The Kiwi accent may affect our ability to read and write, literacy experts say.
Some said the “vowel shift” in New Zealand English – the pronunciation that makes “fish and chips” sound like “fush and chups” and “pen” sound like “pin” to other English speakers – made spelling difficult.
However, they cautioned against blaming Kiwi’s poor literacy on the national accent alone. Teacher education and brain development had an impact.
Although New Zealand has literacy levels above the OECD average, a 2016 survey by the organisation indicated about 12 per cent of adults struggled with basic vocabulary and understanding sentences.
* University entrance literacy requirements may be tightened
* Two-thirds of prisoners can’t do everyday literacy tasks
* Numeracy, literacy and mental health tackled at election event
About 43 per cent of those aged 16 to 64 were unable to draw inferences from long pieces of text, according to Literacy Aotearoa. As many as one in four Kiwis had literacy difficulties that affected their daily lives.
Ara Institute of Canterbury adult literacy tutor Barbara Dixon believed the Kiwi accent was partly to blame.
“New Zealand students have big difficult difficulty differentiating between ‘ay’ and ‘ah’, and ‘e’ and ‘i’,” she said.
“It affects the way dyslexic adults [in particular] spell enormously.”
Dixon’s master’s thesis identified six types of dyslexia – surface, deep, phonological, working memory, visual processing, and auditory processing – which her students often had “some cocktail” of.
Wellington-based literacy expert Yolanda Soryl addressed the gap between what we hear and how we write by developing a Kiwi-accented app for teachers.
Having New Zealand actors sound out individual letters and sounds avoided the confusion American or British teaching tools often created, she said.
“Eighty per cent of words you can get phonetically, but only if you know those vowel sounds. In all my years of reading recovery I have never had a child come to me who understood their vowel sounds.
“Phonics isn’t the be all and end all of teaching someone how to read and write, but New Zealand teachers haven’t been taught how to teach phonics for 40 years now.”
Literacy specialist Ros Lugg, of Rangiora, believed teacher education and processing disorders were more relevant to literacy than accents.
“Really, it shouldn’t make a huge difference because even with standard UK accents there are big variations.”
Her research with Auckland University indicated a link between visual processing disorders and low literacy.
She said the most accurate predictor of children’s literacy was whether they could recognise rhyme.
Friday September 8 was International Literacy Day.