Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

Reading and literacy

Reading and literacy

Before 1877

The teaching of reading and education generally in New Zealand was sporadic and uneven in the first years of the 19th century. Samuel Marsden opened the first mission school for Māori in 1816 in the Bay of Islands, and before 1840 there were also Wesleyan and Catholic mission schools. C.L. Bailey in A Documentary History of New Zealand Education (1989) points out there were 'hordes' of children on the ships of the New Zealand company, 195 on the Bolton alone, with some desultory schooling but, though clergymen were given free passage for services rendered, schoolteachers were not.

Most schools were established by churches or private individuals and privately run and paid for. In the 1850s provincial governments were given responsibility for education, but only Nelson and Otago set up education systems, and in 1858 Nelson abolished fee-paying in favour of a household levy. Reading was dependent on the reading books used in Britain which were brought by settlers, and Hugh Price's essay 'Reading books and reading in New Zealand schools 1877-1900' (1987) notes the most widely used were the religious and didactic Irish National Readers. From 1867 New Zealand booksellers began to import the graded series of Royal Readers, published by Thomas Nelson of Edinburgh to meet the needs of the British Revised Code of 1862 which varied teachers' payment according to the examination success of their pupils. Parents were required to buy one reader per year, and promotion from class to class was based almost entirely on success in reading.

Demand for literacy among Māori was very strong in the early part of the 19th century. M.P.K. Sorrenson in 'Maori and Pakeha' in The Oxford History of New Zealand (1981, p.170) estimated that by 1845 about half of adult Māori could read a little in Māori. Readers for Māori speakers appeared very early: in 1815, A Korao no New Zealand or the New Zealander's First Book, a glossary and phrase book; Ratari, lists of phonetic sound groups in Māori and words in 1834; and from 1839 William Colenso printed a series of readers and lesson sheets in Māori at the Waimate Mission. Most of the Māori readers printed in the 1840s and 1850s were produced by mission presses.

He Puka Ako i te Korero Maori (1841) is a wordlist of South Island Māori compiled by James Watkin and He Korero Tara mo te Kura (1851) is a collection of fables. He Pukapuka Whakaako mo te Kura, printed at St. John's College in 1852, is a typical example of the mission-produced reader in Māori, opening with lists of vowels, then syllables, sentences, paragraphs and numbers. (A later edition (1870) added prayers and responses.) Colenso published Ko te A-Nui a Wi Hei Ako Maana ki te Reo Ingirihi or Willie's First English Book in 1872, a parallel text for learning English with graded lessons and vocabularies.

Teaching reading to Māori in English became standard practice in 1886 with The Native School Reader for Standards II and III, produced by the Government Printer, which consisted of 50 fables 'altered and in some cases localised so that they may be interesting to Maoris' (preface). The Native School Reader abounds with hortatory 'fables' which are colonising and assimilatory in intent. Kuni Jenkins's study of literacy as an agent of colonisation Becoming Literate—Becoming English (1993), discusses the earliest Māori manuscripts by Titere and Tuai (referred to in some sources as 'Tui'), young Ngāpuhi men who spent 1818 in England and recorded their reading lessons in English. Jenkins makes an important argument about the whole process of literacy as a coercive tool of colonisation.

Reports from the Inspectors of Native Schools published in the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR) from 1858 onwards sometimes provide very detailed information as to numbers of pupils, reading progress and texts used. Although administration of Native Schools was transferred to the Education Department in 1879, separate reports for Native Schools continue in AJHR through until 1953 (shoulder numbers vary, especially before 1882).

Education Act 1877

The Education Act 1877 provided for free, compulsory and secular education and began the standardisation of reading systems and readers, which are comprehensively discussed up to 1900 in Price (1987). The curriculum stressed reading and writing and graded children into six standards with corresponding readers. Reading was taught by the alphabetic method: exercises in letters and letter combinations, progressing from texts written in one and two-letter words to three-letter word texts, until whole paragraphs in small typeface were achieved. The reading texts were mostly moral tales written for British council schools and maintained class values and divisions. Most readers imply reading skills should be directed towards civic and moral duty such as H.O. Arnold-Forster's The Citizen Reader (1907), which set out to describe institutions and administration to New Zealand children in language they could understand. Approved Readers for the Catholic Schools of Australasia (1908) mixed approved excerpts from literary writers and clerics, and New Zealand Graphic Readers (Collins School Series) offered extracts from 'classic' writers such as Shakespeare and Addison together with Cook's journals and short descriptive pieces on New Zealand topics.

Department of Education Inspectors' reports published from 1880 on-wards in AJHR (H.1-I, 1880; E.1-B, 1881-1908) open a 'window on Victorian classrooms', especially the methods and most frequent problems and complaints encountered in teaching reading, one of which was the scarcity of reading books (Price, 1987, p.187). W.C. Hodgson's Inspector's report for the Marlborough Education Board (1888) puts the proportion of books to pupils in a class in Picton at 6:17.

The first mainstream reading books published in New Zealand were Whitcombe & Tombs's Southern Cross Readers (1886-87), followed by the Imperial Readers (1899) and the Pacific Readers series which began in 1911 and aimed 'to assist in fostering the growth of national and patriotic sentiments'. From 1911 to 1949 nearly all New Zealand children learned to read from locally written and published reading books— Live Readers for the Modern Child (1922) and Progressive Readers (1928), not replaced until 1949 by the Janet and John series which was based on an American original. Whitcombe & Tombs were the major publishers of reading materials for children, with one series after another. There was no comparable publisher in Australia and Whitcombe & Tombs's readers were also widely used there, with copies produced for each Australian state. Whitcombe & Tombs also produced Whitcombe's Story Books, a series which began in 1904 and included about 450 titles at its height in the late 1930s and early 1940s, by which time it was the biggest series of children's books in the world. Ian McLaren's bibliography Whitcombe's Story Books (1984) and its supplement (1987) is a comprehensive listing of the series which included many reprints of 'classic' texts. Before 1949 parents bought reading books directly, but with the advent of Janet and John came school sets, and a change in focus, shifting to descriptive tales of children's experience.

Basil Carryer's School in New Zealand in the Twenties (1991) gives an account of the reading methods and history of education in the 1920s, including school timetables, the date of the new syllabus and the opening of the Correspondence School in 1928.

Reading series and methods

There is no comprehensive account of the history of reading and reading methods in New Zealand after Price's 1987 essay, though Price himself has a work in progress on the history of reading books from 1900. However, the number of studies and papers on reading grows exponentially from the 1950s. Much of the research was initiated and funded by the Department (now Ministry) of Education and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). Hig[h]lights in Education 1816-1985 (1986) is a useful checklist of major events in education, and Roger Openshaw's 'Schooling in
B;ack and white photograph

Young readers at an unidentified Wellington kindergarten in the 1930s, observed by photographer Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew (1879?-1964). At least one scholar has her book upside down. In the late 1990s kindergartens are only one of a range of early childhood services which include the Māori language kōhanga reo, and Pacific Island language groups; in 1995 there were 3,823 services licensed by the Ministry of Education, of which 591 were kindergartens and 774 were kōhanga reo. (S.P. Andrew Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, reference number F-43544-1/2-)

the 50's and 60's' (1991) and Price's School Books Published in New Zealand to 1960 (1992) provide accounts of the materials and educational methods of those years. Price (1992) is a supplement to Bagnall's New Zealand National Bibliography to the year 1960 which excluded school textbooks; Price contains about 2,000 titles listed in chronological order under subject headings.

The production of reading materials has been a traditional activity of the Department/Ministry of Education dating back to before the 1920s; reading readiness has latterly been a focus of its research and publication. The School Journal, which began in 1907, has been a continuous source of reading material for schools. Provided free to every child monthly until the late 1950s, it is a mix of fiction and non-fiction produced by local writers and was accompanied (1948-80) by School Bulletins for primary and post-primary students, also published by the Department. In 1989 the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education was corporatised into Learning Media Ltd, which continues to produce the Journal and the Ready to Read series, as well as handbooks for teachers on reading and writing. Its School Journal Catalogue (1996) is a current index.

The Department of Education also produced guides for teachers to help them choose readers: Books for Infant Classes (1969), a checklist which gave the readers a rating; Books for Junior Classes (1978), now published every two years (the most recent in 1996), a classified guide to commercially-published material; Reading in Junior Classes (1991); and The Learner as a Reader (1996), which has a section on recent reading resources produced by the Ministry of Education.

Janet and John, which replaced Whitcombe's Progressive Readers series in 1949, used a combination of phonic analysis pre-reading and 'look and say' vocabulary learning, but the early issues were weak on narrative. (Run, John, Run: Watch, Janet, Watch, a study of sex-role stereotyping in infant readers was published in 1975, and Anne Else critiqued the sexism and racism of Janet and John readers in a paper given at the first annual conference of the History of the Book in New Zealand, Auckland, 1995.) Initially there were seven books accompanied by a handbook for teachers, but it was found they needed supplementing to reduce the steepness of the learning curve. In 1963 the Department of Education published the New Zealand-centred Ready to Read series of 12 little and six big books. The Ready to Read series produces new titles every year and is issued to all New Zealand schools with junior classes; support materials include An Introduction to Ready to Read (1993).

At the invitation of the Department of Education, a number of publishers also began publishing supplementary little book series in the 1960s: Reed's Read it Yourself books and the Environmental readers, Paul's Book Arcade Playtime readers, Whitcombe and Tombs's Step Along Stories, and Price Milburn. Price Milburn's 32 PM Supplementary Readers were published 1963-65 and followed the same graded colour covers and vocabularies as Ready to Read. In 1968 Price Milburn began to export to America and Britain. The books were revised in 1969 and included in the long-running series PM Story Readers, many of them written by Beverley Randell, one of the best known and most prolific writers of story readers for children. Hugh Price's Beverley Randell: A Checklist of Children's Books Written by Her, 1955-1995 (1996) indicates the scope of her writing and the series of children's books available.

Shortland introduced the Story Box series for five- to eight-year-olds to New Zealand schools in 1978 and started exporting them in 1979. Many of the readers were written by Joy Cowley, the well-known novelist. Wendy Pye's reading scheme Jellybeans (for the parent market) began in 1985 and contains about 200 titles, again many written by already well-known writers like Cowley and Margaret Mahy. A number of more recent issues have also come out in Māori translations. Pye's export of school readers to Europe and the US has been phenomenally successful and she has also been the first publisher in the world to successfully market an educational reading scheme on video. Thomas Nelson took over from Price Milburn and produces picture books and other early reading material. In 1997 Learning Media expanded into the United States, introducing two new children's programmes—Learning Media Literacy and Learning Media Professional—with 140 New Zealand children's books and materials adapted for the American market.

Teaching reading

Since 1963 New Zealand teachers have been members of the International Reading Association and the proceedings of the annual conferences of the New Zealand Reading Association (NZRA) are a useful account of reading practices, materials and research from 1970.

English in the New Zealand Curriculum is the Ministry of Education's policy document which sets out the reading objectives of the curriculum. Literacy is regarded as a reciprocal relation between reading and writing in New Zealand and there are two teachers' handbooks which accompany the policy— Dancing with The Pen: The Learner as a Writer (1992) and The Learner as a Reader: Developing Reading Programmes (1996), which contains a helpful bibliography of resources and discusses the conceptual thinking behind the teaching of reading.

The work of Dorothy Neal White and Dorothy Butler stresses the importance of books to small children. White's Books Before Five (1954) is based on a reading diary White kept of her daughter Carol's response to and interest in books with suggestions for parents. Butler's Babies Need Books (1980) discusses introducing books to babies and includes booklists by age group, as does its sequel Five to Eight (1986), a manual for parents on how to read and interact with children about books. Cushla and her Books (1979) is a case study of Butler's handicapped granddaughter and her relation with books, based on a reading diary kept by her mother, and also provides biographical information on the way Cushla learned to read.

The progress of children learning to read is monitored by teachers administering the PAT (progressive achievement) tests developed in the late 1960s, explained in Warwick Elley and Neil Reid's Progressive Achievement Tests (1969). The realisation that little was known about how small children interact and learn in the classroom led to the pioneering Reading Recovery work of Dame Marie Clay and the development of the Reading Recovery programme. Clay's Reading: The Patterning of Complex Behaviour (1972) and The Early Detection of Reading Difficulties (1979a) discuss the processes and procedures of reading readiness, including a diagnostic survey and Reading Recovery. Clay's work has been very influential internationally and there are many studies of reading which refer to or use her work. Courtney B. Cazden's Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the United States and New Zealand (1992) describes her seven trips to New Zealand from 1983 to 1991 in order to pursue a research project in Reading Recovery based on Clay's research (1979b, 1993).

There is a great deal of research on reading acquisition, Reading Recovery and reading readiness in education publications. Elley's Assessing the Difficulty of Reading Materials (1975) addresses the whole word method; he is the author of numerous studies on the teaching of reading including Lessons Learned From LARIC (1988). Learning Media's The Learner as a Reader (1996) surveys the field of theoretical writing in recent years and provides some historical account of the teaching of reading in the last two decades. There are also useful bibliographies and discussion of recent developments in Tom Nicholson's Overcoming the Matthew Effect (1991) and At the Cutting Edge (1994). There is a bibliography of New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) publications 1934-84 (Marland and Pickens, 1985) but no bibliography of Department of Education publications.


Hans Wagemaker's Achievement in Reading Literacy (1993) is a comprehensive breakdown of the reading achievement of a group of 9- and 14-year-old readers undertaken as part of an international Unesco survey which discusses the factors influencing reading achievement and puts New Zealand's overall performance in an international context. A commentary on the survey is offered in Comprehending the Recent IEA Reading Literacy Survey (NZEI, 1993) which discusses the high correlation between a country's reading achievement and economic indicators. Ministry of Education reports such as Boyd and Bennie's A Summary of Reading Recovery Data (1989), and Henson's Reading in the Middle and Upper Primary School (1991), and the Research Bulletin produced by the Ministry of Education provide continuing information on reading achievement.

Janet Maconie's Survey of Teenage Reading in New Zealand, published for the 1969 New Zealand Library and Book Week, surveys the reading habits of fourth formers and the availability of reading resources for teenagers. A community reading survey carried out in Levin in 1978 published by the New Zealand Book Council (Kate Fortune, 1982) revealed the community percentage of what the study described as 'heavy readers' and provided rare information on reading habits. Monthly publications like the Booksellers News (1988- ) or the quarterly Booknotes, newsletter of the New Zealand Book Council, provide a record of bestseller lists, book events and some indication of readerships.

Adult literacy was not publicly recognised as a problem in New Zealand until the early 1970s when organised literacy programmes were developed. Kathleen Hill's From This Fragile Web (1990) is an informal history of the Adult Literacy Movement in New Zealand, which began in Hawkes Bay in 1974 with the Hawkes Bay Adult New Readers Programme. John Benseman's Taking Control Over Their Own Lives (1989) is a study of the Auckland Literacy Scheme and a history of ARLA, the Adult Reading and Learning Assistance Federation. Benseman points out there is very little research on adult literacy in New Zealand and includes a useful discussion of available research work. An NZCER survey A Job-Related Survey Among Electric Power Board Workers (1983) looks at workplace literacy, as does Literacy At Work (1993), which is a joint ARLA/Fletcher Challenge project surveying literacy in 17 companies from a number of different industries in the Fletcher Challenge group. Angela Irwin's study for the Department of Education The Literacy Needs of Access Students (1988) and A.D. Mudford's Literacy Survey of Prison Inmates (1993) also focus on the literacy of particular groups.

In 1988 the Caxton Press published Michael's Challenge Overcoming Illiteracy by Michael Marquet, an autobiographical account of the author's speech and learning difficulties and achievement of literacy in the Christchurch Adult Reading Scheme. Marquet's book won the Unesco Literacy Award for 1988 and was followed by a fuller account including his trip to Paris to receive the award, Literacy My Prize (1991). It is estimated there are 50,000-100,000 adult New Zealanders with literacy problems. Unesco continues to be involved with literacy work in New Zealand, publishing papers on progress in literacy and supporting conferences. In 1990, International Literacy Year, Unesco supported the International Literacy Year hui on Māori and Pacific Island issues in literacy and the 17th NZRA conference Nurture the Culture in the same year published a variety of papers on literacy and had as its keynote speakers Dame Marie Clay and Leanna Traill on 'Educational Culture: Aotearoa'. Literacy issues are also of interest to economists. Ian Livingstone's Literacies, Numeracies and Scientific Understandings (1994) discusses the relation between education and economic growth.

Te Reo and literacy programmes for Māori

One of the initiatives of the Tū Tangata philosophy of the Department of Maori Affairs in the late 1970s was the establishment of the Te Kōhanga Reo movement in 1977. The primary aim of Te Kōhanga Reo is to encourage and increase the development of Māori spoken language but they also begin pre-reading skills with picture cards and stories in Māori. The consequence of success in Te Kōhanga Reo and continuing education in Māori has been a huge increase in Māori text picture books, school readers and educational books generally. One of the most important changes in education generally and specifically teaching reading has been the development of Te Reo Māori, and there are now over 60 titles in the He Purapura series of readers for five- to eight-year-olds; some of the Ready to Read series have been translated into Māori, and there are also the He Kohikohinga series for older students; Ngā Kōrero which are stories from the School Journal translated into Māori and Ngā Tamariki Iti o Aotearoa, books designed to be read to young children. These series are all produced by Learning Media and are listed in a handbook Te Reo Māori Resources (1993). (Learning Media has also produced reading materials in Samoan and other Pacific Island languages which are discussed in more detail in the following chapter.)

Literacy among Māori children prompted the development of the Reading Tutoring Programme documented in Pause, Prompt, Praise (Atvars, Berryman and Glynn, 1995), a trial project implemented by Māori for Māori in the Tauranga area. Surveys like Wagemaker (1993) highlight the comparatively
Black and white photograph

Few details are known about this late 19th-century photograph, except that it was taken by the photographer Edward George Child (fl. 1894-1901), probably in the Ōhingaiti-Rangitīkei area, southwest of Taihape. Work began in the late 1880s on clearing the heavy bush in this rugged part of the country, to which access was improved by the opening of the main trunk railway in 1904. (Edward Child Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, reference number G-32338-1/2-)

poor performance of Māori and Polynesian children in reading achievement and there are as yet no PAT tests for children learning reading in Māori. Children's reading achievement in Māori is discussed in Kōhanga Reo Let's Celebrate (1992). Māori Literacy and Numeracy (Irwin, Davies and Harre Hindmarsh, 1995) puts Māori literacy generally into the context of colonial and post-colonial political and discursive processes and discusses the collision of an oral tradition with the world of literacy.


The huge quantity of material on the teaching of reading cannot be adequately covered in this survey but even a preliminary indication of its extent draws attention to the importance of literacy in New Zealand's colonial and post-colonial culture; the ways in which literacy is both the first ground and an active factor in discourses as widely spread as colonisation, imperial history, pedagogy, economics, cognitive development and gender; its role in the conflict between an oral and a print culture; and to the development of reading materials and methods in New Zealand that are internationally recognised and imitated. The teaching of reading and the place of literacy are significant emphases in New Zealand cultural history.