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PoliticsNovember 13, 2023

The problem with National’s plan to mandate ‘structured literacy’ in schools

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

There’s no consistent definition used in New Zealand, no clear definition put forward by the National Party, and it’s a term beset with trademark issues, writes Linda Kimpton.

In September, the National Party promised to mandate structured literacy as part of its literacy guarantee: “National will ensure every child learns to read using structured literacy by making it a requirement at primary school.” This announcement was met by service providers and resource sellers across New Zealand labelling what they already do as “structured literacy”, with one company going so far as to submit a trademark claim for the term in an effort to protect its intellectual property. Social media was buzzing with people celebrating the promised mandate, though their understandings of what structured literacy referred to were diverse and often contradictory.

In October, I ran two surveys through social media, shared across multiple New Zealand education groups, to find out what people thought structured literacy meant. The surveys turned up at least six different interpretations of the term, and only 1% of respondents thought the term was used consistently within New Zealand. No single definition dominated, with the two most popular responses hitting 23%.

Two of the largest structured literacy advocacy groups in New Zealand do have a very clear interpretation of structured literacy. Both Lifting Literacy Aotearoa and Dyslexia Evidence Based state that structured literacy specifically refers to the meaning promoted by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), an organisation based in the United States, which is based on “highly explicit and systematic teaching of all important components of literacy”, including decoding, spelling, reading comprehension and written expression. They believe this to the extent that they have used the IDA interpretation like a checklist, to declare that particular New Zealand service providers are not delivering structured literacy.

Both these large advocacy groups have declared in the past that the Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA), an approach used in over 40% of New Zealand schools, is not a structured literacy approach. Yet the National Party, through its education spokesperson Erica Stanford, has repeatedly stated that BSLA is structured literacy. BSLA also self-identifies as a structured literacy approach.

National calls the Better Start Literacy Approach ‘structured literacy’. Some NZ advocates disagree.

There is a reason that the IDA’s definition of structured literacy is treated as definitive by these advocacy groups, and that it turns up in some definitions among New Zealanders: in 2016, the IDA publicly claimed to have coined the term, and asserted that it was their brand and trademark. They later succeeded in trademarking the term. They released infographics to explain what it must include, and in 2018 they released a 41-page document explaining the structured literacy approach in detail. The IDA set up an accreditation process, and accompanying fees, for any organisation that wanted to deliver structured literacy.

Yet even those in New Zealand who turn to the IDA to define structured literacy disagree about what it requires. Some solely rely on their own interpretation of the principles in IDA’s infographics; others insist on using the 41-page IDA document.

The fact IDA has asserted its trademark over “structured literacy” has not gone unnoticed by our Ministry of Education. In October 2022, the ministry said it preferred to use the term “structured approach to literacy” when discussing BSLA in particular, because of IDA’s trademark. (This was before a private company in New Zealand submitted its own claim to the trademark.)

These trademark and definition issues have been avoided by other governments when adopting their own approaches intended to align with the science of reading, by avoiding the term “structured literacy” altogether. They have instead used terms such as “systematic synthetic phonics”, “science of reading”, or come up with their own term to capture the shift (such as Canada’s “Building Blocks of Reading”).

If the National Party insists on using the term structured literacy, it needs to be careful not to adopt a definition that is either too narrow or too broad. An overly restrictive and heavily prescribed definition will unjustifiably limit literacy practices in New Zealand, and could put high-quality service providers out of business. The science of reading has given us a solid foundation on which to build good practice, but it has not delivered us the fine detail of what this must look like in practice.

The IDA interpretation of the science of reading is exactly that: an interpretation. It is not a definitive or universally accepted version of best practice amongst those who otherwise agree on what the science of reading tells us. It is arguable that the IDA definition of structured literacy would be too narrow.

At the other extreme, adopting an overly broad definition of structured literacy may lead to superficial changes that will not impact on classroom practice and therefore not deliver the hoped-for improvements in literacy outcomes. For example, a loose definition may simply lead to rebranding and terminology change rather than substantive change, or may lead to elements simply being added to fundamentally flawed approaches rather than changes being made to the approach itself.

The allocation of tens of millions in public funding turns on being clear on what structured literacy means, and yet there is no consistent definition used in New Zealand, no clear definition put forward by the National Party, and it is a term beset with trademark issues.

This does not bode well for a strong and united shift towards an approach that is aligned with the science of reading.

The National Party has alternatives it could pursue to get more New Zealand schools to adopt a science of reading-aligned approach, which avoid many of the above issues. A first option is it could choose a term that is not already trademarked. National could create its own term or seek suggestions from New Zealand teachers and literacy experts on a term they would feel comfortable using.

A second option is mandating against the use of poor approaches to teaching fundamental literacy skills. In particular, National could ban the use of “three-cueing”, which is foundational to the “balanced literacy” approach. This is a less prescriptive option than mandating a single approach, and is an option that has been pursued in some states in America.

The final option I’ll mention here is that National could recognise that the Ministry of Education was already taking significant strides towards promoting and funding better literacy practices. Reading recovery and the balanced literacy approach more broadly were increasingly being rejected across New Zealand schools without any mandates being necessary. An educative approach that convinced teachers to shift towards better practices, supported by science and evidence showing that those approaches are better, may have been more respectful and more respected than a structured literacy mandate.

The incoming government can make all the changes it wants to shift New Zealand schools towards a science-based approach to literacy and towards better outcomes for all students, without specifically resorting to a structured literacy mandate. If they insist on the mandate (as they likely will, given the prominence of their promise to do so), I hope they will carefully consider the competing definitions of structured literacy and share their own intended meaning with the rest of New Zealand as a priority, before further confusion and divisions take hold.

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