Invisible Barriers: Illiteracy in Aotearoa

One in every four people in Aotearoa struggles with literacy, Isa Pearl Ritchie shares her personal story.

One in every four people in Aotearoa struggles with literacy, Isa Pearl Ritchie shares her personal story.

It was 1993 and I was eight years old. After much pleading I had finally convinced my mother to let me attend the local ‘normal’ school. A ‘normal’ school was the old-fashioned name for schools that had trainee-teachers come in on practicum, but to me it was far from normal. I remember the spinning sensation, the panic on my first day when Mrs Roe asked us to write down every word we knew how to spell. I only knew ‘and’ and ‘the’ in English. I left the page blank.

Until that point I had gone to kura kaupapa, a Māori-immersion environment where I had learnt my first written language. At that time I could read and write anything in Māori. As a phonetic language it made sense to me – as soon as I knew the letters I knew how to turn the sounds into written form – even before I could differentiate words. The first time I felt compelled to write something down outside of school was when we had naughty babysitters one night and I wanted to leave a note for Mum. I wrote a note in te reo Māori without spaces between the words. I was five and she could read it perfectly. The spacing between words perhaps seems arbitrary when sounds and meaning flow together.

That first day at the ‘normal’ school was the pivotal point for me, where I went from feeling fully literate to illiterate. While at the time it seemed as though my change in environment was the reason for that, I now know that an undiagnosed learning disorder was what made learning to read and write in English a painful process.


Most people reading this article won’t remember learning to read and write in English – at least that is my general understanding from many, many conversations I’ve had. Many people in Aotearoa will have gone to school with fairly good comprehension of spoken English, picking up the written language easily enough to not remember how it happened. However, a lot of kids don’t. Many kids go to school having not spoken English – or any language for that matter – very much at all. A University of Canterbury study following 247 children in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch found 143 of these children started school with low oral-language skills, 40 of whom also had a developmental speech disorder. A major hindrance at such a pivotal time in one’s education.

You can’t draw a clear line between literacy and illiteracy – it is a continuum

Illiteracy is a problem. One that is interconnected with and inseparable from the wider issues of poverty, unemployment and poor health. I wanted to tell this story about my experience of being English-illiterate because strong literacy in the dominant language (like other forms of privilege) is something people seem to take for granted when they have it. You can’t draw a clear line between literacy and illiteracy – it is a continuum, and this is why the research is often contradictory. The World Data Atlas estimates the adult English literacy rate in Aotearoa New Zealand to be around 99% ­– similar to other developed countries. This figure is based on people who can, with understanding, read and write a short simple statement on their everyday life. While 99% sounds great, the figure indicates that approximately one in every hundred people in this country is profoundly illiterate, and Literacy Aotearoa states that about one in four New Zealanders struggles to engage with the English language in all the ways that are part of daily life – reading a school newsletter, a health pamphlet, an employment contract; filling out a form for vehicle licensing, tenancy application; navigating the basic bureaucratic systems of the world we live in.

Literacy Aotearoa claim that myths get in the way of people properly understanding illiteracy. As an organisation focused on delivering accessible adult literacy services in Aotearoa they encounter a number of prevalent myths about illiteracy. Although 70% of their Wellington students are born locally, the myth persists that only migrants and refugees struggle with English literacy. Literacy Aotearoa also work to debunk the myth, “If you didn't learn it at school – you are just ‘thick’” – actually literacy is not about intelligence; literacy is a collection of tools that people can learn. Despite this, for kids who cannot easily engage with the English language, school too easily becomes an experience of shame, of trying to outsmart the system or of feeling like they are stupid.

Literacy Aotearoa highlight the importance of talking about literacy problems and acknowledging them, because without raised awareness New Zealanders are likely to continue to underestimate the scale of the problems we face nationally around this issue.


I remember the shame of being laughed at by my first new friend at that school when I asked her how to spell ‘big.’ Even though ‘big’ is arguably phonetic, most of English isn’t. So I developed a keen paranoia of silent letters, which I assumed were trick letters that would appear in some words at random. To outsmart them I devised a cunning plan to sporadically place letters into the words I was writing, just in case. In the multiple choice PAT tests I filled in the dots in random letter combinations, focusing more on developing my own algorithm for how answers might be scattered between the four options: A, D, C, C, B, D, A, A, B. I did this because I could not read the questions and this was the best use of my test time.

When I think back to that time, the dominant emotion is hopelessness. I asked my mother what I could be when I grew up…I ran through all the appealing options, with growing panic. I was raised to believe girls could do everything, and suddenly I found that I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t be a teacher, a doctor, a nurse…all of these things required reading and writing. I became more desperate, “Could I be a fashion designer?” I asked Mum. “Fashion designers have to write down instructions and things,” she informed me. Everything I could think of was out of reach. My future had gone from being one full of shining possibilities to one of hopelessness.


We live in a world dominated by English – even the internet (which was not part of my life in 1993) is ruled by the written word. English literacy facilitates and dictates our ability to engage in many parts of society, although – like a driver’s license – it is something you don’t think much about when you have it.

Not learning to read and write makes it difficult to fully participate in society. You can’t ‘be’ most things when you grow up. Your options for employment are severely limited, and even engaging with social-support systems is hard when some require 30-page forms to be filled out to access them. In my sociological training, I’ve learnt how the dominant structures of our society have been largely developed by and for privileged people, and largely serve their needs, whether deliberately or incidentally. These invisible barriers are severe, disempowering and shaming.

We live in a world where the fewer choices you have, the more you are judged for what you ‘choose,’ even though from a position of disempowerment it may not seem like there are any choices at all. Less than 40% of New Zealand prisoners would be able to read an employment contract or tenancy agreement if they were freed today, according to figures from the Department of Corrections. If you can’t read or write, you can’t work in most jobs or even apply for them, you can’t fill out forms, or read contracts, or tell anyone that you can’t because the shame is often unbearable.


It took me over a year to catch up on reading, despite all the support I had at home and at school being in a special reading group. In fact, I didn’t learn to read properly until there was a compelling fad to get fixated on. In 1994 it was Goosebumps books, with their terrifying stories in relatable kid-character voices with twists at the end! I cannot overstate the importance of Goosebumps books in 1994 but I will say that the author, R. L. Stine, has sold more books that Stephen King. Initially they were excruciatingly hard to read. The first one was about disembodied hands that play a piano – very spooky. I tried to make Mum read it to me. She refused, cringing at my terrible taste in literature, but eventually we came to a compromise – I was nine by this time, and well into my second year of ‘normal’ schooling – the compromise was that she would read me a chapter and I would read the following one myself. Eventually, I got there. By the end of the book I could read the next one without her help (she had also refused to read anymore trashy fiction, so I had no choice).


Illiteracy is just one small part of a massive intersecting puzzle of complex and interconnected social problems largely related to intergenerational, historical trauma and socioeconomic inequity and – in Aotearoa – to colonisation

Illiteracy is just one small part of a massive intersecting puzzle of complex and interconnected social problems largely related to intergenerational, historical trauma and socioeconomic inequity and – in Aotearoa – to colonisation, and the alienation caused by dominant power and knowledge systems. Boston and Chapple’s book Child Poverty in New Zealand (2014) emphasises this clear link between poverty and illiteracy, as well as proving the connection between colonisation and poverty for Indigenous peoples. This irrefutable relationship between illiteracy and poverty, whereby poverty is more likely to lead to illiteracy and illiteracy perpetuates poverty, is further emphasised in international research. A report published by the World Literacy Foundation links illiteracy to poor health outcomes and argues that improving literacy skills is a key step towards overcoming poverty and disadvantage.

Research on literacy, including the work of distinguished literacy scholar Allan Luke, also draws systemic connections between literacy and power systems. Luke argues that even literacy research is intrinsically political, and yet often unconsciously so. In an essay entitled No Grand Narrative in Sight: On Double Consciousness and Critical Literacy, Luke points out, “Literacy research requires an intersectional analysis that explains how educational inequality reflects and contributes to cultural/racial/gendered and socioeconomic marginalization.” Luke’s research on literacy echoes the critiques presented by Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her landmark work Decolonizing Methodologies, that the ethnocentricity of Western language and knowledge presents further alienating barriers for those who grow up outside of the dominant culture or class; the Darwinian narrative of learning’s evolution towards the upper echelons of Western Knowledge perpetuates ideological colonisation, while simultaneously acting as a gatekeeper – seldom letting through those who do not fit.

That same narrative that supports Western knowledge, manifesting what is considered fact and what is fiction – as well as other simplistic dichotomies – held no space for the complex and interconnected understandings that intuitively made sense to me as a child, and to many other people struggling with literacy. The research consistently shows literacy is a serious problem, and yet those who struggle to communicate and interpret English are seldom heard. Meanwhile those who don’t even remember learning to read and write don’t often get the opportunity to understand what if feels like to live without the tools that are often demanded of us on a daily basis. I wanted to share my story to raise empathy for the experience of the powerlessness; even though I now have multiple university degrees to show that my struggles with literacy do not mean I’m stupid, I still feel a sense of shame.


I didn’t do well in school until I got to university (and I had to do a bridging programme to get in). At university, I took the papers that were the most interesting to me, mostly in sociology, which helped to mitigate my learning disorder. I now have a PhD, I write novels and my day job requires daily writing. I am highly literate, and I doubt that I would be without all the support from my family. I had the privilege of coming from a well-educated family, I had a lot of support and encouragement. A lot of kids don’t have that – and it is unfortunate that we live in a country where the family you are born into is the most significant indicator of your success in later life.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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