Children enter school with very large differences in early literacy-related experiences and language competencies (literate cultural capital) and these differences have a strong influence on learning to read and write at school. Research also suggests that the learning environments contribute to this variability (Gilmore, 1998; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998; Tunmer, Chapman & Prochnow, 2003; Tunmer, Prochnow, Greaney & Chapman, 2007). Furthermore, the longer it takes to identify and remediate these literacy problems in school, the more costly and difficult it becomes later. For this reason it is important that schools have early identification procedures (including relevant and effective intervention strategies) available soon after children enter school, in order to avoid later literacy-related learning difficulties.
There are many positive aspects about the way reading is taught in the first two years of school in New Zealand. Many of these positive aspects were discussed in the recent Education Review Office (ERO) report Reading and Writing in Years 1 and 2 (2009). However, there are also some problematic issues that have continued to act as barriers to advancement particularly in relation to attempts at closing the literacy (under)achievement gap that consistently manifests itself in the international literacy surveys such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Although New Zealand has a centralised education system and follows a national curriculum, there is a widening achievement gap between the top readers and those at the 'tail end' of the achievement spectrum. While there has been much international scientific-based research over the past three decades investigating the causes of low reading achievement, there has been (and continues to be) a Ministry of Education reluctance to accept many of the findings from this research to inform instructional policies particularly for those students who show early literacy learning difficulties. One example of this reluctance is the ministry's unwillingness to accept that the national multi-million dollar Reading Recovery (RR) program has failed to make any significant impact on closing the literacy achievement gap. In fact since the introduction of RR in the early 1980s, the literacy achievement gap in New Zealand has continued to widen (Greaney, 2004; Tunmer & Chapman, 2004a; Chapman, Greaney & Tunmer, 2007; Tunmer et al. 2007). This is ironic given that RR was initially designed to address the early literacy difficulties of the very students who later form the basis of the literacy achievement gap statistics. If schools require state-funded assistance for students with reading difficulties after one year at school it appears that RR is currently the only 'program of choice' for this group. Furthermore, the Observation Survey assessment tool designed for RR is now also accepted as the benchmark assessment for measuring the literacy progress of 6-year-olds after one year at school.
Review of the Literature
Children from low-income backgrounds are particularly susceptible to early reading difficulties because they often lack the necessary preschool exposure to the literacy experiences that promote the development of literate cultural capital (Blachman, 2000, Hart & Risely, 1995, Nicholson, 2003).
On three measure of literate cultural capital used in the PIRLS study (Mullis, Martin, Gonzales & Kennedy, 2003) that included, Early Home Reading Activities, Index of Home Education Resources and Parent's Attitudes Towards Reading, it was shown that the percentage of New Zealand children who fell into the highest category was high but the difference in future reading achievement between students in the high and low categories was also very large compared to most other countries. Furthermore, it has been argued that this difference in reading performance between the high
and low groups may also be attributed to the New Zealand reading approach used in most primary schools. …