Ready to Read turns 50

Issue: Volume 93, Number 3

Posted: 24 February 2014
Reference #: 1H9ctj

One of our most treasured literacy cornerstones, the Ready to Read series, turned 50 last year. The continuing importance of this key instructional series has been commemorated by the re-publication of Margaret Mahy’s 1982 Ready to Read story, 'The Crocodile’s Christmas Jandals' as a big book.

Ready to Read was first published in 1963 by the School Publications branch of the Department of Education. At that time, the series led the world in effective materials for teaching young readers. The programme was the first to recognise the importance of using meaningful stories that reflected the lives of their audience.

A quote from a 1961 government publication reflects the thinking about reading at the time:

"At all levels the ability to read is more than being able to recognise words. It is also the capacity to respond with imagination and with appropriate feeling to the experiences books can give." (Suggestions for Teaching English in the Primary School, 1961)

There is much to admire in this statement. But we now have the benefit of 50 further years of research into reading, much of it by New Zealanders, and so our understandings are much more exact.

Ready to Read has always been informed by research about literacy learning. The series has been the foundation of early literacy teaching in New Zealand since its inception and remains the core instructional reading series for students in Years 1 to 3.

A brief history

The first Ready to Read books were launched at “teacher refresher” courses across New Zealand in January 1963. There were twelve simple stories and six longer anthologies.

The books were unique because they used natural language. Although common words and sentence structures were introduced gradually, there was none of the contrived and limited text of earlier readers, such as the Janet and John series. Using natural language and authentic contexts helped to ensure that stories were interesting and engaging for children.

During the late 1960s and early 70s, as New Zealand society changed, it became apparent that some of the original Ready to Read texts were becoming dated. Many felt that gender roles within the stories should be re-examined – girls tended to be less involved in the action than boys. There also needed to be greater cultural diversity within the stories, and some illustrations were obviously out of date.

In response to these concerns, the Department of Education published a whole new set of Ready to Read texts, from 1982 to 1988. The earlier texts had been written by teachers. Now stories from free-lance contributors began to emerge. This led to two giants of children’s literature, Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley – already at the time prolific contributors to the School Journal – playing a major role in the reshaping of the series.

In addition to The Crocodile’s Christmas Jandals, Margaret Mahy was responsible for some of Ready to Read’s most iconic texts, including Giant Soup and Fantail, Fantail. Joy Cowley’s I’m the King of the Mountain, Number One, and the much-loved Greedy Cat stories are also among the most treasured of the series. The success of such texts is also due in no small measure to the magical work by illustrators such as Jill McDonald, Dick Frizzell, and Robyn Belton.

Also introduced in 1982 was the colour wheel, which provides guidance on the reading level of each story and supports teachers to select appropriate texts for their students. Changes in thinking about teaching approaches and text levelling mean there are slight variations in the colour wheel’s appearance between earlier and more recent books.

During the 1990s and 2000s, new texts for guided reading were regularly added to Ready to Read. In addition, each year some guided texts were also produced as big books for shared reading. Now, in recognition of the fact that shared reading and guided reading provide two separate pathways to independence in reading, guided reading books are no longer produced in big book format. Big books are now specifically designed as shared reading texts. They have particular literary qualities and memorable language and offer a rich literary experience above the level that learners can initially access by themselves. There has also been a strong focus on developing texts to meet the needs of culturally diverse learners.

Ready to Read now provides numerous texts for guided reading, many enlarged texts for shared reading, audio recordings and teacher support materials for every text, and a comprehensive website on Literacy Online.

Review and improvement

Ready to Read is regularly reviewed to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of New Zealand children. During these reviews, the publishers work with practitioners and leading New Zealand literacy educators and researchers to ensure the series is underpinned by sound theory and literacy knowledge.

As part of an ongoing review, levelling tools for Ready to Read editors have been revised. The use of this levelling tool has meant that a small number of texts have been assigned to different colour wheel levels that more accurately reflect the demands of the texts. There have also been some changes in the colour wheel sub-levels for some texts. A list of the levelling changes was included in the Happy 50th Birthday flyer sent to schools in December 2013 and schools will soon receive replacement copies of the texts that have changed colour wheel levels. None of the changes will significantly affect classroom programmes, but teachers will need to be aware of how to position the texts differently in their use of the series.

After 50 years, Ready to Read continues to evolve to reflect current research and thinking. Its latest review has confirmed its suitability and unique identity as the core instructional series for New Zealand students in Years 1–3. In the years to come, ongoing reviews will continue to improve the series and to clarify the specific roles of its various components – in supporting children to become confident, capable and independent readers.

If you have any questions about recent developments in Ready to Read, please email This service will be available until 11 April 2014.

Details about the new levelling tools will be provided in Curriculum Update 28 in an upcoming Education Gazette.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:42 am, 24 February 2014

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