The battle for primary school reading – Is the phoneme on the wall?
A reading treasure reduced and reducing: Part 1
This posting (there are six parts – the other five can be found in the curriculum section) is how a group of women – women in primary school junior classrooms – the ones who have been the heart and soul of junior class reading for decades, have been diminished in status and spirit by phonics-focused academics as an outcome of the bitter and long-running phonics’ debate. These women are in an increasingly weakened professional situation, and vulnerable to any future undermining by politicians, the media, bureaucracy, education lobby groups, community pressures, and the effects of a changed emphasis in the training of teachers on some campuses. I call this group of teachers the ‘balanced reading’ group. The philosophical antecedents to balanced reading go back to Beeby.
The phonics-focused academics to the forefront of the debate are Tom Nicholson, William Tunmer, and James Chapman. When I saw these three in action at a conference some years ago: Nicholson I described as an academic with a street-fighter streak; Tunmer as austere and reserved; and Chapman as seemingly just happy to be in the company of the other two. Nicholson has led the campaign for a phonics-focused education system, particularly through the media; Tunmer has been very assiduous with the supporting research, and can play the game hard when he puts his mind to it, particularly in research journals; Chapman has also been assiduous in research, most of it in association with Tunmer.
I am writing this series of postings for a number of reasons. The main one is for my self-knowledge – an exploration to find the truth of the matter, perhaps, more accurately, an exploration to be assured of the truth of the matter. I write on the assumption of the efficacy of the balanced reading approach but, as I read the research, talk to people, and reflect on my experiences, I will keep my mind open to contradictions.
I use only two published sources: the ‘New Zealand Journal of Education Studies’ (NZJES), New Zealand’s premier research journal; and the thrice-yearly magazine ‘Developmental Network Newsletter’ which I published for ten years from 1990-1999.
Because this paragraph has been written towards the end of the postings I can report, and with satisfaction, that New Zealand’s balanced reading approach stands up impressively. Within that, though, I do believe that there is a need in some classes for more attention to letter-sound association. This is not directed to my treasured group, but for those still developing the ability in their teaching to piece together the jigsaw that is children’s reading. This greater attention to letter-sound association should be done with a light touch, mainly at the early stages of learning to read, in an integrated way, in other words, in a way consistent with the principles established by the balanced reading group. Stuart McNaughton, a hero to the balanced reading group, says something along these lines, as well. Interestingly, Nicholson, Tunmer et al. at conferences have often said that ten minutes of phonics a day would do it, though they do advocate the teaching be direct. In their writing, though, they bare their teeth.
Another reason for this posting is to pay tribute to our women junior teachers of reading – you are, and long have been, the heroes of our education system. You are, and have been, collectively yourselves. You are not, and never have been, beholden to central government officials, advisers, official publications, overseas writers (for instance, Susan Isaacs, Frank Smith, Bill Martin, or Kenneth Goldman), nor even to local heroes (for instance Warwick Elley, Ruth Trevor, Marie Clay, or Don Holdaway).
A further reason for the postings is to urge people to be prepared – the phonics-focused group usually gains more traction with a conservative government in power and in less settled economic times. Don Brash’s one memorable statement about education you will remember was the need for a return to phonics. (Jane Soler has an interesting article – NZJES, (33) 2 – about ‘the complex interrelationships between economic pressure groups, political structures, and professionals as they attempted to control and define the teaching of reading ‘) As well, there has been a bit of a publicity lull for this group (plenty of positioning, though). It wouldn’t take much for it to be all on again. For instance, Nicholson could produce ‘results’ from a study and present himself to the media as a reading Albert Schweitzer of Albany. (Nicholson and his students are currently working in some Auckland schools, and fair enough.) This would be followed up by politicians, the Business Roundtable (Nicholson, for instance, has been funded by the Education Forum an offshoot of the Business Roundtable), other business groups, editorialists, and a few people, usually women, who feel they have developed a special insight into reading, and set up a small business from which to proselytize.
The special insights from these proselytizers, though, are not without substance. Let me explain. I am visiting a middle-size school in a Waikato country town as a school inspector. The principal is towards the end of his career and he is quite content to run a settled school and to have an uneventful tenure. One thing, though, he greatly enjoys is helping children with their reading. Some of these children are slipping behind in their reading, in other words, potential candidates for reading recovery; others are failing readers. They come to his office on a regular basis, sometimes in small groups, sometimes on their own, to read to him. He is patient, kindly and interested. No particular reading techniques are employed. The most you could say is that he gives them plenty of time to work out any word they are struggling with. Their reading takes wing with him. The results are outstanding but, to me, not surprising, because I have seen the phenomenon occur many times. If you put a child or a small group of children with a kindly, patient adult, regularly, and in a settled environment, there will be a remarkable improvement in reading. (The material does not even have to be interesting, though I think it can contribute, especially with boys.)
The moral is: When adults try out reading ideas in such circumstances, the variable that brings success is not any particular reading technique – it is the situation and environment. I call it the RPE – Retiring Principal Effect. This effect comes into play pretty much irrespective of what is being read, for instance, it can be phonics-focused, Kip McGrath, or child-centred text. Reading in New Zealand is replete with examples of the effect – remember Donna Awatere’s reading system? When it occurs, the providers ascribe the success gained to the techniques employed when, in fact, the variable doing the job (along with a bit of Hawthorne) is the individualisation involved and related environmental factors. I, of course, favour the wider reading context for these happenings because it provides a firmer foundation for subsequent reading development. Examples of ways to provide this wider reading context and firmer foundation are the ‘Reading Together’, or HPP programmes referred to below.
My ideal for class programmes is the balanced reading programme supplemented with more opportunities for individual reading. If I were the minister of education, my first move would be to provide finance for schools to employ adults to read with individual children, or small groups of children, in circumstances similar to those I have described. There should be opportunities to have training in schools, and attend courses, perhaps gain a certificate.
These postings are not to advocate for pressure on schools in any way, if some schools want to go down the phonics-focused route then so be it. (The balanced reading approach is a very broad education church, anyway.) This freedom for schools to work things out for themselves is the New Zealand way. Having said that, one of the objectives of these postings is to lobby the NZEI to be well-prepared to defend my (and their) treasured group of junior class teachers. They are being slowly and slyly undermined with the prospect of it becoming more overt and intensive. A kitset should be available explaining the balanced New Zealand reading approach; experts should be co-opted; articles should be commissioned; media commentators and the media approached and informed; and courses undertaken.
I have visited the classrooms of these women for nearly 40 years, first as a teachers college lecturer, for 15 years as a school inspector, and latterly as a consultant. These women are good, they do the job, they can teach nearly all children to read. These women, however, have been under sustained pressure as a result of the activities of the group of powerful and strategically placed academics and associated academics, who can call effortlessly on the services of the media and politicians and just as effortlessly sway public opinion. As well, these academics go for support to other like-minded academics, mainly in America. These like-minded academics have their own forums, conferences, and publications, and they cite the research of each other to support their respective cases. I call this group ‘phonics focused’ (perhaps ‘riveted’ might be the more accurate word).
I need to say now, in fairness and my own protection, that there is no doubt that the three academics and associated academics are sincere in their belief in the efficacy of their ideas about reading. And while they are not above being partisan in supporting their own ideas, I accept they are just doing what they believe to be in interests of children. And while I will claim it is easy to develop research findings to support particular ideas, this does not mean that anything particularly unethical has occurred. The Hawthorne effect, for instance, is an almost unavoidable part of any research into a comparison of child performance.
Experimental researchers in reading like Tunmer, Chapman, and Nicholson, always face difficulty in establishing their preferred paradigm. To standardise their methods they have to exclude a lot of variables – variables which are often of great significance to New Zealand teachers of the balanced reading programme. Experimental researchers concentrate on words, parts of words, and parts of words of words, even parts of words of words of words. New Zealand teachers undertake close and continuous evaluation of children; the evaluation of experimental researchers is spasmodic and artificial. New Zealand teachers because of their close and continuous evaluation of children can choose the most productive teaching and learning moment for teaching a particular skill; experimental researchers work to more ordered timetables. New Zealand teachers are looking to make learning joyous and spontaneous; experimental researchers avoid such conditions because of the variables they occasion. New Zealand teachers do not assume that metacognition is a fancy word for teachers telling children about reading; they gain particular gratification when children learn for themselves (in response, of course, to setting up prime conditions for such learning to occur). Above all, there is a world of difference between carefully controlled experimental teaching, and the hurly-burly of classroom teaching. Under classroom pressure, it is my observation that phonics-dominated programmes become increasingly sterile.
The attack by Nicholson, Tunmer et al. on the New Zealand-style of teaching reading leads to a strange situation. They unrelentingly condemn ‘whole-language’ teaching which is their disparaging epithet for the New Zealand-style, but on a number of occasions at conferences I have heard them suggest they are simply advocating their phonics’ activities (about ten minutes) be added to existing programmes. (For evidence of this see Part 2 and Part 4.) Isn;t that strange – ad-tos to the afore-condemned ‘whole-language’ teaching.
Three Christchurch College of Education researchers – Faye Parkhill, Jo Fletcher, and Amosa Fa’afoi in NZJES (40) 1) ‘investigated the primary school literacy environment in which Pasifika children learned best. How would experimental researchers control the variables these Christchurch researchers suggest as being important for the literacy of Pasifika children? The Christchurch researchers said their study ‘highlights the importance of home-school relationships, the central role of the church and the maintenance of cultural identity ‘, the centrality of parental support and love, the importance of high expectations from school staff and parents – and, to a lesser extent, the value of an ICT-supported learning environment.’ At the very least I call upon experimental researchers to be a little less tendentious in presenting their results, and a little more humble toward our classroom practitioners.
Research has similarities with a fiction writer’s plot line. In a plot line there is always a situation important to the story but not believable if considered objectively. Much of the skill in fiction writing is disguising this situation and making it believable. Research findings in education should be approached in the same way. There is always a weakness in any research – the way to hide it can range from going into jargon over-drive, or admitting to it as being a weakness which has been taken into account in the interpretation. On the whole, I prefer to follow education issues that are expressed through logic, derived from premises that are overtly declared. The occasional flick to research would, of course, be part of the process for academics. It should be sobering for anyone who takes education research seriously to know that McNaughton often traverses the same reading research territory as Nicholson, Tunmer, and Chapman, but comes up with very different results and interpretations.
A starting point to get research and academics into perspective is with a recognition that academics are human with all the characteristics and motivations that people anywhere, anytime exhibit. And they are exhibiting these characteristics in that most value-laden of undertakings – education. I suggest you listen to education academics with the same degree of scepticism you listen to politicians. Don’t let the specialised language and the references to research overwhelm you. These are people at their vocation with the usual mixture of motivations you expect from anyone similarly engaged – they can be expected to be seeking such things as the truth, satisfaction, recognition, promotion, money, status, domination and power. Similarly, like most people, academics want to make a difference and make some mark on posterity.
There are some academics who choose to work alongside classroom teachers and together with them organise and systematise the knowledge gained. This is to be commended. But for academics, the greater source of power comes from generating technical, jargon-laden knowledge and setting themselves up as experts. Only they have access to such knowledge and the ability to express it in that technical and jargon-laden way, with the opportunity to set up research projects to give it extra weight. The latest American darling of the New Zealand phonics-focused group is Louisa C. Moats. In the naming of her latest book she sums up the way knowledge generation is taken away from the classrooms of teachers to the offices of academics. The book is named: ‘Teaching reading is rocket science.’. For the teachers of reading this would seem to be bad news because rocket scientists are thin on the ground in primary school junior rooms; the good news, though, by implication from Moats, Nicholson, Tunmer et al., is they are much more common in education departments at our universities.
The importance of researchers sharing power with teachers is reinforced by research conclusions from the three Christchurch College of Education researchers referred to above (NZJES, (40) 1). It should be noted that their ideas on sharing power means far more than working in schools with teachers on a set of teaching ideas for the teachers to learn, implement, and report on. The Christchurch researchers called ‘for participatory research that forges effective partnerships amongst educational providers, the Pasifika community and the MOE, so allowing the power and control of the research practices to be shared in a positive and inclusive manner.’ Giving teachers and the community shared ownership of the results appeared, the writers said, to provide schools and their communities ‘with a better understanding of the influences of their own approaches to, and understandings of, effective literacy practices that benefited their children in particular and their families in general.’
There is another way education academics diminish teachers and their classroom-generated knowledge – it is by condescension. For instance, a tactic by the phonics-focused academics is to cull through official and certain other publications, selecting what suits to set up a straw argument as their way of establishing what teachers do. Teachers, as a result, are portrayed as puppets to official strings, or to some overseas writer (for instance, Kenneth Goodman). When teachers protest that, as a rule, official policies have little effect on what they do in reading, that is easily ignored. Just as easily ignored is their protest that overseas writers may be inspirational, but that does not mean they have a dominating effect on practice. The teaching of reading in junior classrooms is an art passed on from one generation of teachers to another, while, all the time, remaining open to new ideas.
This group of junior teachers, in their professional lives, live for the teaching of reading. When I think of the teachers of reading I have seen at work, the academics in question come across to me as pipsqueaks, highly learned pipsqueaks admittedly, but still pipsqueaks. Which brings me to another expression of condescension. A significant amount of phonics occurs in the balanced approach to reading. This was made clear to the academics. They then changed their charge to the need for phonics to be taught intensively and systematically. Translated that means a large amount of mat and word list work. Teachers of reading are pragmatic: they don’t disagree with the academics because they are academics; they don’t care about ideological debates or controversies; they have not resisted the so-called systematic phonics’ approach to reading because they haven’t tried it, don’t understand it, or want to be difficult; they disagree with the the high intensity systematic phonics’ approach (for all children as a matter of course) because their more selective way is better, shown to be better, to their satisfaction, for decades, in thousands of situations where it matters, in the hurly-burly of classrooms. When it comes to what works and what doesn’t work in reading I can assure you these women are beady-eyed and nobody’s fool.
The more recent move by the academics (Nicholson in ‘Set 2, 2007’) in line with the teaching of reading as rocket science is to move on from phonics to stressing the teaching of phonemes and morphemes as essential to successful reading programmes. As well as phonemes and morphemes, children should also be able to identify whether words have Greek or Latin origins; closed, open or diagraph syllables; inflected verbs; bound roots; and derivational suffixes. What age children should be taught these is not made clear. However, because most children can read well by the end of their second year at school; if these things are so important, then it would seem logical for them to be taught at least early in their second year at school. With a casual arrogance Nicholson concludes that ‘The present results suggest that teachers, not just in training, but even out in the field, may not be best equipped when teaching students reading and spelling’.
At one level of education, the professors have received a frosty reception. In addressing education and reading conferences the reception has, at the very least, been unsupportive. Some pointed questions from, say, Warwick Elley or Geraldine McDonald, usually summing up the mood of those attending. I sensed, however, the academics gained motivation from the hostility, low-key as it was, that prevailed. After all, they were engaged fulltime in the controversy, they had highly placed academic positions, they had the status, they had access to the media, they had academic journals available to carry their ideas, and they had access to the next generation of teachers of reading, not only in schools but also in tertiary institutions. They knew, in the end, they were on a winner to everything.
I want to clarify further what I see as the explanation for the behaviour of the three academics. They do not set out to make a group of women feel bad about their professional lives; they believe that their view of the reading process would be to the benefit of children; as for the group of women, all they need to do is to see things from their point-of-view and all would be well. Additionally, the academics feel they are not making much headway in reading circles at the teacher level which spurs them to be aggressive at the academic and media level.
The intensity of feeling engendered from both sides might surprise those outside education. (I am tempted to call them ‘camps’ not sides, but while the phonics-focused side is a camp, the other side, in battle terms, is scattered opposition because they are otherwise engaged.) What needs to be appreciated is that most academics decide early in their career what they are going to base that career on; they then give what they decide on a tweak, and for the rest of their academic lives depend on that tweaked idea for conferences, publications, promotion, and sense of power and fulfillment. It is understandable in these terms that when you criticise their idea, you are criticising more than an idea; when they are defending their idea, they are defending more than idea. You are criticising, and they are defending, a major life’s purpose. In this case, the phonics-focused academics have tweaked an academic idea imported from North America.
For a number of reasons the wider leadership of the group of women has been weak – one of those reasons was that the academics set out to undermine that leadership. They, of course, would simply say they were engaged in academic discourse. The main source of leadership for the group of women referred to came from reading recovery. It is significant that the genesis of reading recovery, which was synthesised and systematised by Marie Clay, came from the classroom activities of the group of women we are talking about, aided by the inspectorate. A sustained campaign by the academics has wounded reading recovery. I can remember on a number of occasions sitting by those involved in reading recovery and seen them consumed with frustration at the lack of academic challenge to addresses, in particular, by Nicholson. Clay sometimes attempted a response but she was too allusive and gentle to be effective. For the three academics, the success of the attack on reading recovery served a double purpose, it was a warning to any academics who might be tempted to be outspoken against the phonics-focused group and in favour of the balanced approach to proceed with caution. Academic controversies are disruptive to collegiality, emotionally wearing, and distracting from further research and writing. In the end, Clay cried off from full engagement; Elley, McDonald, Libby Limbrick and some others undertook occasional skirmishes. While the balanced reading group have savoured the research findings of McNaughton and looked to him for promotional follow-up and engagement, leaving aside straightforward addresses at conferences, this only happened once in the form of a response to a vitriolic attack by Tunmer in the pages of the ‘New Zealand Journal of Education Studies’. (This attempt by Tunmer to blow McNaughton out of the water will be discussed in Part 5 of these postings.)
Two parts of the campaign by the academics for phonics-focused classrooms and against the balanced reading approach are of particular interest to me. It appears to me that they emphasise failure in reading in our schools for reasons of professional self-interest. I know from their point-of-view they would see what they were doing as providing a necessary balance to the debate. There has been, however, much to celebrate about New Zealand reading. In reading their research and contributions to the media, my overwhelming impression is that they are unrelenting merchants of failure. Perhaps summed up by the headings in two contributions by Nicholson: ‘The best in the world?’ (‘Metro’, May, 1994); ‘Our illiteracy?’ (‘North and South’, November, 1993).
The second part of their campaign of particular interest to me is the way Tunmer and Chapman have concentrated in their research on showing that initial reading difficulty, if not picked up and corrected early, will have a harmful and compounding effect on self-concept and subsequent school performance. There will not be anybody disagreeing with the idea that reading difficulty needs to be picked up early, but how to respond is the point at issue. There will be strong disagreement with the implication that the phonics-focused academics provide anything even close to a solution. But I want to go further. I have commented above how academics can do elegant research, but still twist things to their own professional advantage. By concentrating on one aspect of the lives of the children who subsequently do poorly at school, that of difficulty with initial reading, the academics, as merchants of failure, can pin the blame on teachers, and in particular on the teachers’ teaching of reading. Having done that, they can then present themselves as the people who know – the people who know how to solve the problem. I am sure you have spotted the flaw in the argument of the academics. Many of the children having difficulty with initial reading are also having difficulties in other parts of their lives: at home, for instance, difficulties arising from not feeling safe and secure, poor nutrition, or lack of parental understanding; at school, for instance, difficulties with other curriculum areas, an unsettled environment, irregular attendance, behavioural traits, and social relationships. As well, each child brings a range of social and cultural characteristics – both the school and child, as a result, need time for adjustment. I am making two main points: if you look more widely at a child’s life there are more variables than difficulty in initial reading to explain subsequent poor school performance (it may be a good predictor, but so are some other variables); and if the phonics-focused academics think that a concentration on phonics in reading is going to turn a child around in reading or anything else, they are exhibiting wilful naivety.
In a recent article (NZJES, (41) 2) titled ‘Literate Capital at School Entry Predicts Later Reading’, Tunmer and Chapman say that the results of their study ‘suggest that the learn-to-read-by-reading whole language approach predominantly used to teach reading in New Zealand is generally beneficial to children with an abundance of literate cultural capital at school entry.’ On the other hand they say that it is ‘disadvantageous to children with limited amounts of literate cultural capital.’ Reading failure for these children, they say, is ‘likely to be triggered by a constructivist, whole language approach.’
I want to look at spin-off research from another Massey academic, and some further contrasting research from the Christchurch researchers referred to above, before highlighting again why the Massey academics, in relation to children failing in reading, have got it very wrong. I do, though, want to ask two questions of the phonics-focused academics about the children who, on the results from international reading surveys, appear to be thriving. The question is: Does the reading programme need to be changed for the children rich in ‘literate cultural capital’? And: Why is the New Zealand-style programme so successful with these children? When I have asked these questions in the past, the answers have been equivocal and grudging.
Greaney wrote an article (NZJES, (37) 1) which spells out a little more starkly the Tunmer et al. message. He starts off in smart alec style with a non-rhyming couplet:
‘You get the word from the meaning in the sentence
You get the meaning from the word in the sentence
(Take your pick)’
In a nutshell, this is how the phonics-focused academics wilfully misrepresent the New Zealand-style of teaching. New Zealand teachers wouldn’t pick either, though Greaney, unsurprisingly, of course, at the end of this shoddy article, picks the latter. Our treasured teachers allow and encourage children to use all parts of the reading armoury when they are reading. As I said above, I have observed thousands of junior teachers in action, and I have asked questions to understand what they do. In the article by Tunmer and Chapman above, they represent the New Zealand-style as learning-to-read-by-reading. There is some truth in this representation but, it is, of course, a mischievous over-simplification The treasured group have consistently told me that reading mileage is important; however, they have also told me that they are always looking for the right balance between drawing children’s attention to the sound and shape characteristics of words, and allowing children to develop a sense of being a reader. They come at reading mileage in all sorts of ways: independent reading; shared reading; guided reading; language experience; big print reading; word lists; home reading; songs and poems; spelling; writing; and the room environment Also, somewhat to my chagrin as a social studies person, they tend to turn all parts of the curriculum into a reading opportunity. From my observation of them in practice, they have demonstrated that reading is an art not a science. They provide a settled atmosphere for children to read in; they are acute observers of the subtleties of children’s individual reading; and they know intuitively from experience when to intervene and when to let things flow.
Greaney said he conducted a small-scale study (my suspicions are immediately alerted – how small, and what design?) of teachers’ preferred prompts when helping a child with reading. His interpretation of the teachers’ responses was that phonics was given little attention. I have asked questions about this matter over many years in two ways: in relation to particular children; and to teachers’ wider philosophical beliefs. If, going into the small-scale study, Greaney had any reservations about teachers’ approaches, which he would have had, he should have put these as an hypothesis to teachers and let them answer the matter directly. I’m tired of teachers being treated as less than professional; of their actions and statements being interpreted rather than having a chance to speak for themselves; of somehow being below the radar when it comes to debate.
Greaney then dutifully targets the bugbear of the phonics’ academics – reading recovery – by quoting Tunmer and Chapman:
‘Given that Reading Recovery is essentially a more intense version of what occurs in regular New Zealand classrooms, it seems unwise to put children into a remedial programme using the same methods that most likely contributed to the failure in the first place.’
‘Contributed to the failure’ – don’t you think that is a bit harsh? But that is the tone often adopted by the phonics’ academics. However, while I am a firm supporter of reading recovery I want here to repeat some concerns I have about it. (I have written about reading recovery before in ‘Developmental Network Newsletter’: ‘Reading Recovery: Time For A Comprehensive Review; (1992, 3); ‘Reading Recovery – Where To Now?’ (1993, 3) ). The concerns come from two directions and are somewhat contradictory: I would like teachers to be have the freedom to, even be encouraged to, vary and adapt specific techniques; I would also like the age at which children can come into the programme to be more flexible. On the other hand, I would like teachers to be more strongly cautioned against placing in the programme children with serious reading difficulties.
There is no doubt in my mind that the battle over the teaching of reading is a battle for the one remaining curriculum area in which primary teachers still retain the edge in control. Phonics is one way academics can have a direct say in what happens in schools – for phonics’ academics, teachers having the edge in control over reading is akin to their being a power vacuum. Political and socially conservative groups also know that reading, because of its importance to the public and the way emotions can be stirred, is a key to reducing confidence in teachers and their representatives, and to helping them gain dominance over education. As a result, you will find phonics’ academics sometimes forming an unofficial alliance with conservative elements to further the ambitions of both groups.
Now we return to the research of two of the Christchurch researchers. The findings of these Christchurch researchers give weight to the idea that Tunmer and Chapman have got it wrong in their central thesis – the thesis that the New Zealand-style of teaching is failing children who, as Tunmer and Chapman put it, come to school ‘with limited amounts of cultural capital’. Fletcher and Parkhill (NZJES, (41) 2) in the same volume as, indeed side-by-side with, Tunmer and Chapman’s article, present a different perspective. They studied the situation of Pasifika children, also asked them directly, to establish why some of them had limited success in literacy. Their research raised a number of factors such as cultural identification, self-awareness and personal safety in classrooms. Then they became more specific. This time the factors were explained as excessive classroom noise; ineffective classroom management; bullying by classmates; and lack of parental understanding and support.
In discussing the matter of helping children with initial reading difficulties, I have already pointed out that there is a need to look at wider issues to get the more specific reading issue right. Children who come to school with good amounts of ‘cultural capital’ I suggest are better placed to rise above any negative school and classroom characteristics; children who don’t, often don’t get going. In all of this we need to keep in mind McNaughton’s findings (NZJES, (38) 1) that improving these children’s reading is not straightforward. He said that in a research project he undertook, providing explicit instruction in alphabetic knowledge and phonological knowledge soon brought all children up to or near national levels, but what the children really needed was ‘explicit instruction in how to deploy and integrate that knowledge into the reading and writing of texts’.
The way forward for these children seems clear – these children need the balanced reading approach with all the literacy cultural capital that develops, but in circumstances that enable them to concentrate on their reading, and bring parents into partnership. I have already advocated schools employing adults to take advantage of RPE (Retiring Principal Effect). But very importantly, there are a number of programmes out there, all of which our treasured teachers have participated in, for schools and the ministry to adopt and develop.
As has been discussed above, academic knowledge will always trump practitioner knowledge. The higher status of those presenting the knowledge and the fawning of the media to those people provides a substantial edge, especially if the words ‘latest research’ is bandied around. How can knowledge from classrooms match academic knowledge in such circumstances? The pity is that there are many reading schemes around the country being used in classrooms which have their origin in classroom-generated knowledge. For instance, the brilliant ‘Reading Together’ programme (developed by Jeanne Biddulph) which enlists the support of parents in the early introduction of a balanced approach to reading. Equally brilliant is the ‘Hei awhiawhi tamariki ki te panui pukapuka’ programme – popularly known as HPP – developed by Colleen Pinfold, Kathryn Atvars, and Annette Stock. At one level this scheme works using techniques common in classrooms and to the ‘Reading Together’ programme, but for the child in serious difficulty, the emphasis shifts to spending a considerable amount of time on discussing the text and pictures before reading begins. This discussion serves to develop sentence patterns and key knowledge for actually understanding what is being read when reading the text occurs. This emphasis is contrary to the emphasis advocated by the phonics-focused group.
The group of treasured teachers I refer to are reducing in number and they are despondent about directions being taken in reading. In later postings in this series I will elaborate further on how the New Zealand balanced approach is misrepresented in academic writing and research. A key point I want to make now is that the balanced approach, which once dominated in classrooms, has been the one in practice, with all the variabilities and exposure to outrageous fortune that this occasions. The phonics-focused approach has not generally been in practice. Bringing your swing from the practice ground to the tournament is the telling factor. The purity of the words-in-isolation, systematic approach to phonics is being seriously contaminated by classroom realities. Reports I am receiving is that there are an increasing number of bewildered young teachers out there, young teachers drilled in the intensive teaching of phonics at a loss to know how to manage their reading; and we know there is a diminishing number of highly-skilled teachers of the balanced approach available to rescue them.
This introduction is also serving as a conclusion. I have already acknowledged that these postings have a personal motive – an exploration for me to find the truth of the matter. If I had found the New Zealand balanced reading approach was on the wrong track, I would have said so. I have long been irritated with the tone, style and misrepresentations of the phonics’ academics and the way they have hurt and frustrated members of the treasured group. Another motive is to get schools and the system talking about reading practice, that is, to move on from the sterile phonics’ debate to how to develop our New Zealand-style further. As well, it seems to me, the focus in schools is on things like computer courses, thinking packages, metacognition, values, inquiry learning, integration and the competencies (in general). I want schools to focus on reading, writing, social studies, science, physical education, art (clay work would be marvellous). I know these things are in the competencies but are we getting to tin-tacks? When, for instance, was the last time you had a course on reading? Finally, and I acknowledge my postings might not be a good model in this respect, but I want reading debates to be undertaken with civility, respect, and fair-mindedness.