Research explores New Zealand's pioneering approach to the teaching of reading

New Zealand led the way in the English-speaking world in providing books for beginner readers that were real stories, says Kay Hancock, who is graduating from Victoria University of Wellington with a PhD next week.

Kay Hancock

Kay researched the Ready to Read series, from its launch in 1963 to 1988. The government-funded instructional series is still published and provided free to schools.

“This series was ground-breaking in that it had the aim of helping children not only learn to read, but also want to read,” says Kay. “New Zealand was the first country in the English-speaking world to provide instructional reading materials for very beginning readers that were proper stories.”

The series replaced the Janet and John books, which were imported from the United Kingdom and used a narrow range of words that children had already been taught, with short, contrived sentences. In contrast, Ready to Read included lively stories about New Zealand and was also trialled in schools to make sure the stories appealed to readers.

“The development of Ready to Read was a huge experiment but it was totally in line with educational thinking of the time, much of it springing from the visionary leadership of [Director of Education] Clarence Beeby,” Kay says. “As well as wanting children to enjoy reading, there was a strong emphasis on reflecting children’s real lives.”

She says the series was revised in the 1980s, with writers such as Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy brought on board.

Kay’s research also explored the growth of biculturalism. She found that prior to the series, there was a lot of content about Māori in commercially published materials but it was targeted at Pākehā children. “The Ready to Read materials were the first books for children that acknowledged Māori children as part of the reading audience.”

As a former teacher, series editor and now series literacy consultant, Kay felt a focus on the series and its place within New Zealand’s literary, social and educational history was well overdue. She is concerned that the impact of the series has not been properly evaluated since the 1970s and that meant the series and the approach to reading it pioneered have not had the recognition nor the research focus they deserve.

“I wanted to shed some light on how these little-known materials—and the thinking behind them—are important examples of an approach to reading that led the world.”