All Graduates
All Graduates | 22 Jun 2024

New Zealand is a multicultural society with a rich diversity of languages and cultures. This diversity brings both opportunities and challenges in terms of literacy, as non-native English speakers may face language barriers and varying levels of literacy.

Literacy is a fundamental skill that enables individuals to fully participate in society and access opportunities for personal and professional growth. However, many non-English speakers in New Zealand face significant challenges when it comes to achieving proficient literacy levels. 

According to the 2014-2015 Survey of Adult Skills, approximately one in five New Zealand adults, or 20%, demonstrated low literacy skills. While New Zealand has a generally well-educated population, there are still significant literacy challenges. Approximately one in five New Zealanders is operating at a highly effective level of literacy, while the majority of Māori, Pacific Islands people, and other ethnic minority groups are functioning below the required level of competence.

In New Zealand, literacy is understood as more than just the ability to read and write. It encompasses a broad set of skills including reading, writing, speaking, listening, and critical thinking. The scope of literacy in New Zealand is aligned with the needs of a modern, diverse, and multicultural society.

All Graduates - Scope of Literacy in New Zealand
In this article, we will explore the far-reaching consequences of poor literacy on individuals from non-English speaking backgrounds in New Zealand, shedding light on the challenges they face and the initiatives in place to address this issue.

Importance of Literacy for Non-English Speaking Backgrounds in New Zealand

Literacy holds a vital role for immigrants in New Zealand, as it does for all members of society. The significance of literacy for immigrants in New Zealand becomes evident through various compelling factors:

Importance of Literacy for Non-English Speaking Backgrounds in New Zealand

High Proficiency Among Foreign-Language Immigrants

Immigrants who speak languages other than English tend to excel in literacy and numeracy, surpassing the proficiency levels of native-born New Zealanders. This group stands out as one of the most highly proficient immigrant populations across OECD countries.

Importance of English Proficiency

The Office of Ethnic Affairs underlined the importance of migrants acquiring English proficiency, even if they require interpreters to access services, emphasizing the role of language as a tool for integration.

Established Immigrants’ Proficiency

Established immigrants in New Zealand tend to possess higher literacy and numeracy skills than recent immigrants. Moreover, they constitute a larger segment of the highly skilled population, showcasing their valuable contribution to the country.

Access to Education and Employment

Literacy is a cornerstone for immigrants to access education, secure employment, and utilize various services in New Zealand. It is essential for achieving integration into society and realizing personal goals.

Economic and Career Prospects

Literacy rates significantly influence the economic and career prospects of young individuals leaving school. Fundamental skills such as literacy and numeracy are pivotal for entering the productive economy, and a lack of these skills can pose considerable challenges in career development.

The Challenges Faced by Non-English Speakers

Non-English speakers in New Zealand face a range of specific literacy challenges that impact their ability to fully participate in society. These challenges include:

Language Barriers

Non-English speakers often struggle with understanding and using English, which is the primary language of instruction and communication in New Zealand. This affects their ability to comprehend educational materials, engage in classroom activities, and access essential services.

All Graduates - Case Study - Syrian Family - Language Barrier

Limited Access to Bilingual Resources

There is often a lack of educational resources available in languages other than English, making it difficult for non-English speakers to learn in their native language while acquiring English skills.

Cultural Differences in Educational Practices

Different cultural backgrounds can lead to variations in educational expectations and practices. For example, non-English speaking students may come from educational systems with different teaching methods, classroom behaviours, and parental involvement norms, which can affect their adaptation to New Zealand’s educational environment.

Socioeconomic Disadvantages

Non-English speaking immigrants and refugees often face economic hardships, which can limit access to educational opportunities, quality schooling, and learning resources. Economic pressures may also require children and adults to prioritise work over education.

All Graduates - Case Study - Chinese International Student - Language Barrier

Lack of Support Services

Insufficient language support services, such as English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, tutoring, and translation services, hinder the ability of non-English speakers to improve their literacy skills.

Cultural, Educational, and Social Barriers to Improving Literacy

Cultural Barriers

Cultural differences can create misunderstandings and miscommunications in educational settings. Non-English speaking students may have different learning styles and may not participate actively in class discussions, which can be misinterpreted as a lack of interest or ability.

Additionally, cultural norms regarding the role of education and family involvement can affect how literacy development is supported at home.

Educational Barriers

The New Zealand education system may not always provide adequate support for non-English speakers. There can be a shortage of trained ESL teachers, culturally responsive teaching practices, and inclusive curricula that acknowledge and incorporate students’ diverse backgrounds.

Standardised testing in English can further disadvantage non-English speakers, who may have the knowledge but lack the language skills to demonstrate it.

Social Barriers

Social integration is a significant challenge for non-English speakers, who may face discrimination, isolation, and a lack of community support. These social barriers can affect motivation and mental health, which in turn impact educational outcomes. Access to community programs and support networks is essential but often limited.

All Graduates - Impacts of Low Literacy Levels

Current Initiatives and Programs

In New Zealand, various government and non-profit initiatives are dedicated to improving literacy across different demographic groups. Key initiatives include:

Government Initiatives

Reading Together: A Ministry of Education program designed to help parents support their children’s reading at home. It focuses on building positive reading habits and providing practical strategies for parents.

This community-based program involves parents, teachers, and librarians working together to support children’s reading at home. By providing workshops and resources, Reading Together helps parents develop effective reading practices with their children, leading to improved reading skills and parent-child bonding.

Ka Hikitia – Accelerating Success: This strategy aims to enhance educational outcomes for Māori students, including improving literacy through culturally responsive teaching and increased engagement with whānau (families).

Programs like Ka Hikitia and the Pasifika Education Plan have shown success in raising awareness and improving educational outcomes for Māori and Pasifika students. Literacy Aotearoa has also made significant strides in adult literacy through its accessible and tailored programs.

Pasifika Education Plan: This initiative focuses on improving educational outcomes for Pasifika students, emphasising literacy through community engagement, parental involvement, and culturally relevant teaching practices.

Non-Profit Initiatives

The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC): TEC supports a range of adult literacy and numeracy initiatives, including workplace literacy programs and community-based education.

Literacy Aotearoa: A nationwide organization offering free literacy and numeracy services to adults. Their programs include one-on-one tutoring, group classes, and workplace training.

Storytime Foundation: Focuses on early childhood literacy by distributing free books to families with young children and providing guidance on fostering a love for reading from an early age.

Strategies for Enhancing Literacy

To enhance literacy rates in New Zealand, several policy changes and new initiatives can be considered:

Early Intervention Programs

Implement nationwide early intervention literacy programs in preschools and kindergartens. Focusing on early childhood education can help address literacy issues before children enter formal schooling.

Increased Funding for Literacy Programs

Allocate more government funding to literacy programs, particularly in low-decile schools and underserved communities. This funding should support resources, training, and additional staff for literacy support.

Bilingual Education Support

Expand and support bilingual education programs to help non-English speaking students maintain their native language while acquiring English. This approach can improve overall literacy and cognitive skills.

Parental Involvement Initiatives

Develop initiatives that encourage and support parental involvement in children’s literacy development. Programs like workshops, family literacy nights, and take-home resources can empower parents to contribute to their children’s learning.

Regular Literacy Assessments

Implement regular, formative assessments to monitor students’ literacy progress and identify those needing additional support. These assessments should be used to inform instruction and provide targeted interventions.

Professional Development for Educators

Mandate ongoing professional development for teachers in literacy instruction, focusing on evidence-based practices, culturally responsive teaching, and strategies for supporting bilingual and ESL students.

All Graduates - Strategies for Literacy Development

The Role of Language in Literacy Development

Supporting native language literacy alongside English literacy is crucial for several reasons:

Cognitive Development: Research shows that strong literacy skills in a child’s first language (L1) can enhance cognitive development and facilitate the acquisition of a second language (L2), such as English. When students build a solid foundation in their native language, they develop critical thinking and linguistic skills that transfer to learning a new language.

Cultural Identity and Self-Esteem: Maintaining and developing literacy in one’s native language helps preserve cultural identity and fosters a sense of pride and self-esteem. Students who feel valued and respected for their linguistic background are more likely to be motivated and engaged in their learning.

Family and Community Engagement: Supporting native language literacy encourages communication and bonding within families and communities where English may not be the primary language. This engagement enhances the overall learning environment and provides a support system for students.

Academic Achievement: Students who are literate in their native language often perform better academically. Literacy in L1 supports overall academic success, as students can use their language skills to understand and engage with complex concepts and texts in English.

Multilingual Advantage: In a globalised world, multilingualism is an asset. Students who develop literacy in multiple languages are better prepared for the demands of the international job market and have greater opportunities for cross-cultural communication and understanding.

Bilingual education programs offer numerous benefits that support literacy development and overall academic and personal growth:

Enhanced Cognitive Skills: Bilingual education has been linked to improved cognitive functions, such as problem-solving, multitasking, and memory. Learning in two languages stimulates brain development and enhances cognitive flexibility.

Better Academic Performance: Students in bilingual education programs often outperform their monolingual peers in various academic areas. Bilingual students tend to have stronger literacy skills, better reading comprehension, and higher levels of metalinguistic awareness.

Improved Language Proficiency: Bilingual programs help students achieve high levels of proficiency in both their native language and English. This balanced bilingualism is advantageous for academic success and future career opportunities.

Cultural Awareness and Competence: Bilingual education fosters cultural awareness and competence by integrating cultural content and perspectives into the curriculum. Students learn to appreciate and respect cultural diversity, which is essential in a multicultural society like New Zealand.

Long-Term Economic Benefits: Bilingual individuals have a competitive edge in the job market. Proficiency in multiple languages is highly valued in many professions, including international business, diplomacy, translation, and education. Bilingual education programs, therefore, contribute to long-term economic benefits for individuals and society.

Increased Engagement and Retention: Bilingual education can increase student engagement and reduce dropout rates. When students see their language and culture reflected in the curriculum, they feel more connected to their education, leading to higher retention and graduation rates.

Family and Community Support: Bilingual education programs often involve family and community members, creating a supportive learning environment. This involvement strengthens the home-school connection and encourages a collaborative approach to education.

Call to Action - Literacy in New Zealand

Current levels of literacy in New Zealand

The Analysis of New Zealand Data from the International Adult Literacy survey reveals that 45% of adult New Zealanders are at Levels 1 and 2 for prose literacy, 50% for document literacy, and 49% for quantitative literacy.

New Zealand’s adults outperform the OECD average in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments.From 1996 to 2014-15, New Zealand has seen a significant increase of 14 score points in the average literacy proficiency of its adults. New Zealand stands out in the sense that the 35-44 year age group exhibits the highest literacy proficiency, and older New Zealanders (55-65 year-olds) surpass the OECD average for their age group in literacy proficiency.

Addressing the Literacy Crisis

The challenge of low literacy levels among non-English speakers in New Zealand is a matter of considerable concern, and multiple initiatives are in place to tackle this issue. Here are some of the approaches New Zealand is employing to address low literacy levels in non-English speakers.

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Addressing the Literacy Crisis

The Ministry of Education has commissioned research aimed at examining the demographic factors that predict or correlate with low literacy proficiency.

In 2022, The Education Hub published a research report revealing that 35.4% of teenagers face difficulties in reading and writing by the age of 15. This report underscores the importance of enhancing literacy rates to equip young individuals leaving school with the foundational skills required to participate effectively in the workforce.

The National Party has introduced a “back to basics” plan to combat New Zealand’s literacy challenge. This plan entails primary and intermediate students dedicating at least an hour each day to learning reading, writing, and mathematics, along with undergoing “standardized, robust assessment” in these subjects every six months.

It’s important to note that the problem of low literacy among non-English speakers in New Zealand is often attributed to ineffective instruction rather than developmental disabilities. Criticism has been directed at universities and the education system for their reliance on a whole language, ‘multiple cue’ model of reading instruction, which has proven unsuccessful for many New Zealand children, particularly those who struggle with reading.

The Office of Ethnic Affairs produced a report in 2013, emphasizing the significance of migrants acquiring English proficiency, even if it necessitates the use of interpreters to access services.

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Key Takeaways

Understanding Literacy in New Zealand: We defined literacy in the New Zealand context, considering not only the ability to read and write but also to effectively communicate and engage in society. We examined current literacy rates and noted variations across different communities.

Challenges Faced by Non-English Speakers: We explored the specific literacy challenges encountered by non-English speakers, including language barriers, cultural differences, and social obstacles. Case studies illustrated the personal impacts of these challenges.

Impacts of Low Literacy Levels: We discussed the wide-ranging effects of low literacy, including economic impacts on employment and productivity, social implications for community inclusion and healthcare access, and educational challenges for children of non-English speakers.

Current Initiatives and Programs: We reviewed government and non-profit initiatives aimed at improving literacy, analysed their effectiveness, and highlighted successful community-based literacy programs.

Strategies for Enhancing Literacy: We provided recommendations for policy changes, strategies for educators and community organisations, and emphasised the role of technology in supporting literacy development.

The Role of Language in Literacy Development: We discussed the importance of supporting native language literacy alongside English literacy and the benefits of bilingual education programs.

Skill Matter: Further Results From The Survey of Adult Skills
Adult Literacy in New Zealand: Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey
Language, Ethnicity, and Belonging for the Children of Migrants in New Zealand
Literacy and numeracy in New Zealand: findings from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey
The Front Page revisited: How New Zealand’s low literacy rate impacts the economy
Adult Literacy in New Zealand: Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey
Analysis of New Zealand Data from the International Adult Literacy Survey
Addressing the literacy crisis in Aotearoa New Zealand
Balanced literacy and New Zealand’s opportunity to re-write reading instruction history
Adult Literacy in New Zealand: Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey