Behind the Better Start Literacy Approach – Professor Gail Gillon

Issue: Volume 100, Number 2

Posted: 25 February 2021
Reference #: 1HAHJ6

The Better Start Literacy Approach is an integrated approach to teaching and assessing phonological awareness, vocabulary, listening, spelling, writing and reading skills in the first year of learning. It was developed by the University of Canterbury and is based on years of research and work, including trials in Canterbury and Auckland schools. Here, Professor Gail Gillon discusses the background to the Better Start Literacy Approach.

New Zealand, like many countries in the world, has educational inequities that we are working hard to eliminate. We know early literacy success is a powerful protective factor and leads to lifelong education, health and economic advantages. Change is needed however, at a systems level to ensure literacy success for all.

The factors that lead to educational inequities are complex. A multifaceted approach is therefore necessary if we are to achieve sustained improvements in children’s literacy outcomes that can result in intergenerational benefits.

New approach needed

We developed a Better Start Literacy Approach as one aspect of the change that is necessary for improved longer-term literacy outcomes. The approach is based on findings from our previous successful phonological awareness and oral language intervention studies here in New Zealand, together with robust international research findings.

The approach incorporates research related to culturally responsive practices and knowledge of facilitators of success for Māori, as well as findings from the Pacific Islands Family Study (AUT Pacific Health Research Centre).

Strengths-based framework

Central to the Better Start Literacy Approach is a strengths-based framework focusing on what children can achieve and then identifying their next steps for learning. We advocate for a collaborative approach with literacy specialists, teachers, and whānau working together to enhance children’s early literacy success.

 While Professor Brigid McNeill and I have led the development of the Better Start Literacy Approach, it has involved a talented team of researchers from Canterbury, Otago and Auckland Universities, advisors including Professors Angus and Sonja Macfarlane, Tufulasi Taleni, Mel Tainui (University of Canterbury), Professors Bill Tunmer and James Chapman (Massey University), as well as international advisors.

Many aspects of the approach were co-constructed with class teachers and we have continued to improve and adapt the approach over the last five years based on teachers’, whānau and children’s feedback.

Successful pilot

We successfully piloted the Better Start Literacy Approach in seven lower decile schools in Christchurch as part of the ‘A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea’ National Science Challenge (2015-19), funded by MBIE and hosted at the Liggins Institute, University of Auckland.

The approach proved successful in significantly accelerating phonological awareness, vocabulary knowledge, word reading and spelling in 5- to 6-year-old children, compared with other types of early literacy instruction.

The approach proved particularly useful for children entering school with lower levels of oral language. Improvements were evident for all genders and ethnicities and the skills of tamariki who identified as Māori or Pacific Island (45.5 per cent of the cohort) improved in similar ways to children who identified as New Zealand European. 

Importantly, the trials showed that, using a response to intervention framework where children’s progress is carefully monitored and where class teachers are provided with appropriate levels of support, we can significantly increase the number of children succeeding in their early reading and writing attempts.

Replicating findings

We have now replicated these early findings with a range of new entrant/Year 1 classrooms in Christchurch and Auckland schools through the Ministry’s Innovative Foundational Learning contract.

The approach includes a range of class and small group activities as well as whānau workshops. We have now embedded the new Ready to Read Phonics Plus series into the approach. This is a great addition to help children apply their growing phonological awareness and vocabulary knowledge into the connected text reading process.

The Better Start Literacy Approach also includes novel online monitoring assessments in phonological awareness, oral language (children retelling a story), word reading as well as spelling and connected text reading. The assessments provide teachers with detailed data to celebrate with whānau children’s progress as well as identify next steps for learning.

Micro-credentials developed

Micro-credential online courses have been developed to support literacy specialists, teachers and teacher aides implement the Better Start Literacy Approach.

Details can be found by searching Better Start Literacy Approach on the University of Canterbury website(external link). Applications for funding for these courses can be made through the Ministry of Education PLD website(external link).

Professor Gail Gillon is Director of the Child Well-being Research Institute, Te Kāhui Pā Harakeke, University of Canterbury and Deputy Director of the ‘A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea’ National Science Challenge, Liggins Institute, University of Auckland.

Better start literacy approach 

The Better Start Literacy Approach(external link) is an integrated classroom literacy programme for Year 0-1 classrooms to support children’s early reading, writing and oral language success.

It incorporates vocabulary development using quality children’s story books, structured teaching of critical phonological awareness skills and letter-sound knowledge through fun and game-based activities, activities making explicit links to the reading and spelling context, and structured small group reading sessions using the new Ready to Read Phonics Plus texts.

The Better Start Literacy Approach follows a phonics scope and sequence that is used in the class and small group reading sessions.

Micro-credential online course 

Micro-credentials(external link) are designed as high quality, easily accessible, short courses of learning to meet an identified practice need. In many instances universities are designing micro-credentials to support practitioners to gain credit towards further formal qualifications, such as postgraduate certificates if learners wish to pursue further study at a later date.

There are many benefits to the use of micro-credentials to support professionals in their work-based practices. In particular, the Covid-19 situation is intensifying the need for flexible, online, easily accessible learning modules suitable for practitioners in busy work situations or working from home environments.

Reading recovery evaluation 

This report(external link) presents a summative process and outcome evaluation of Reading Recovery in New Zealand. An overview of the findings, evaluative judgements and considerations is presented in Section 4. This evaluation was a rapid review conducted from April to July 2019. There was insufficient data available to support an economic evaluation at that time.

Early literacy research project 

The purpose of this longitudinal research project(external link) was to improve the literacy outcomes of new entrant children during, and beyond, their first year of school. Through a series of training workshops and associated materials, teachers were assisted to identify and respond to the specific literacy needs of children. The workshops provided teachers with the knowledge and skills to adopt explicit and systematic word-decoding teaching strategies in their literacy instruction.

The Ministry is providing a phased approach to professional support using the Ready to Read Phonics Plus Texts. The first cohort is now underway but if you think your school would be interested in taking part in term 3, look out for further information in the School Bulletin, Literacy Online and social media with details about how to apply during term 2, 2021.

For more information on the Better Start Literacy Approach trials, see here: 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:22 am, 25 February 2021

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts