The refreshed curriculum for English: What’s changed?

Associate Professor Alison Arrow (University of Canterbury) and Dr. Amanda Denston (Massey University)

The long-awaited first phase of the curriculum review has been shared, with the Ministry of Education release of the refreshed Mathematics and Statistics and English Curriculum. We were surprised that communication and literacy isn’t a focus of the refreshed curriculum when the Ministry said it would be. We wanted to take this opportunity to draw attention to the absence of communication and literacy skills, and the problematic messages contained within the refreshed English curriculum.

The purpose of the curriculum

There are two ways to interrogate the curriculum. The first relates to the way the development of cognitive skills in ākonga (learners) are described. The second  relates to content and what is considered as important in terms of text types and the messages within them. The way these are responded to within the curriculum reflects what the government and Ministry of Education believe is important for literacy and English outcomes for ākonga.

The Literacy and Communication Strategy recently released by the Ministry claims the refreshed curriculum will have more of a focus on literacy and communication, which should be explicit because the previous curriculum “…lacks sufficient clarity and detail on the literacy & communication and numeracy learning needed…” (p. 11). The Literacy and Communication Strategy is designed to ensure that ākonga are making progress along a pathway of learning in literacy and communication without specifying what skills are learned. For example, “Kaiako and teachers use evidence-based practices and tools that provide clarity and examples of the sequence of growth and progress along the pathway, and help them identify what learners need as learning progresses” (p.11).

The development of literacy skills

The refreshed curriculum contrasts with Ministry guidance on developing literacy skills, with no reference in the document to how children develop literacy skills. The draft of the refreshed curriculum fails to explicitly include the skills and strategies necessary to meet the requirements of English curriculum, instead relying on the progress indicators to explicitly state the literacy skills and strategies. To understand what is expected in the development of literacy skills we explored the only provided progress indicators, for ‘during the first six months’ of formal schooling, alongside the progress outcomes for the end of Year 3.

  • The language used within the indicators reinforces a wait-to-fail ethos for ākonga. The example states that if indicators are not evident during the first six months of formal schooling, action should be taken. It is not the progress ākonga are making but whether they can or cannot meet the particular I can progress indicators at specified timepoints.
  • The progress outcomes assume that all ākonga start school with a pre-existing skill or knowledge base. For example, it is assumed that children begin school with a developed interest in books or print, and the ability to engage with text in a sustained manner. This fails to account for the large variability that exists in early literacy skills and experiences at school entry. The majority of ākonga who need instruction in foundational literacy skills may miss out on learning these skills because the curriculum assumes that they should have them already.
  • In contrast, the progress indicators do not expect children to be reading words after six months of formal schooling – only to identify the beginning or final sound in a familiar word and to match it with the related letter. Although not yet expected to read or decode words, ākonga are expected to communicate meaning through the writing or spelling of known words. There is a contradiction between the development of early literacy skills across the progress outcomes and the progress indicators. This contradiction means that early reading and spelling are different skills, contrasting with the Ministry’s guidance to teach reading and spelling through a code-focused, phonics approach.
  • The unclear expectations regarding vocabulary development within the curriculum will influence the learning opportunities provided to ākonga. Research has shown that how teachers see children and their development influences the provided language experiences within the classroom, which can create barriers for learning. In the progress indicators tamariki are expected to develop “simple” language, including simple adjectives and pronouns, and if it is believed they have not it is unlikely they will be provided opportunities to develop more complex language.

Content, text-types and messages

The refreshed curriculum strongly emphasises text-types and the critical literacies of interpreting messages. There is a specific emphasis on story and storytelling, especially in the Do aspect. In the refreshed curriculum stories can be from tangata whenua and other communities, and may include non-fiction and non-narrative text. In the contexts (Know), children hold their own stories (Year 3), know that Indigenous stories provide insight and affect others (Year 6), and create stories (Year 8).

However, beyond the above references to story, stories feature little within the rich contexts for exploring ideas. Although the big ideas are about stories, and the practices (Do) refer to story, the contexts refer primarily to a range of text modes and multimodalities. Noticeable is the lack of early teaching of genre that builds into later disciplinary literacy. Furthermore, the contexts element emphasises only literary features and texts, reinforcing the importance of literary text over all other text types including stories. For example, literary elements (Year 8), interpreting and producing literary texts (Year 10), and literary structure (Year 13) that includes non-continuous narratives and enjambment often related to literary poets like Homer and Shakespeare. These examples appear to privilege imperialist canons of texts.

The emphasis on literary features coming from the imperialist canons of texts and the ideas that matter within these texts conflict with opportunities to create and interpret text using their own identities stated within the refreshed curriculum. The purpose statement notes ākonga should be provided with opportunities to use their cultural, linguistic, and personal knowledge to create and interpret text. Our concern is that the progress outcomes can be used to reinforce specific views of what is and is not moralistic, which may or may not align with the identities, language, and culture of ākonga. Identity is explored through the practices section, developing through how texts are interpreted. For example, ākonga knowing that their stories have the power to hurt, meaning they must be careful, by sometimes changing their mind (Year 6) and explaining how their thinking has changed (Year 8). By the end of Year 13, ākonga are to be confident in their reading identity, but we wonder, based on what texts are deemed important, whose reading identity this is and whether this will reinforce the existing marginalisation and inequities of groups of ākonga.

What about communication?

How the refreshed curriculum includes communication is unclear. Communication is referred to little across the curriculum document and not beyond the purpose statement for English, which leads us to question whether it is considered learning that matters with Understand, Know, and Do.

Closing thoughts

We found the current draft of the refreshed curriculum to be a series of contradictions. It assumes that ākonga enter school with a repertoire of foundational literacy skills but then adopts a wait-to-fail approach in the application of early skills. The big ideas are all about the stories of Aotearoa New Zealand to help understand ourselves and others but it clearly favours a specific type of literacy identity, based on Westernised notions of literary texts.

We view the refreshed curriculum, within its current state, to be highly problematic. Primarily, we are concerned about how schools may subjectively interpret the progress outcomes contained within the refreshed curriculum for their localised curricula. Overall, the refreshed curriculum is in danger of reinforcing existing status quo and inequities in multiple groups of ākonga, both in becoming literate and in developing as users of texts.


Alison Arrow is an Associate Professor in literacy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Alison co-led a longitudinal intervention project examining the effectiveness of providing teachers with more targeted literacy teaching strategies for improving child literacy outcomes; this work has led to wider changes to literacy approaches in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her areas of research interests include teacher knowledge and professional development, early literacy development, reading and spelling development, reading comprehension, the use of digital technologies, and literacy difficulties.

Amanda Denston is a Senior Lecturer in Literacy at Massey University. Amanda’s research interests include literacy development and its association with psychosocial development, especially for children experiencing difficulties. Amanda has been involved in research focusing on developing morphological awareness in older primary aged students and examining the effects on the development of literacy skills and self-concept and resilience. Other areas of research interest include supporting the development of teacher knowledge, early literacy development, and socio-emotional learning across the learning pathway.

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