National has promised that under its government, primary schools will be required to use a “structured literacy” approach to teach children.
The strategy will be phased in for youngest children (Year 1 – 3) from 2025 and will cover all primary children by 2027.
The structured literacy approach teaches reading by using phonemes to build reading and writing ability, using the smallest units of sound first. It also teaches ākonga word identification and decoding strategies as well as phonics, syllable patterns, vocabulary and grammar.
Under National’s policy, teachers will need to learn structured literacy techniques to be certified, and Year 2’s will undergo testing to check their progress. The test will require children to read words out loud, including “pseudo-words”, which are made up, to test their ability to decode new words. National claims these tests will give educators more information on which areas ākonga will need more support.
Interventions for ākonga who need extra support will also utilise structured literacy intervention, using funding rerouted from the Reading Recovery programme. These changes will all happen under a “literacy lead”, a specialist educator who had received accredited training to support teachers and teacher-aides.
During the policy announcement, National’s education spokesperson Erica Stanford said “National will not play Russian roulette with our children’s future by leaving the fundamentals of reading to chance.” Stanford said structured literacy had evidence to back it as being an effective way to teach children to read.
Several schools already use the Ministry of Education’s Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA), which was rolled out earlier this year using the same principles of structured literacy for Years 0 –2. The MoE said that the programme “significantly accelerated growth” in literacy for participating students compared to control groups.
According to the BSLA website, the approach “includes the systemic teaching of critical phonological awareness skills and letter sound knowledge skills through fun, games-based activities.” It also includes teaching of vocabulary skills, following “a structured phonics scope and sequence”.
Following the BLSA rollout, some academics questioned why the approach was not more widespread and called for it to be imbedded into teacher-training.
Now, National is promising just that, saying that under the current system schools are “embedding inequality”, and their structured literacy mandate would improve gaps between high- and low-decile learners.
Following National’s announcement, Education Minister Jan Tinetti expressed concern that National’s structured literacy mandate would divert funding from the Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Support programme.
“It really concerns me that the way they’re looking to pay for this is by cutting something that’s absolutely essential to the fabric of our education network.
“Every single school that I go into – and its most schools that have a structured literacy approach – also tell me that they need the remedial approach.
So I’m shocked that they’re cutting [reading recovery] because it’s kids who are going to be in danger here.”
Tinetti also said that National’s policy undermined ongoing work in the sector which was determining best practice, warning that National’s structured literacy was “not a silver bullet”.
Some educators are behind the policy. Lifting Literacy Aotearoa (LLA) is one organisation that backs the mandate, stating that the structured literacy method is “backed by more than 40 years of robust science across multi-disciplinary fields”.
National’s policy is “a signal to our universities that they much improve initial teacher education programmes,” says Alice Wilson, chair of LLA. Wilson says she’s pleased that National will end Reading Recovery, calling it “a non-evidence-based reading intervention programme.
“We formed in 2020 to advocate for evidence-based reading instruction on behalf of dyslexic and disadvantaged children and have long advocated, alongside many others… to end public funding of Reading Recovery.”
LLA says they want National’s policy to go further, implementing the approach up until Year 13. They also want the same approach to be applied in Māori and Pacific language-medium schools.
But not all educators are convinced.
NZEI Te Riu Roa president Mark Potter has criticised National’s policy for undermining professional judgement.
“Teachers work with a diverse range of learners. They are the ones in the classroom each day and they should be trusted to select whichever is the best tool in their toolbox for each individual learner. Children do not come in one size and we shouldn’t be repeating failed attempts at standardisation of teaching.”
He continues that although NZEI Te Riu Roa supports the development of best practice guidelines, these should be expert-driven rather than mandated by the government.
“No one would expect or want politicians to dictate how doctors prescribe or lawyers brief clients, and the same should apply with teaching and learning.”
Potter ended by once again calling for additional resources and support for teachers.
Lynda Stuart, speaking on behalf of the Aotearoa Education Collective agrees, once again calling National “out of touch” with the issues in education.
“This announcement is a worrying sign for the regard that National has for those working in the education sector. Instead of wanting to work in partnership, a Chris-Luxon-National-Government wants to arrogantly tell us that they know best.
“While Chris Luxon and National are focused on banning cell phones and undermining our profession they are silent on class sizes, recruitment and retention of teachers and principals, and funding learning support properly.”