In fact, she loves it so much that she is striving to find a way to share that enjoyment with others, in particular with Māori children.
Derby recently undertook her PhD at the University of Canterbury as part of the A Better Start National Science Challenge to specifically investigate literacy in Māori children – challenging deficit views of Maori underachievement in the process.
“Literacy is actually a human right and it’s really key to accessing a lot of other human rights, like being able to read medicine labels, voting papers, bank statements, nutrition labels on the back of food.
"All these things have implications in other areas of our lives too, so literacy is pretty important,” Derby says of her research.
She says she was also driven, in part, by dissatisfaction with the country’s current approach to literacy.
“In New Zealand, typically we’ve had an approach in primary schools where we wait for children to fall behind then try to recover those skills, and to me that seemed like quite an unusual thing to do!”
Derby's study involved Māori children who attended a dual language (English and te reo Māori) early childhood centre, and who were exposed to both English and te reo Māori in their homes.
In summary, she says her work found that whānau can make the difference in children’s learning.
“The families were able to implement small changes in the kinds of conversations they had with their children, the way that they read books with them, playing different games with them ... and it made a world of difference to the foundational skills children need to be really strong in before they even learn to read.
“So the key finding is that small changes that we may make in our lives, [and] the way we interact with children, can make a world of difference with their early literacy.”
The children in the study took part in activities that are associated with traditional Māori pedagogy, such as singing songs, reciting chants, playing games and reminiscing about the past.
According to Derby, one of the best strategies an early childhood teacher could employ is to have interactive, rich conversations with children.
This could be as simple as asking them what they did on the weekend and encouraging them to tell a story about it.
She says telling stories can be vital to the development of children’s early literacy skills.
“... at the age of four, by telling you something that happened in the past, they’re actually telling you a really basic story.
“There’s a start, something happened, there is a main point to it, and then it’s finished.
“It’s very rudimentary, but they start to understand how stories work which helps when they’re learning to read as well.”
Also critical to the development of strong literacy skills in Māori children is approaching learning in a culturally relevant way.
“I mentioned in my thesis that a lot of the research around literacy in New Zealand is conducted with monolingual English-speaking children in mind, so to me I thought it was important to explore literacy with children who heard Māori and English in their home and early childhood centre, and to try and come from a strengths-based approach, rather than assuming, based on ethnicity, that these children weren’t going to do well.
“I was [asked] near the start of my project, why I was doing this because literacy isn’t a Māori thing, which I found quite astonishing, so I think some of those attitudes haven’t been helpful.”
Derby adds that previous research indicates that when classroom practices align with what’s happening at home, children’s learning is strengthened – so early childhood teachers could incorporate some of the practices used in her research as well, to complement the efforts of whānau.
If the classroom group is singing songs, she suggests using songs that stimulate children’s phonological learning, such as playing with sounds and words.
She also recommends incorporating something to do with literacy in day-to-day life.
“For example, when my son is tidying up, I’ll ask him to go and find all the toys that start with the B sound.
“So he’s tidying up and it’s fun for him because he thinks it’s a bit of a game, but also he has to think ‘what starts with that sound’, which is helping his early literacy skills to develop.”
Derby hopes that, through her work, she can inspire a new generation of Māori children to curl up with a book that fires their imagination, just as she did when she was young.
“I really hope that it makes a difference in the lives of ... children [and that] they can get the same sort of enjoyment out of reading that I did as a child.
“When you can curl up on the couch with a good book your imagination takes you all sorts of places. It’s a pretty wonderful experience. I’d love to share that with as many children as possible.”