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$67 Million for Structured Literacy: Is it a Surface-Level Fix?

by Rebecca Thomas

"Nothing new in this book," is a comment I heard from a colleague after they had read Leading to the North-East. "It's common sense," came another reply, and yet, the troubling narrative remains.


The evidence in the data and the research is one that has the same rhetoric and trend for over a decade.

There is disparity in our education system.

Literacy rates are simply one indicator of these broader, pervasive inequities spanning the entire curriculum. As Rebecca Jesson highlighted in this report, our young marginalised students bear the lifelong impacts of this crisis - with likely cyclical dynamics at play. Absenteeism fuels low achievement, which fuels disengagement and further absenteeism...or is it the other way around?

This raises skepticism for some over whether the government's new $67 million structured literacy initiative can truly eradicate such an ingrained, compounding pattern. While laudable in intent, will just one teaching method fix problems caused by lots of overlapping systemic obstacles, even if the intention is good?

The Minister defends structured literacy as an evidence-based way to build strong foundational literacy skills through explicit phonics instruction. And the investment includes funding for teacher training, books, student assessments, and individualised supports - all critically important components.

In the excitement, be mindful that the "science of learning" principles warn against treating any one methodology as a remedy, able to activate learning in a vacuum. There are often multiple effective pathways to engage the same underlying cognitive processes like memory formation, motivation, and self-regulation.

The 'Battleground SoL' article, from Tes, explains that the science of learning (SoL) provides research on the mechanisms of how learning occurs, but does not dictate specific instructional practices. The blog cautions against merging learning theory with the practical craft of teaching - researchers study the "why" of learning while teachers are experts in the contextual "how" of implementation.

For teachers, knowing about the Science of Learning (SoL) can help improve their teaching methods and student performance. For school leaders, keeping SoL separate from educational research lets them rely on teachers' expertise for teaching decisions, while using insights from learning science to create fair and inclusive school settings. It's important for teachers and leaders to work together to combine academic theories with the diverse realities of the classroom.

When looking for a PLD provider to support your next structured move it would be beneficial to seek out providers who emphasise collaboration between teachers and school leaders to integrate academic models with real-world classroom experiences.

Below the surface.

So, we must analyse whether this sweeping structural literacy policy truly grapples with the myriad underlying forces of marginalisation obstructing our students from thriving; beneath the shiny surface lurks monsters of the deep:

- The alienating lack of representation in curricula and materials  

- Insufficient wraparound services for academic and non-academic needs

- Unequal access to educational resources and opportunities

- Stereotyping, prejudices, discrimination and bias

- Devaluation of cultural identities breeding disengagement and low self-esteem

Just changing the curriculum won't fully address all the complex human issues driving literacy gaps and achievement disparities. It also won't resolve worries about oversimplifying diverse learning styles, or creating unnecessary divides between different teaching approaches.

Structured literacy should be positioned as one well-leveraged component within a comprehensive action plan to transform our institutions into authentically inclusive, identity-affirming learning ecosystems. We need among many things, investment in culturally sustaining, empowering pedagogical approaches too. 

Pair the instructional "what" of phonics with the "how", being the ‘craft of teaching itself’.

Ultimately, in Aotearoa, this literacy project reminds us that classroom teaching can't rely solely on academic theories. While understanding how people learn is important, it doesn't cover all the real-life challenges teachers face, especially with marginalised groups. Questions like how to engage nervous new entrants, or make reading meaningful emotionally can't be fully answered by theory alone.

Only experienced teachers who work closely with students, can provide these insights. As leaders, our job is to bring together researchers who study 'why' learning happens with teachers who know 'how' to make it happen in a way that respects every student's identity and needs, particularly those of Māori students. When theory and practice work together, every child's potential can shine

When considering structured literacy initiatives like the recent $67 million government investment, it's crucial to dig deeper. Beneath the surface lies a complex web of issues hindering marginalised students' success: lack of representation in curricula, unequal access to resources, stereotypes, and more. Simply changing the curriculum won't solve these deep-rooted problems.

Structured literacy should be part of a broader, inclusive approach that values cultural diversity and empowers students. Pairing phonics instruction with culturally sustaining pedagogies can create truly inclusive learning environments. So, let's not just rely on theory; let's combine it with the practical wisdom of experienced educators to truly make a difference in every child's education journey.

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