn, linked to health and economic advantages later in life.

The BSLA is the first culturally responsive approach to early literacy in New Zealand that uses structured literacy teaching principles. Its development has been guided by leaders in Māori and Pacific education including UC Emeritus Professor of Māori Research Angus Hikairo Macfarlane and Pasifika Education Senior Lecturer Tufulasi Taleni.

The Ready to Read - Phonics Plus early readers book series, which is an integral part of the BSLA, incorporates Māori and Pacific themes, language, and cultural elements, boosting its inclusivity.

“The BSLA has been developed specifically for the New Zealand educational and cultural context which makes it very unique,” Professor Gillon says. “When tamariki read the books they see characters that look like them and the landscapes reflect the New Zealand context.”

The approach is proving effective for students across the board, including those who are learning English as a second language, children in lower decile schools, and for Māori and Pacific early readers, which is helping to address literacy disparities, she says. 

“It is particularly exciting to see data showing young Māori and Pasifika learners making accelerated progress in their early literacy skills.”

Professor McNeill says the impact of the programme is reflected in data showing that for every $1 invested in implementing the approach around the country, it delivers $38 in measurable good to New Zealand society.

The BSLA started as a trial (2016-2019) in the Better Start National Science Challenge. Positive results from the research trials meant it quickly progressed to a nationally funded implementation project in 2020 with $15 million in Ministry of Education funding.

Professor Gillon says while the medal-winning group is small, they’ve been supported by a much wider team of researchers, practitioners and cultural advisors. “We are grateful for the immense support we’ve received from our school communities who are successfully implementing BSLA around the country.”

About the BSLA (Te Ara Reo Matatini): 

  • The approach uses structured literacy teaching principles for both large group activities as well as small group reading instruction. It focuses on teaching essential phonics, phonological awareness and vocabulary and oral narrative skills for children in Year 0 to Year 2.
  • The BSLA introduced the first online assessment platform in Aotearoa New Zealand, allowing teachers to monitor five and six-year-old children's early literacy development.
  • The approach has also pioneered the use of online professional development using ‘micro-credential’ courses to upskill junior school class teachers around the country.
  • The reading series Ready to Read Phonics Plus, created as an integral part of BSLA, includes 64 readers published by the Ministry of Education and provided free to every public school in Aotearoa New Zealand.
  • The approach has a strong whānau engagement strategy, with resources provided to support teachers in this process, including workshop materials.
  • Assessment data collected through BSLA has found significantly accelerated growth in students’ foundational literacy skills compared to children of the same age who have not received BSLA instruction. Growth relative to baseline skills at school entry is particularly high for Māori and Pasifika children.

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