Narrowing the NCEA literacy pathway

I, for one, am heartened by imminent changes to the NCEA literacy assessment requirements. I’ve always been uneasy about the current expansive pathway, with hundreds of tagged achievement standards from a wide range of subjects, most of which assess content knowledge, with no literacy-specific criteria.

NCEA Review conversations have now been had, revealing similar concerns. As one secondary school commented: ‘Currently...we have students being deemed literate and numerate when, in practice, this may not be the case’.1 Indeed, there is increasing evidence that this is not the case. Too many students are leaving secondary school without foundational literacy. In a 2014 study of adult literacy and numeracy commissioned by the Tertiary Education Commission, for example, approximately 50% of Year 11 students with NCEA Level 1 and 40% of Year 12 students with NCEA Level 2 were under the ‘minimum level of competency essential for people to participate in the 21st century’.1 This needs to change - with urgency.


As you will know, the route to achieving NCEA Level 1 literacy is to be changed - contracted and strengthened at the same time. Contracted, because students will be externally assessed against two literacy unit standards when they are ready. Strengthened, because students need to demonstrate a range of specific foundational literacy skills.

The standards are set at upper Level 4/lower Level 5 of the NZ Curriculum (NZC) English learning area. This means that students have full mastery over NZC Level 4 and are ready to work at Level 5. This benchmark is broadly aligned to Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT) scale descriptors in the range of 750-850 for reading and 800-900 for writing and, for English language learners, to English Language Learning Progressions upper Stage 3-4. The benchmark also aligns to Koru/Step 4 on the Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy. It is noteworthy that Koru/Step 4 is the level of the current literacy unit standard package. So, from this perspective, it’s not the literacy level that has changed, but the reading and writing specific requirements.

The Big Ideas and Significant Learning underpinning both standards have been informed by the aspects of the Learning Progressions Frameworks. It would therefore be valuable for secondary teachers to become familiar with these frameworks and the annotated exemplars (illustrations) showing progress for each aspect, especially at higher levels.

The draft reading standard – Read written texts to understand ideas and information - focuses on specific skills relating to making sense of texts, reading with critical awareness, and reading for a specific purpose. The decontextualised nature of the reading assessment is likely to be challenging for many students, especially English language learners. It will therefore be important that these skills are explicitly taught in and across learning areas to ensure transferability. By this, I do not mean ‘teaching to the test’ - rather providing students with essential tools to understand and unpack a range of written text types. This involves reading activities designed to develop learner ‘ability to comprehend texts’, not guiding them to ‘comprehension of a text’.2

The draft writing standard – Write texts to communicate ideas and information – focuses on writing for different purposes and audiences and the use of language conventions. The latter includes using a variety of sentence structures, correct punctuation, grammatical constructions, spelling and editing. This is not just the English teacher’s job! All teachers need to notice, understand and explicitly teach the writing (and reading) skills of their discipline to support literacy development.

Changing the literacy assessment pathway will not of itself improve the foundational reading and writing skills of secondary school students. This will require a radical rethink, a whole school approach to literacy development, well before NCEA kicks in. Schools will therefore need to be well-prepared, to up their literacy game, in order to support teachers and students with these new literacy requirements.

We will need to consider the following questions:

  • How do we currently approach literacy development in and across learning areas and subjects? What is working well? What will we need to change?
  • How can we ensure that leaders and teachers in all learning areas and subjects develop an understanding of the new reading and writing requirements and levels?
  • How will we use the frameworks to which the unit standards are benchmarked to support teacher and student understanding, as well as teaching and learning?
  • How can we ensure that learners and whānau understand the new literacy requirements?
  • How can we ensure a cross-curricular approach to literacy development?
  • How can we support teachers to integrate language and content teaching and learning in their subject classes
  • How can we ensure that students who are struggling with literacy are identified in a timely manner?
  • How can we monitor learner readiness to undertake the literacy assessment?
  • Who has the expertise and passion to lead a literacy team in our school?

All these questions will need to be addressed as schools prepare for the narrowing of the literacy assessment pathway - without narrowing the richness of NZ curriculum teaching and learning. This road not yet travelled provides a valuable opportunity to upskill leaders and teachers in language and content integration. In this way, we will be able to empower students to expand their language and literacy skills, and hence their academic and vocational horizons – as well as passing the test! 

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.6)

If you would like support with narrowing the NCEA literacy pathway, Julie or another one of our Education Consultants can help. Please get in touch with us at to find out more.

Further reading:

For further information about NCEA literacy changes, see


1. Retrieved from

2. Davies and Widdowson (1974), quoted in Nation, I. S. P. (1979). The Curse of the Comprehension Question: Some alternatives. Guidelines, 2, 85-103.

Back to top