New Zealand’s literacy strategy seeks to translate into reality the broad policy goals of equipping all New Zealanders with the knowledge, skills and values to be successful citizens of the twenty‐first century. The central policy concern is reflected in international surveys showing that although the country’s student achievement is above the international average in literacy, the achievement profiles show very high variability, stratified along ethnic lines. Concerns about those not achieving as well as others form much of the focus of literacy policies in many western education jurisdictions and in New Zealand’s policy‐in‐use as expressed in the literacy strategy. Two differentially effective professional development initiatives are analysed in this paper using a sense‐making theoretical framework. These initiatives formed a major component of the literacy strategy and were aimed at raising the literacy achievement of students in both deep and surface features of reading and writing. The relevance of the framework was highlighted by the analysis of the mediation processes that occurred between the policy formulation with its accompanying implementation messages and the existing norms and belief systems of practitioners as they reconstructed the messages in the two initiatives. The first initiative focused on developing instructional leadership and evidence‐informed practices but the messages were re‐interpreted in ways that missed these central tenets. The second had a greater focus on teacher knowledge and practice accompanied by evidence‐informed decision‐making, with outcomes for teachers and students forming the contractual foundation. The central messages were conveyed through multiple system layers to teachers, with concomitant improvement in achievement, particularly for the lowest 20% of students. Material artefacts and the activities of visiting facilitators both played key roles in spanning system boundaries. The paper concludes with a brief analysis of the relationship between policy‐makers, practitioners and researchers that contributed to progress towards meeting the policy goals.