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Teenagers struggle with literacy and numeracy standards (Image: RNZ/123RF)
Teenagers struggle with literacy and numeracy standards (Image: RNZ/123RF)

The BulletinApril 27, 2022

Full stops not failproof for kids

Teenagers struggle with literacy and numeracy standards (Image: RNZ/123RF)
Teenagers struggle with literacy and numeracy standards (Image: RNZ/123RF)

A new report shows teenagers could fail on new numeracy and literacy standards, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell in The Bulletin.


Lack of success punctuates early testing 

A report from John Gerritsen at RNZ reveals many teenagers can not write “without intrusive spelling, punctuation and grammar errors” and would fail new and compulsory NCEA standards. In initial testing done last year, kids failed the standards if they didn’t know how to use full stops or that there are 60 minutes in an hour. The standards were introduced after the Tertiary Education Commission found 40% of teens with NCEA level 2 failed a basic adult literacy and numeracy test. Concern was raised in 2020 about the standards being too tough. Vaughan Couillault, president of the Secondary Principals’ Association, said it was a worry but that Covid-19 disruptions may have been a factor.

The case for concern 

Gerritsen’s report follows growing concerns about declining literacy rates in New Zealand. A report from education think tank Education Hub in late March suggested the education system was failing too many kids. It drew on multiple studies to reveal that one in five 15-year-olds are not meeting the lowest benchmark for reading and 20% are achieving only at the most basic level. In 2020 Unicef reported that only 64.4% of 15-year-olds in New Zealand have more than a basic proficiency in reading and maths, leaving over a third struggling to read and write.

New strategies launched in late March

Stuart McNaughton, a professor of curriculum and pedagogy at the University of Auckland, has written about why literacy rates might be in decline. McNaughton talks about curriculum and assessment changes and social media, although confirms that research has not turned up strong causal link there. Shortly after the Education Hub report was released, education minister Chris Hipkins said “a whole system change” was required. The government launched new strategies focused on literacy, maths and communications in late March which were welcomed by teachers.

Does a feature of text messaging provide one logical explanation?  

Concerns about literacy and numeracy standards can spark moral panic about things like screen time, just as books sparked moral panic in the 19th century. Literacy is undoubtedly vital, especially in a society that places huge significance on the written word to communicate, but language evolves. Kids take better photos than their parents ever could. This New York Times article explains why young people don’t use full stops at the end of their text messages – each message has its own “bubble” so it’s clear the message has ended. It could go some way towards explaining why kids might fail an NCEA standard over a full stop.

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