GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Structured literacy – how rigidity flows from ideology


On 18 June an earlier Political Bytes post discussed the ideological framework in which the government has required schools to restrict their teaching of literacy to what is called ‘structured literacy’ (ie, exclusively phonics): Hegemony, meaning and structured literacy.

Hegemony: how the rulers rule the ruled

I used hegemony in the context of when those who rule (or govern) a society or country successfully ensure that their values and ideas are also those of the ruled (or governed).

Triggered by a government instruction to primary schools in Aotearoa New Zealand’s education system, we now have an example of when the impetus for hegemony underpinned by ideological dogma leads to retrogressive rigidity.

The core of structured literacy

I argued that:

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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.

However, structured literary was:

…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.

This, along with the lack of evidence to justify this political decision, led me to conclude that:

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as part of literacy learning enhances the ability to question and even challenge existing mores that either are no longer applicable or were never justified in the first place.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

Education Minister instructs schools

Education Minister issues instruction masquerading as an announcement to schools

On 3 July Minister of Education Erica Stanford made a major announcement (aka instruction) on how primary schools assess their children: Education Minister’s assessments announcement.

Her statement focussed on the mandatory testing of children by schools. This was despite warnings from education experts and teachers that this was over the top and counterproductive.

Children are already effectively tested in a way that can also be both learnt from and usefully compared internationally.

This new imposed additional testing is the outcome of rigid thinking that believes somehow it will improve, or lead to a better understanding of, children’s performance. It gives little more than the impression of being seen to do something.

What primary schools need are more teaching and learning resources, not more testing. The latter increases the pressure on both teachers (increased transaction costs with no additional value transacted) and children.

The revelation

In respect of literacy it was the media coverage, particularly by Radio New Zealand, rather than the Minister’s media statement, that was most revealing.

On 4 July the national public radio station brought this out revelation in an item that included a link to Checkpoint interviews the previous evening: Revelations over structured literacy.


Dr Jae Major, education senior lecturer at Canterbury University warned that phonics was only one part of the reading assessments required and could also create stress and anxiety. Further it is:

…only a narrow part of the whole reading process, and so it needs to be taken along with assessment of comprehension, reading comprehension, and vocabulary development and a raft of other things that are just as important as phonics in the development of reading with young children.

Her concern was that “…this preoccupation with phonics and phonics testing is going to put a lot of attention on one element of what is required for young children to learn to read, and it isolates that one element and seems to ignore the others.”

She referred to two critical missing elements in this narrow approach to literacy – comprehension (meaning) and vocabulary development. Although. as an academic, her description was more gently expressed than mine, she is right.

My focus was the on removal of ‘meaning’ or ‘comprehension’ from literacy learning. But the removal of ‘vocabulary’ is also a serious concern; these two elements are interconnected, however.

Rigidity the kindest description

Dr Major also identified the inexplicable cessation of the evidence-based reading recovery programme

She described the programme as focussing on those children who are struggling with reading. It involves one-to-one work with individual children by teachers trained in reading recovery.

Erica Stanford’s response to the abandonment of this successful programme could not have been more revealing. She was terminating reading recovery “…because it was not based on structured literacy.”

Rigidity is the kindest word to describe when the ideological use of an unproven and highly questionable exclusively phonics programme (structured literacy) is used to preclude the additional use of a successful programme for struggling children (reading recovery).

There are several more ‘Anglo Saxon’ descriptors that might be used.



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. Based on this article, even the standard model for teaching of basic reading was an ideological program by the Left-leaning educational establishment to create the future revolutionary mass needed for the overthrowing of the hegemonic system.

    No wonder our public schools fail. And parents want charter schools.

    • You have just demonstrated a lack of understanding of the meaning behind this article & made your own interpretation of what was said to suit your agenda. It would seem to be self-evident that to be an effective reader you need to know what the words mean so any system that teaches children to say words without a knowledge of what they mean is not going to produce the sort of people we need to make society better.

      • Alas Bonnie, that’s what they want. They don’t want people who can interpret what they read and understand it. They don’t WANT comprehension.
        Ada doesn’t know history when she claims the present system of building comprehension was the Left’s version of the same process. It came in mostly in the 70s and how many Labour govts had we had up until Kirk’s? So forget her.
        Children who are not going to have difficulty learning to read will need phonics for about 5 minutes. After that they will simply ready, they will get it and teachers won’t be able to hold them back to learn words phonically. Children, luckily, do not listen to what govt. says they have to do. Normal writing isn’t written phonically so why would they bother with it if they can read properly.
        Children who will struggle to read naturally, will struggle more because basically teachers will be saying, here don’t bother with that normal page of writing, learn this instead. They are already failing to see and digest normal written words and now they are expected to learn another ‘language’.
        It’s all been tried before. To religiously use one system and one system only, has been found to be useless and impossible. Yes, Rigidity is the kindest description.
        Teachers only have children under their influence for a very short time and cannot control everything.
        Children will naturally use any way they can to figure words out. Parents will show them something different at home. Their friends will give them hints and ideas.
        This dictatorial govt. will find children themselves will outgrow phonics rapidly.
        So, if teachers don’t want a class of unruly clever children who are bored stiff and playing up, they won’t push phonics at the expense of normal reading and getting onto the fun stuff, comprehension.

      • I’ll just qoute Ian Powell’s article here.

        “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.”

        Sounds like priming kids for deep social change through the education system.

        • “Sounds like priming kids for deep social change through the education system”.

          So what’s new Ada?

          But better to have citizens equipped for critical thinking than not I say. Need to hold all the bullshit artists to account, no? Not that ‘reading for meaning’ by itself leads to critical thinking.

    • Ada. Yadda yadda yadda Ada. Wanting compliance. Needing compliance. Must. Have. Compliance. No wonder you’re boring. You know nothing.
      Superb piece @ Ian Powell. Thank you.

    • Obviously you learned to read this way because you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Pretty much to be expected from a right wing troll.

  2. My generation was taught phonics. We can read, spell and speak properly. I can also spot silly arguments very easily.

  3. Ian, it’s a reaction to the pointy headed ideologues in the Ministry who were previously pushing ‘whole word’ literacy which was far worse.

    In a more ideal world, we should be letting go of the 4,000 plus people in the ministry and use the money saved to implement an education voucher system like some of the Scandinavian countries have. Then parents can choose what sort of education their children receive then idealogues from either side cannot easily interfere.

  4. I notice the government has to do a u turn and needs to build 300 plus new class rooms ,just after cancelling all the previous governments building program .The sinking ferries comes to mind .How much money and momentum has been wasted by yet another back flip .Now all the new tradies have skipped the country who will build these schools .While we are at it Cigaretti needs to back flip on the hospitals they have stopped .I note they closed down half north shore hospital to staff the new one ,the previous government built without fanfare .Bunch of incompetent pricks .While in opposition they were going to wave their magic wand and fix all of NZ in 6 months .

  5. How ironic – leftist craps on proven methodology to raise our dire reading levels. Reading recovery is a joke that doesn’t work, and there’s nothing in the governments announcement that precludes comprehension in reading teaching – it instead emphasises learning the basics at a young age.

      • What ideology is this? My view is informed by having generations of teachers in my family and seeing with my own eyes the truly terrible teaching practices inflicted on my kids in recent years.
        Not ideology, facts.

        • The reading recovery you have seen failing may have been because a child had an underlying learning problem which no-one had recognized or dealt with. In which case, RR won’t work. It’s not the fault of RR, it’s the fault of the many adults who have interacted with that child and never had a deeper look at what was going wrong for them.
          Perhaps teacher training needs to extend a bit into specific learning difficulties or perceptual problems and ways of recognizing them. Then being willing to stick their necks out and recommend further assessment, which is where it gets tricky. That involves cost and at that point parents baulk.
          If the govt. had any forward thinking ideas it would be looking to fund that further assessment and possible help. Some fixes are fairly easy.

          • joy if your thesis is correct…does this mean ‘learning difficulties’ are increasing like autism and allergies and other modern maladies….or is it an unintended consiquence of mixed ability groups?

            • I think a percentage of people have always had trouble learning to read but it wasn’t always so imperative that they did.
              Many people with a problem found ways of avoiding the issue and got by. They are not lacking in intelligence and can be very creative and even cunning in finding ways to cope.

              If a child appears to have everything going for them, supportive literate family background, good vocabulary and wide general knowledge, takes an interest in things, etc. and fails to latch onto reading in a natural way, you have to ask what’s gone wrong.

              Difficulty reading carries over into maths and reading music. Children get 2-digit numbers round the wrong way and are no quicker reading numbers than they are reading letters.
              I don’t think mixed ability classes are a problem. In fact, they might help children who aren’t too badly affected, to keep up, a bit of peer support and expectation. As with everything there are some who are just a bit off and others who are severely affected.

              Don’t know if learning difficulties are increasing either. Before reading became the benchmark which defined success or failure, perhaps some people had problems with dexterity required to shoot arrows or sew and other skills which added food or comfort to people’s lives.

              People with a learning difficulty usually don’t grow up to be school teachers. Therefore, your average school teacher doesn’t have much contact with people who have a specific learning problem unless they are family members. The easy ones like sight and hearing can be dealt with. But it’s the tricky ones like sensitivity to light on a page of writing, which are harder to recognise. If a teacher has several of these children in a class they fall into the too hard basket usually.
              A teacher has to know what to look out for.
              Once recognised, some can be helped quite easily followed by reading recovery for a while.
              They need to get the parents to take responsibility for having a child assessed and deal with the problem of possible. It’s time and money and knowing who to go to. The govt’s efforts need to be put into this phase.

    • Reading recovery does work. What are you on about? What qualifies you to make this clearly erroneous statement – maybe you work with Erica?

      Comprehension needs to be developed ‘in tandem’ with phonics and whole words – without it there is nothing to scaffold learning on – and so it does not occur.

      This is not social media where you can talk as much rubbish as you want. Here your crap will be held to account.

  6. Nearly everyone has been taught and they remember bad and difficult teaching methods. With good teaching the students are oblivious to good teaching methods. Thus we have badly taught people promoting their ignorance of good teaching.

  7. Rigid phonics as a core strategy is plainly inferior to mixed and balanced approaches.
    Since the great vowel shift about 500-600 years ago English spelling has, to a significant extent, borne little relation to pronunciation, and regional dialects have compounded the disconnection.
    And in regard to meaning, I would contend the old fashioned assertion that studying Latin and etymology bears greater fruit than phonics in learning language. And no one seriously advances a return to reciting tables of amo, amas, amat, etc
    Phonics can probably be useful in introducing the beginner to the fundamental principles of the relationship between speaking and writing, but the relationship quickly breaks down, – in English at least.

    • Studying Latin and French is definitely good for advanced English spelling and comprehension. For my generation it undoubtedly assisted.

  8. “… the ideological framework in which the government has required schools to restrict their teaching of literacy to what is called ‘structured literacy’”

    Restrict? Is it really that prescriptive, hegemonic? A one size fits all approach will not work for many, but arguably will for some. That criticism of course could be leveled at whole language approaches. The reality is that most teachers recognize the complexity (although the focus of initial teaching training and ongoing professional development around literacy development is very different can of worms). But I suspect primary school teachers are under immense pressure, class sizes, individual differences (prior knowledge of the students, language background, cognitive abilities, learning difficulties, socio-economic, to name a few). And ‘reading recovery’ specialists would definitely appreciate these differences among those that struggle with initial reading.

    Nah, like all ideological positions, restricting the teaching of initial literacy to ‘structured literacy’ is an ideal. In this case a government directed policy to appease voters on the basis the evidence stacks up. There may well be evidence, but as the saying goes, it depends what you’re looking for in the first place and the methods used to obtain the data. Other ‘experts’ of a different hue would be looking at other factors besides numerical test scores and would be using different methods to obtain insights. But conservative right-leaning governments and their voters just love the certainty of numerical data obtained from testing. At ground level, it could be argued the reality is that teachers worth their salt will recognize those who may benefit from more phonics instruction, but continue to integrate a meaning-based approach to extend the more capable.

    Hopefully this will be the case, not the proposed yet another one size fits all.

    • The elephant in the room is that something is clearly wrong in NZ education, our PISA scores show this, and the teaching profession has had its head in the sand for over a decade and done nothing about it. I’ve witnessed this first hand at my kids local primary school in reading, writing and maths.
      Why don’t you people focus on this issue? Something has to change.

      • The elephant in the room. Now that’s a nice turn of phrase, tesseract. Without doubt something is amiss. But what that might be could be what academics call a wicked problem, an issue that is multifaceted and has no one silver bullet.

        Yes, its true, PISA scores are on the decline, comparatively speaking. A few years back, officials from the Scandi countries doing best in these comparative test scores referred to ‘PISA tourism’, overseas educationalists flocking to these countries to understand the secrets of a high PISA rating. I don’t really know what was found, but possibly a combination of smaller class sizes, adequate educational funding, student homogeneity, the absence of wide socioeconomic disparity, the quality of teacher training and ongoing professional development, and yes, the curriculum and teaching methods. Combined, this is the elephant in the room. Focusing on structured literacy and more standardized testing is the easy way out. The current Coalition govt surely know this. But in the face of “the crisis” they need to be seen to be doing something about it. And why not take the advise of (some) education academics who have long advocated for a phonics based approach to early literacy. These advocates for phonics instruction evidently have the evidence to support their claims, although the public are never quite told what this evidence looks like or how it was constructed – all we are told is that the current system is “failing”, not for all it should be said, but for a significant number, whose identity is never quite made explicit. The current Coalition are hoping there is a silver bullet but their efforts fall short of addressing what is a wicked problem. The elephant in the room is pretty big.

  9. all I know is old school rote learning..yes it was heiracical, paternalisatic, mildly coercive and bloody tedious…no visible illiterates (they can be clever at hiding it) in my year….today find me a lower decile school kid with basic and I do mean even basic literacy.
    maybe education needs to be a bit coersive(afterall classrooms are not a natural place for kids) and not a cuddly therapy group…nobody is suggesting a return of the whack but some basic structure and rating would not be a bad thing


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