GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Hegemony, meaning and structured literacy


One of the big political influences on me has been Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). He was a courageous revolutionary and anti-fascist activist whose premature death was directly linked to a lengthy imprisonment, while in poor health, under Benito Mussolini’s fascist government.

Gramsci was also a remarkable and creative intellectual perhaps most noted for his insightful Prison Notebooks. Its contents were drafted on toilet paper before being smuggled out of prison.

Gramsci: ruling classes rule through hegemony over the ruled

One of his longest lasting theoretical insights was his use of the term ‘hegemony’. By this he meant that ruling classes were able to rule most effectively when successful in ensuring that their values became the values of the masses, either by consent or coercion.

Hegemony and literacy

Hegemony is a term that can be adapted for usage in various different situations, including how education systems teach literacy.

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If the teaching of literacy includes meaning (combined with phonics) it can encourage enquiring minds more able to question hegemonic beliefs and positions.

It is a term that has a striking relevance to the national imposition by the National-ACT-NZ First coalition government of what is called ‘structured literacy’.

Structured literacy puts phonics at centre of learning (meaning relegated)

This is based on a prescribed synthetic phonics approach; it is the opposite of learning by meaning (in combination with other strategies and supported by quality texts).

Synthetic phonics is a method of teaching where words are broken up into the smallest units of sound (phonemes).

Children learn to make connections between the letters of written texts (graphemes, or letter symbols) and the sounds of spoken language.

Phonics has in various ways previously formed part of literacy learning in New Zealand. It can be a useful additional aid for some children. However, structured literacy places it at the centre; the be-all and end-all. Meaning is a casualty.

The government’s structured literacy policy was discussed in two different articles both published in The Post on 7 May. The first is by press gallery reporter Bridie Witton: Education gamble. The second is a more critical column (paywalled) by Dave Armstrong: Literal literary stake.

International literacy ranking

For around 30 years since 1970 Aotearoa New Zealand was ranked top or near top of the world in literacy for 15-year-olds.

This ranking was done by an international study known as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). However, since 2000, there has been a gradual decline in our ranking.

Structured literacy is opportunistically promoted to lever off this decline. It is a costly ‘one-size-fits- all’ experiment to ‘make New Zealand great again’.

It follows a deliberate misinformation campaign that Aotearoa’s children are doing poorly based on international comparisons (for context see below-mentioned comments).

This misinformation includes the accusation that literacy learning has been focused exclusively on meaning. As discussed both above and below, this accusation is false. Meaning was part of a broader strategy.

The irony is that structured literacy is essentially copying United Kingdom and United States policies. But neither country has ever achieved New Zealand’s 2000 PISA mean raw score. In fact, both are even well below  New Zealand’s decline.

Understanding ERIC

So what was behind New Zealand’s earlier world-leading success. In a word it was ‘ERIC’ or, to give it its full name, the ‘Early Reading In-service Course’.

Teaching practices were disseminated through ERIC and supported nationally by a team of teacher and school advisors. Learning through meaning was a critical ingredient.

ERIC was underpinned by:

  • children reading a wide variety of quality literature in various contexts;
  • teachers’ systematic observation of a child’s behaviour; and
  • deliberate and precise teaching of ‘functional skills’, including audio discrimination, visual perception of print, and decoding.

ERIC gave teachers a reliable tool that encouraged children to pay attention to error and understand the power of self-correction. Self-correction of perceived error creates a positive mechanism for self-improvement.

This was unique to New Zealand. I understand that no other country in the world has taught children in this unique way, neither previously nor since.

ERIC’s innovative designers deliberately did not follow other countries. Instead they based their design on:

  • Aotearoa’s own developmental-cognitive research;
  • a meticulous analysis of overseas research and learning theories;
  • the experience of successful New Zealand teachers and practical ingenuity.

Aotearoa’s primary school teachers designing successful ERIC programme

In a nutshell, ERIC was a course for teachers designed by successful experienced literacy teachers and advisors, who were also academics/researchers. It was an impressive utilisation of the education system’s intellectual human capital.

These unique teaching and learning practices propelled New Zealand students to the top of the literacy world in 1984 and kept us there to at least 2000. Our literacy practices were confirmed as being on the right track.

They were also reaffirmed in the Ministry of Education’s own published research, Picking up the Pace, covering the years 2001-2005.

Abandonment of Reading Recovery

Meanwhile, in the mid-1980s, the internationally acclaimed Reading Recovery programme was gradually implemented in New Zealand. The main person behind its development was Auckland University’s Professor Marie Clay.

Inspirational Professor Marie Clay behind internationally recognised reading recovery programme

Reading Recovery was a school-based literacy programme designed for the lowest achieving children turning six years.

The objective was to enable them to reach age-expected levels within 12-20 weeks. As with ERIC, learning through meaning was an important component.

Gradually it was introduced to varying degrees in other countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

University College of London research validated success of reading recovery in economically deprived schools

In 2018 the University College of London published the results of research into reading recovery’s introduction to schools in economically deprived areas of London.

The outcome was long-lasting beneficial changes: London reading recovery study reveals positive outcomes.

One of the biggest casualties of the imposition of structured literacy is that both the training of reading recovery tutors and the funding to schools for this programme will cease.

Out with the proven; in with the unproven. The proven does not fit the new ideological educational policy hegemony; the unproven does.

Behind the literacy decline

Aotearoa’s relative decline in children’s literacy ranking can’t be isolated to a single cause. The word relative is important. Some other countries have improved their rankings which is a good thing.

The stifling impact on education of the previous National-led government (2008-17) of the poorly thought-out ‘National Standards’ would have contributed.

Primary schools were distracted by having to do work-arounds to mitigate bureaucratic compliance undermining good learning. This was a bad thing.

Restructuring of education the biggest likely factor behind New Zealand’s declining international ranking

But arguably the biggest factor behind the decline was the restructuring of the education system from the early 1990s. This fragmented the system, including by reducing the level of national coordination.

Critically important was the disestablishment of the role of school advisors who were responsible for updating and supporting ERIC.

These roles were replaced by an inexperienced Ministry of Education who unilaterally contracted ad hoc professional development and one-off research projects.

The outcome was the dwindling of teachers’ in-depth understandings of New Zealand’s unique classroom practices. Today, with the natural attrition of ERIC-trained teachers, only a skeleton remains.

It is unlikely that any students who started school in 2002 (ie, 15-year-olds in 2012) were taught by ERIC-trained-teachers. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is an important cause for the significant decline in our PISA results since 2012.

Structure literacy children books often lack a coherent story for meaning

Structured literacy uses recently published learning to read books for children. These books rely on decoding certain specific sounds and learn them before they can start to read.

Consequently they often don’t carry a coherent story line which is necessary for meaning.

Filling the vacuum

The gradual drift that led to the eventual abandonment of ERIC and its underlying premises, including the importance of meaning in the teaching of literacy was not by conscious design.

Instead it was the consequence of the fragmented and dysfunctional political and bureaucratic leadership of the country’s education system.

Education minister Erica Standford tailor-made for new ideological education bent

Inevitably this drift to abandonment meant that a vacuum was created. This provided an opportunity for ideological leadership ‘capture’.

The rightwing thinktank, the New Zealand Initiative (NZI), was tailor-made to seize this opportunity.

NZI is the successor to the highly ideological Business Roundtable which had been influential in Aotearoa’s shift to the destructive neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s.

All that was required was an education minister who shared its ideological bent. Erica Standford was equally tailor-made to fit this bill.

Michael Johnston: the man behind the new education policy

Newsroom political editor Laura Walters covers this nicely on 8 May: Who’s behind the government’s education policy . Her focus is on what she calls the man behind the new policy, Dr Michael Johnston.

He has the title of Senior Fellow at NZI leading its education work. An Australian graduate, Johnston was previously an academic at Victoria University.

Literacy teaching is an important part of the government’s education policy. Johnston is strongly opposed to what he calls ‘progressive education’ or ‘twenty-first century learning’.

Walters quotes him as asserting that:

Unhappily for the priests of twenty-first century learning, it looks as if they will soon be defrocked. The counter-reformation is underway.

Johnston has now been appointed to lead Stanford’s ‘Curriculum Refresh Ministerial Advisory Group’.

Standford has slowly but steadily outlined where government education policy is now going; what Walters’ cleverly describes as heading “…in a new old direction.”

This ideological journey includes the compulsory introduction of structured literacy supported by a controversial $67 million funding package.

This has led to concern that there is now an excessive reliance on a small number of narrowly focussed “fringe” researchers sharing the same ideology as the education minister and who are now “making hay while the sun shines”.

Johnston told Newsroom that since Stanford became minister the pair had spoken about “structured literacy and curriculum design and assessment, all sorts of things”.

He is pleased with the direction the government was headed. “Research published by me and others at the initiative is strongly in agreement with that direction.”

His work and the government’s general approach to education is similar to that of the Conservative government in the United Kingdom.

Back to hegemony

Antonia Gramsci’s use of hegemony to better understand how ruling classes rule is capable of a micro-level adaptation to how literacy is taught.

How it is taught is critical not just on the ability to read but also to the ability to comprehend.  In other words, it is critical to the development of enquiring minds.

It all comes down to hegemony

Using the understanding of meaning as part of literacy learning enhances the ability to question and even challenge existing mores that either are no longer applicable or were never justified in the first place. This is the antipathy of hegemony.

The imposition of structured literacy into New Zealand’s education system is part of a conscious endeavour to impose hegemonic control over how children are taught.

Depending on the extent of its ideological implementation it will also ensure that when these children become young adults they will be more likely to comply with the prevailing hegemony of Aotearoa New Zealand’s rulership.

[I am grateful for the advice of experienced children’s literacy expert and practitioner Dr Gwenneth Phillips on ERIC and how to learn literacy.]



Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Political Bytes


  1. So the article is saying that brainwashing our children to uphold the values and beliefs of the ruling hegemony which is european exceptionalism that is clearly on the way out is suppose to be a good idea?

  2. Sober and accurate appraisal.
    We have experienced and knowledgeable teachers shaking their heads at these changes
    being ushered in by unresisting or coerced principals
    oblivious boards and parents
    and absorbed by the new wave of teachers as experience continues to leave the teaching force
    as the unbridled “disruptive” experimentation on our children continues apace
    and the range of disturbingly heightened needs that are being incubated before even reaching school
    continue to be unmet.

  3. So in 1984 NZ led the world in kids reading. Who broke what didn’t need fixing? Why?

    About 15 years ago my wife and I answered the call from our grand kids primary school for whanau to come into the school and read to groups of kids. I assumed the teacher would have the kids sitting on a mat to listen learn. Half of them sat on the mat half of them wandered around or climbed on the grand parents as they were doing the reading. Seemed like there was no ‘discipline’ in the classroom. The kind of non-welcome we got from the adults at the school made me think we were from a fragile whanau.

  4. Surely the massive spelling and pronunciation inconsistencies of the English language dooms phonics as primary basis for learning to read it. It would make more sense in languages such as French and Spanish where national language academies have systematically standardised spelling with pronunciation.

  5. It is a costly ‘one-size-fits- all’ experiment to ‘make New Zealand great again’.

    How true. The Ministry of Education have a long history of ‘one-size-fits-all’. Yet in today’s NZ, in many parts characterized by linguistic and cultural diversity – or is this just a feature of greater Auckland – its ironic that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ structural literacy approach is gaining traction. One would think that linguistic and cultural diversity called for a nuanced approach to teaching early literacy.

    Its also true that structured literacy is no silver bullet. The cause of the ‘problem’, relative as it is, is multi-faceted. Mr Powell points the finger at the demise of ERIC, and this may well be one of the key factors in NZ’s falling PISA scores. On the evidence / argument presented it seems very likely that teacher training is a key factor. But like all ‘wicked problems’ causation is not easy to tease out. Mr Powell rightly admits this. I would add that also implicated is the increase in language diversity – and NZs insistence that English is the language of instruction for bilingual kids, other than in Maori immersion contexts. Who are the kids that are failing anyway? I’d like to see the data on this, or more to the point, recognition of what demographics are indeed slipping behind. Or is it more related to socio-economic status, that is to say, are kids from well to do backgrounds and/or from educated families doing well but those from poor backgrounds/ families with little or no education not ding so well. Surely the Ministry have this data.

    Reading practices have also changed. Those who have picked up a textbook on literacy may well know of a key study done in the 60s on the reading practices of poor Appalachian kids, and their school achievement. The findings pointed to the lack of parents involvement at home. Remember the bed time story? Back in the day, kids, rich or poor, started school with this practice under their belts. Not just sounding out the words, or indeed reading for meaning, but talking about the words, talking about the story, connecting literacy with their own lives, or imagining magic and fantastical lives. Literacy comes as a package. Both my parents, both long gone, both with just basic school education had no problems with reading, like tens of thousands of others. People used to read stuff in those days, not only bedtime stories but newspapers and books and magazines. I believe my own literacy comes in large part from growing up in a family where literacy was valued. Social capital. I am no different to tens /hundreds of thousands of my generation. Times have changed. Literacy practices have changed. Is the bed time story still a practice shared in families, or has it gone the way of letter writing and largely disappeared? Do a good many kids now start school where the printed word is simply a muddle of unrelated letters, without sounds or meaning?

    But hey, structured literacy might work for some. But a ‘one size for all’ approach? No.

    • I agree with what you say especially about reading at home, bedtime stories and having appealing reading material readily available, so that to pick up a magazine and thumb through it, is seen to be done. Children imitate what they see. Do we set a good enough example at home?
      I read for pleasure. My husband would say he’s never read a book for pleasure. He reads to find information.

      I’m an early 70s trained teacher, ERIC and Reading Recovery. Both good. Reading for meaning was the theme. Even phonics may have a place. However, I’d stress that ALL methods of teaching reading should be employed. Some approaches suit some people, other ways suit others. Most children who have no underlying problems may not need phonics. For them, with a strong family and pre-school background, reading comes naturally.

      What still isn’t been dealt with is the large percentage of children, I’d guess 20%+, who have a visual perceptual problem/sensitivity to light. Irlen Syndrome or a disorder like Dyslexia among others, will prevent very clever people from reading well. Phonics won’t help.
      Words on a page already look a confusing mess. Now you tell children that a small part of the word is more important than the whole word and what it means. Learn the letter sounds yes, but get moving, don’t spoil the whole word by sounding-it-out to death.
      Irlen can easily be remedied and it’s a disgrace that it is not being sorted out. Coloured transparent plastic overlays in every class would help identify those who may need more help.

      I wonder about these experts that the right puts so much faith in. Do they have real classroom experience?
      If there are 35 children in a class, there will be 35 different pre-school experiences behind them, 35 possible scenarios when each child goes home with their school reading book and 35 different levels of success or failure.

      As with everything else, this govt. seeks the easy way out, the cheapest option, the least creative or thoughtful option and expects people to drop what they are doing, sometimes quite well, and do as they are now told to do. Principals need to stand up for some proven learning principles, and their teachers.
      Take the govt’s. policy with a grain of salt. Once children learn something they won’t unlearn it and start again, just to please Erica Standford.

  6. Yes Joy, I’ve read that around 10% of kids (and adults) are on the dyslexic spectrum. That must surely skew the reading stats. Perhaps a focus on phonics will help. But again, I have read, no silver bullet.

    • There needs to be an intervention of some sort initially to assess the problem. Only when a plan has been put in place to deal with it, can things like phonics, reading recovery or whatever, be used and possibly help.
      Of course, once a problem is being fixed, the child speeds ahead and catches up to their peers. They don’t need a plodding phonics teacher getting in the way.
      Dyslexia is a knotty problem and I don’t know much about it.
      Irlen is entirely different although children may suffer from both.
      However, Irlen can be all but eliminated with the right coloured specs. it sounds too good to be true but it works. So, there’s a silver bullet for Irlen, but it doesn’t come cheap. That is where the money should be spent. They can turn struggling, disinterested readers into successful readers.
      These are often very clever people who discover ways to cover up their problem perhaps and somehow get by. In the past they could do so easily. Less so now with the emphasis on university degrees etc.
      If children don’t have family support with reading problems, parents etc. getting outside help, there’s little chance of them ever being good readers and no amount of phonics will solve the problem.
      Back to the drawing board I’m afraid, Erica.


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