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The promise of Te Whāriki (2017): Insights into teachers’ and leaders’ perspectives on teaching, learning and assessment of literacy in the revised curriculum

Claire McLachlan
Abstract: 

This article explores early childhood teachers’ and leaders’ early responses to the release of the revised early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 2017), with a particular focus on teaching and assessment of literacy. The study involved a convergent mixed-method design. Data were collected via a cross-sectional survey of teachers and key informant interviews with leaders of early childhood services. The focus of both survey and interviews was on the Communication / Mana reo strand, in order to examine how teachers would encourage children to achieve the language and literacy learning outcomes. A review of the policy context of the revised early childhood education curriculum, Te Whāriki, is first explored, followed by a rationale for this study. The mixed-method study design is explained. Findings from key informant interviews and a national survey are presented. Key findings suggest that there is a need to strengthen initial teacher education around how to implement Te Whāriki and that, in particular, pre-service and in-service teachers may need further guidance around literacy pedagogies and appropriate assessment.

 

The promise of Te Wha-riki (2017)

Insights into teachers’ and leaders’ perspectives on teaching, learning, and assessment of literacy in the revised curriculum

Claire McLachlan

This article explores early childhood teachers’ and leaders’ early responses to the release of the revised early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 2017), with a particular focus on teaching and assessment of literacy. The study involved a convergent mixed-method design. Data were collected via a cross-sectional survey of teachers and key informant interviews with leaders of early childhood services. The focus of both survey and interviews was on the Communication / Mana reo strand, in order to examine how teachers would encourage children to achieve the language and literacy learning outcomes. A review of the policy context of the revised early childhood education curriculum, Te Whāriki, is first explored, followed by a rationale for this study. The mixed-method study design is explained. Findings from key informant interviews and a national survey are presented. Key findings suggest that there is a need to strengthen initial teacher education around how to implement Te Whāriki and that, in particular, pre-service and in-service teachers may need further guidance around literacy pedagogies and appropriate assessment.

Introduction

Because of long involvement in early childhood education (ECE), I vividly remember the original development of Te Whāriki. At the time, I was completing a PhD and I was appointed as the university’s representative for the consultation meetings held in Wellington during the 1991–93 period. Draft guidelines for developmentally appropriate programmes in ECE were published in 1993, which centres undertook to trial. The final curriculum document, Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Mātauranga mo ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa, was published in 1996. It was noted by the writers that the final version was significantly different from the original (Carr & May, 1999). In particular, the curricula developed by specialist working groups (such as Pasifika and Special Education) were deleted, along with the references. A description of a developmental continuum and learning outcomes were added. These changes were opposed by the writers, although they were relieved the curriculum was finally released (Carr & May, 1999).

Despite being lauded internationally as the first bicultural curriculum in the world (Te One, 2003), over recent years there have been growing concerns about implementation of Te Whāriki. The broad nature of the curriculum enabled different interpretations, which was a strength and a weakness (Education Review Office (ERO), 2016). A national review of implementation (ERO, 2013) investigated the links between the framework of principles and strands in 627 services’ curriculum. While most were making some use of the framework, there was considerable variation in understandings of Te Whāriki and teacher practices. ERO (2013) recommended that services needed to review their implementation to achieve best outcomes for children.

As a result of growing concerns, the Advisory Group on Early Learning (AGEL) was appointed by the Minister of Education to recommend improvements to implementation. AGEL’s (Ministry of Education, 2015) recommendation was that an update be commissioned because childhoods have changed, implementation was subject to “drift”, links with the national curriculum were obsolete, and issues related to Pasifika and children with special needs needed addressing. Furthermore, an analysis of 17 national reports (ERO, 2016) revealed Te Whāriki was implemented inconsistently.

The Minister of Education determined there would be no changes to the gazetted parts of the curriculum—the principles, strands, and goals. Beyond that, the guidance of Ministry of Education taskforces, ERO reviews, and recent research needed inclusion. The update reflects the societal changes since 1996, stronger links to other curricula, and the stronger bicultural framing reflecting the valuing of Māori immersion education. There is also the reduced number of learning outcomes: from 118 to 20. This reduction was based on the AGEL report (Ministry of Education, 2015), which recommended that children’s progress needed greater attention. Teachers are portrayed as “intentional” in the update and responsibilities for kaiako are aligned to practising teacher criteria. There are suggestions for leadership, organisation, and practice, and questions for reflection for each strand. There is also revised guidance on assessment.

Implementation of the Communication / Mana reo strand

The specific focus of this study was on implementation of the Communication / Mana reo strand. The theoretical framework used was social constructivism, drawing on Vygotsky’s (1978) notions of access and mediation. Research shows parents and teachers provide young children with access to language-rich environments and the mediation of literacy. These early experiences are foundational to later success in school (National Early Literacy Panel (NELP), 2009; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2014). The NELP report (2009) identified 11 predictors of literacy that are supported within homes and ECE settings. The theoretical framework includes the NELP (2009) findings, and a social-practice perspective, which suggests literacy opportunities differ according to social, cultural, and linguistic contexts (McLachlan & Arrow, 2017). The skills encapsulated in terms of “literate cultural capital” (Tunmer & Chapman, 2015) include acquisition of alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, vocabulary, and comprehension skills (Reese, 2015; Wasik, Hindman, & Snell, 2016).

Despite evidence that homes and ECE settings foster children’s developing literacy, there is evidence that not all children develop literate cultural capital (Tunmer & Chapman, 2015). Data collected in low-decile ECE settings (McLachlan & Arrow, 2014) suggest some children may struggle on school entry. Research shows if teachers have strong understandings of literacy they can provide learning experiences that help children develop literacy knowledge, skills, and dispositions, without resorting to direct instruction (McLachlan & Arrow, 2017; Wasik et al., 2016). Furthermore, teachers need strong “knowledge calibration” in order to be effective teachers (Cunningham & Ryan O’Donnell, 2015). Such calibration involves understandings of the interrelationships between oral language and literacy and what progression looks like in young children; knowledge of which resources are effective with different developmental levels; and, most importantly, which pedagogies are effective with children on the continuum of literacy development (McLachlan & Arrow, 2017).

There is evidence that some teachers lack “knowledge calibration” and may not effectively support children’s learning in the Communication / Mana reo strand (ERO, 2011). ERO (2011) identified that 25% of services were using inappropriate pedagogies, including the use of age-inappropriate activities, such as phonics packages with 2-year-olds and extended mat sessions that were developmentally beyond abilities of children. ERO further found some teachers provide a selective curriculum and opportunities for learning in the Communication / Mana reo strand are limited for infants and toddlers (ERO, 2013). A recent review (ERO, 2017) revealed many centres need to strengthen their support of oral language.

The Communication / Mana reo strand (Ministry of Education, 2017, p. 42) includes the following learning outcomes:

“Research shows if teachers have strong understandings of literacy they can provide learning experiences that help children develop literacy knowledge, skills, and dispositions, without resorting to direct instruction”

Over time and with guidance and encouragement, children become increasingly capable of:

Using gesture and movement to express themselves | he kōrero a-tinana.

Understanding oral language and using it for a range of purposes | he kōrero a-waha.

Enjoying hearing, creating, retelling and writing stories | he kōrero paki.

Recognising print symbols and concepts and using them with enjoyment, meaning and purpose | he kōrero tuhituhi.

Recognising mathematical symbols and concepts and using them with enjoyment, meaning and purpose | he kōrero pāngarau.

Expressing themselves creatively through a range of media | he kōrero a-auaha.

Recent research reveals the importance of these learning outcomes to young children’s learning and development. The past 20 years have seen enormous growth in research into language, literacy, numeracy, and the arts and their intersection with other domains of early childhood development (Bodrova & Leong, 2017). The importance of oral-language development in the early years to later literacy acquisition is well established (Justice, Mashburn, Hamre, & Pianta, 2008; NELP, 2009). In addition, child­ren need a large vocabulary so that they can comprehend what is being said or read to them (Reese, 2015; Wasik et al., 2016).

The present study

The aim of this study was to explore how teachers are implementing Te Whāriki and in particular the Communication / Mana reo strand. The research questions included the following:

What are the key approaches to promoting literacy that early childhood teachers use?

How do teachers currently assess children’s developing literacy and has this changed since the update of Te Whāriki?

How confident are teachers to assess child­ren’s learning in the Communication / Mana reo strand of Te Whāriki?

What professional learning do teachers identify as being useful to helping them promote learning of literacy?

Methodology

The methodology was a small-scale convergent mixed-methods design (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2017), designed to gain a snapshot of how the sector was implementing the revised curriculum. The convergent research design involves gathering two independent sources of data at one time, often qualitative and quantitative, which can be compared and contrasted to illuminate a complex issue (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2017). The research design therefore included a survey of a cross-section of early childhood teachers to examine how they were implementing the revised curriculum, particularly in relation to literacy. The survey was accompanied by key informant semistructured interviews with early childhood leaders, which explored implementation in greater depth. The study had Ethics approval from the University of Waikato.

Survey

The survey was online, using Qualtrics software, and comprised 19 questions, which included closed questions, Likert scales, and open-ended questions. The Ministry of Education database of ECE centres was used to compile a random sample of ECE centres for the survey distribution. The total potential sample was 4,618 centres. The number of centres with email addresses was approximately 2,400. A random sample of 240 centres (10%) was surveyed from a cleaned database. The response rate was 43 responses—a very disappointing result of 18%. However, van Mol (2016) states that responses to web surveys are lower than other forms of survey and a response of around 10% is common.

The survey was predominantly answered by centre managers (64%) with more than 15 years’ teaching experience, although some teachers and curriculum managers also answered. Survey respondents ranged in experience from less than a year of teaching to more than 20 years’ experience, with over 50% having more than 15 years’ teaching experience. The respondents’ qualifications included the Diploma of Teaching (21%), Bachelor of Education or Teaching (54%), Graduate Diploma of Teaching (54%), or some other qualification (16%). The locations of participants were not questioned.

Analysis of the survey involved both quantitative and qualitative methods. A report was generated from the Qualtrics program, which presented simple descriptive statistics (such as percentages) and lists of answers to open-ended questions. Answers to open-ended questions were coded using content analysis to look for frequencies of answers and thematic analysis was used to identify emergent themes (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2017). There were detailed qualitative responses to many questions, meaning that the amount of qualitative responses helped to offset the limitations of the small sample.

Key informant interviews

Key informant interviews were chosen as an effective method for gaining in-depth insights into how the profession was relating to the new curriculum (Parsons, 2008). Ten education leaders were interviewed, based on the expectation that this experienced group would have knowledgeable insights into curriculum implementation. The key informants were centre owners (1), centre managers (5), and senior teachers in kindergarten associations (4). The sample was a purposive, convenience sample, drawn from my own professional network or they were nominated by key contacts in organisations. The key informants ranged in experience from 5 to 36 years and most held postgraduate qualifications in addition to their teaching qualification. All held positions of responsibility in their organisation and said they felt confident to discuss the interview questions.

The interviews were semistructured and conducted via Skype, phone, or face to face, depending on distance. The key informants were sent the questions in advance, so they had time to reflect on the questions. There were 14 questions in total, which included demographics, questions about curriculum implementation, and teaching and assessment of literacy. Most interviews took 30–45 minutes. Interviews were transcribed and returned to the participant for review and approval. No transcripts were revised and all consented to have their data used for the purposes of dissemination. Transcripts were also coded for emergent themes (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2017).

Results

Further teacher knowledge needed for curriculum implementation

Key informants commented that teachers were only starting to engage with the revised Te Whāriki and to consider what types of pedagogies and assessment would be needed for implementation. They said teachers had attended workshops provided by CORE, funded by the Ministry of Education, and thought the reduced number of learning outcomes (118⃗20) was more manageable and would enable greater focus on important learning and intentional teaching.

All key informants described their role as involving promoting effective teaching of the curriculum in their centres. They described a range of approaches associated with literacy-rich environments, although they said no specific research informed practice. Most named sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978) as a guiding theoretical framework, with children learning through interactions, modeling, and guided participation, as the following quotes suggest:

It is visual. It’s written. Often children sign their names in. There is wording, there is the use of the alphabet, and then we move into the programme where the teachers often at that mat time, if they have it, are talking about rhyme, songs, talking about the day that is happening. Reading children’s stories, asking comprehension questions of children. And then throughout the programme there is that emphasis on encouraging children if they need to, to write their names. The phonological response to language to children. It’s visual, often in the displays outside ... the containers for the balls have ‘Balls’ on them, so children can make that correlation. Games they play. Once again, reading stories informally, or formally to groups. Through puzzles, through manipulative activities. (Teacher 2)

Most of the key informants identified that teacher knowledge was the biggest weakness in terms of promoting literacy in ECE settings. Some commented that teachers sometimes did not learn enough about how literacy develops to be able to “notice, recognise and respond” (Ministry of Education, 2004) to children’s developing literacy, as these comments suggest:

I think that the teachers overall are aware that, you know, literacy is an integral part of what they do in their daily practice. But when it comes down to really what are the learning outcomes for children? Are we actually articulating that in Learning Stories, in conversations with parents? (Teacher 2)

I think some of those questions that are now being asked, that teachers are going to need to delve deeper in, rather than just skimming the surface in what they have done. And I know we’re talking about literacy, but that’s right across many of the curriculum areas. We need to be very aware … what we’re teaching. (Teacher 5)

… unless a teacher is very good at identifying the different steps in that literacy ... It is identified often in stories, but sometimes not. And I do think it depends on the teacher’s skill level and understanding. (Teacher 8)

In the survey, teachers described using a range of literacy resources to promote “most of the time” or “always”. A list of literacy resources was provided to prompt this response. Teachers considered the resources available in the centre were age appropriate and that resources were relevant to the ethnicities and languages of the children, supporting Te Whāriki’s aspiration of promoting “language, identity and culture” (Ministry of Education, 2017). Teachers also described a range of ways that children learn literacy through language and print-rich environments:

Rich conversations with teachers and their peers. Through story time, waiata sessions and being exposed to an environment rich in print, oral language experiences and communication. Visiting our local library, community, sourcing whakapapa and local history. (Survey data)

Exposure—from before birth, role models, being spoken/read to, having experience, being exposed to a wide vocabulary, being encouraged to give things a go, becoming risk takers, being given the chance to communicate in 100 languages, having enthusiastic literacy role models. (Survey data)

Teachers provided thoughtful responses to questions about the age appropriateness of resources, stating that, although age of the child and safety needed to be considered (e.g., writing materials and infants), the teachers tried to give children access to a wide range of resources, recognising that literacy development differs among children. Teachers also reflected on the challenges of providing culturally and linguistically appropriate literacy resources and described a range of strategies to make the language environment meaningful for the children. Teachers described a range of roles in children’s literacy, but a common theme was that teachers needed to be a good role model and encourage interest, as these comments suggest:

Lead by example, share the joy/adventures of books, listen, talk and interact in a variety of ways, have resources and displays that reflect the culture and languages of the children. (Survey data)

Ensuring tamariki have access to authentic experiences and activities. My ultimate goal of literacy instruction is to build upon tamariki comprehension, writing skills, and overall skills in oral language and communication. (Survey data)

“Teachers also reflected on the challenges of providing culturally and linguistically appropriate literacy resources and described a range of strategies to make the language environment meaningful for the children”

Like the key informants, little specific theory or research was named, although some named theorists such as Vygotsky, Rogoff, Bronfenbrenner, Montessori, and Gerber.

Teacher knowledge of assessment of early literacy

All key informants said that Learning Stories were a standard approach to assessment. However, they commented on the limitations of using group stories in individual portfolios for tracking progress, which they identified as a major concern. Many commented that teachers in childcare, with limited non-contact time, found it particularly hard to find time to write individual Learning Stories. The following comments explained why teachers are using group stories:

A variety of reasons I think. Sometimes I think each of them feels like they have to produce something. Some kindergartens—they all have different expectations about the amount of documentation that they have to create for children. And teachers are feeling stressed, or overwhelmed, then that’s their default. (Teacher 3)

And how services do it, when they’ve got less than 10 hours of non-contact time a week, I don’t know. (Teacher 1)

I think our teachers are actually quite—when we talk about observation they are kind of vigilant, and they are quite sharp observers about the children’s developmental stage. But then like the next question ... after you observed, what you do about it. And it is something we could improve upon. (Teacher 7)

The key informants were clear about how assessment could be improved and suggested the need for some of the following approaches:

Individual education plan (IEP) and individual development plan (IDP) for children with identified learning needs, sometimes involving specialists

use of “Learning notes” (Blaiklock, 2010) to enable more timely assessment

video and voice recordings included in online portfolios to revisit progress

use of StoryPark and Educa for tracking progress

use of transition-to-school programmes with a focus on children’s strengths and needs in literacy learning.

In the survey, teachers’ confidence to assess the learning outcomes of the Communication / Mana reo strand was questioned. Teachers’ confidence ranged from a mean of 79.4 to 87.5, with lower scores on the assessment of mathematical learning. Teachers stated that they used a range of approaches to assess literacy progress. This included teacher judgements—based on experiences of teaching—of children’s language ability and observation of children’s engagement with literacy activities. Some stated they collected photos, videos, and narratives about children’s involvement in literacy. Teachers confirmed that Learning Stories were the primary method of assessment.

Moving forward with the revised curriculum

The key informants talked about portfolio approaches for documenting the “learning journey” that could transition with a child to school, although there were concerns about imposition of a National Standards-type assessment approach. They also commented that teachers needed to make greater use of intentional teaching and relate this to assessment and planning, as this quote suggests:

We’re now online doing them. And gone are the warm and the fuzzy comments. It is deep reflection, and for those appraisals, we have to be more and more accountable for signing off, for them renewing their teaching practicing certificates. So if there are issues or gaps in their practice, where supported guidance is needed, we need to state that. And [I was] talking to a head teacher the other day, she said I actually think that that has helped me look at a child’s progress too, and see that there are gaps in their learning too, which counteract me to strengthen that intentional teaching. (Teacher 10)

Key informants all identified the need for further professional learning on language and literacy development to strengthen practice.

Teachers in the survey were more divided in their opinions about whether their practice would change as a result of the revised curriculum, as some said Te Whāriki hadn’t been a strong influence to begin with, confirming other studies (ERO, 2011; McLachlan & Arrow, 2014). Some commented they needed to realign their assessment practice to the new learning outcomes and needed professional development, while others said they would operate at the level of goals and strands and ignore the learning outcomes.

I think the responsibilities for teachers are more explicit in Te Whāriki 2017 and have done some professional development to support my use of the document in assessment and using the reflective questions for review.

The principles and strands remain the underlining aspect of our teaching. The only thing I think the Te Whaariki 2017 makes is to reduce and limit teachers by having a list of outcomes and what the Ministry of Education thinks teachers should be doing.

Summary and conclusions

Although this was a small-scale study, there are some strong similarities between the results of the survey and the key informant interviews. This is possibly because the dominant group in the survey was centre managers, who have an overview of centre practice, which parallels those of the key informants. Potentially, a survey that specifically targeted teachers might reveal different results. However, the key issue that has been identified is that teachers need further guidance on how to implement the revised curriculum. The key informants raised these concerns, suggesting that a great deal of reflection was needed by teachers in order to implement the revised curriculum, confirming ERO’s (2016) analysis. There are implications in this study for both initial teacher education and for in-service professional learning on curriculum implementation.

The findings confirm that the teaching, learning, and assessment of literacy is dependent on the knowledge of the teacher to recognise learning and development and respond with intentional teaching to extend children’s learning (ERO, 2011; Justice et al., 2008). Previous research suggests teachers need a strong foundation in initial teacher education, plus ongoing professional development to strengthen literacy practice (Bodrova & Leong, 2017; Justice et al., 2008). These findings also support Cunningham and Ryan O’Donnell’s (2015) arguments around the importance of “knowledge calibration” in teachers of young children. The key informants identified that this is a crucial issue, arguing that teachers needed professional development to think in terms of literacy learning progressions and their role in providing intentional teaching. This finding confirms other studies around the importance of teacher knowledge of language and literacy acquisition to enable effective teaching practice (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2014; Wasik et al., 2016).

Assessment of literacy is also identified as an area of concern in these data. The survey data suggest that some teachers may make no shifts in their current practice, which has already been identified by ERO (2011, 2013, 2016) as of concern. The key informants argued that group Learning Stories are being overly used, as teachers are time poor, but under pressure to produce something in the child’s portfolio. The key informants highlighted that the new learning outcomes will necessitate a rethink of how assessment data are gathered and processed in order to support children’s learning, supporting other studies (Justice et al., 2008; McLachlan & Arrow, 2017; Wasik et al., 2016).

Further professional learning about the interrelationship between oral language and literacy is implicated in these findings, which has implications for providers of initial teacher education, the Ministry of Education, and for employers of ECE teachers. Different types of professional learning should be an investment priority for centre owners and policy makers. Overall, the data stem from people who are intrinsically interested in teaching and literacy and so further research is needed to identify if the results of this data collection contradict the earlier findings of the ERO (2011) review of literacy in early childhood.

References

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Professor Claire McLachlan is Dean of the School of Education, Federation University Australia.

Email: c.mclachlan@federation.edu.au