The battle for primary school reading: Part 5

20080403072744_scan0001The battle for primary school reading – Is the phoneme on the wall?

A reading treasure reduced and reducing: Part 5

William Tunmer, Jane Prochnow, and James Chapman hunting as a pack

Tunmer, Prochnow, and Chapman (all of Massey University) did a commentary review (NZJES, (38) 1) of Stuart McNaughton’s book ‘Meeting of Minds’. This book focuses on the context of early literacy instruction, presenting arguments and support for meeting the needs of culturally diverse backgrounds in mainstream schools. The commentary of Tunmer et al. is scathing both of the substance of the book and the presentation. I am interested in the tone adopted by this phonics-focused group and the fairness of their criticisms. Readers of these postings will know that McNaughton is the researcher who comes up with literacy research results somewhat different from the phonics-focused group, and who presents the major academic challenge to them. To get a feel for the tone and substance for what the group says I am going to concentrate on McNaughton’s response. I am not, however, going to get deeply involved in the technical reading detail of some of that response.

The review by Tunmer et al. is not a review at all, it is a harsh and partisan attack on McNaughton in general, and one of the references he uses for evidence in particular. That reference is a report to the ministry of education, ‘Picking Up the Pace: Effective literacy interventions for accelerated progress over the transition into decile 1 schools’, by G. Phillips, S. McNaughton, and S. MacDonald. The curious thing about the Tunmer et al. ‘review’ is that it concentrates on this report, to the exclusion of the central propositions in the ‘Meeting of Minds’ book and to all the other supporting evidence McNaughton brings to bear on these propositions.

Tunmer at al. say that ‘Meeting of Minds’ has ‘so many flaws in content’ and in presentation that they were reluctant to recommend it to ‘NZJES’ readers but in the circumstances feel ‘compelled to make an exception’. The flaws referred to are all to do with ‘The Picking Up the Pace’ report discussed immediately below. Tunmer et al. are clearly saying that the ministry of education was wrong in publishing this report. In future they suggest the ministry should put research findings to knowledgeable scholars in the area. McNaughton is clearly taken aback by this suggestion. (I am not, because I have tracked the behaviour of this group over two decades.) He points out that the report was thoroughly peer reviewed by ‘very highly regarded scholars from New Zealand and the United States.’ McNaughton even gets close to a display of passion, ‘My critics might reflect on the nature of robust scientific knowledge and where the fail-safe testing of our ideas takes place.’ He goes on to say that ‘I also value highly acceptability in the communities within which I work. If the ideas and outcomes do not make a difference to these communities – and the parents – and teachers are able to determine this – I worry.’ Many things I said about academics and knowledge, power and status in earlier postings pertain to the response of Tunmer et al. In particular, I want to draw attention to the effect such behaviour would have on young researchers whose findings might end up getting on the wrong side of this group. They are a powerful group and growing more powerful.

 There were three main criticisms of the ‘Picking Up the Pace’ report: 

First, say Tunmer et al., there was an absence of phonological elements in the tests used. McNaughton responded by saying that concentrating on alphabetic and sound knowledge meant they were attending to two aspects of reading that had good predictive validity and reliability for the New Zealand context and well known properties in relationship to progress over the first two years at school.

Second, there is criticism that the rates of progress without intervention have been misrepresented. I do not intend to go into McNaughton’s patient explanation of the design which enabled the writers to decide on the success or otherwise of the intervention. What I was looking for in McNaughton’s response was evidence of selectivity and partiality in Tunmer et al. response. Readers of these postings will know that there will be a high likelihood of success in finding what I was looking for. McNaughton also demonstrates his scepticism of the objectivity of Tunmer et al. Note the hint of exasperation in the parenthetical comments in the following quote, ‘Needless to say the statistical significance of these results was demonstrated (but not commented on by Tunmer et al.). The design (to which Tunmer et al. also do not refer) has complex cross-sectional and longitudinal features with multiple cohort comparisons and systematic replications across schools.’

Third, there is criticism that the baseline profiles are different from their own earlier study of Maori and Pakeha students. From the point-of-view of Tunmer et al. that is clearly game set and match. McNaughton’s reply was that this should not necessarily lead to a methodological criticism just something that should be investigated further. A redundant idea I�m sure for Tunmer et al. who, having established the truth of the matter, have decided to move on, as they intolerantly demand should others. McNaughton, who has the sweetest of natures, amiably suggests (perhaps with a tinge of irony) that as a result of recommendations and extra funding the improvement might have been because of schools adding programmes to their classrooms, some of which involved more explicit teaching on phonics advocated by Tunmer and his colleagues.

Maori and Pasifika deficiency theory

Tunmer et al. criticise McNaughton for not accepting fully the Mathew effect. McNaughton is clearly bemused by this because the significance of the Mathew effect is acknowledged several times in the book. McNaughton, however, while he accepts the outcomes of the Mathew effect, is more interested in explaining how the Mathew effect comes about and how teachers might respond in their daily interactions in classrooms. Tunmer et al. suggest that the literacy difficulties Maori and Pasifika face are because they are deficient in a number of ways (disparities in their backgrounds; not possessing sufficient knowledge; difficulties in their abilities; deficient in their skills). They go on to suggest that the best way to respond to this is by concentrating on the differing phonological skills of new entrants. McNaughton replies, saying, ‘A predisposition to see children as deficient has been shown in many studies here and elsewhere to be a barrier to effective teaching …’ I agree with McNaughton to a certain degree. At the classroom  level, the deficiency theory is, indeed, a hindrance to teacher  performance – teachers need to be enthusiastic and positive about being able to make a substantial difference to children’s development; at the research and general level, however, the prevailing official and academic opposition to the theory  (better worded as how to respond to, and research, the education effects of social class and culture) is a hindrance to free and rational debate. In my view, both sides of this particular issue have a valid point. Where McNaughton is entirely correct, though, is in his advocacy for reading instruction that pays attention to both reading for meaning, and reading for phonological skills.

 Literacy Experts Group (1999) 

The three Massey critics’ review of McNaughton’s book takes a more personal turn when they criticise McNaughton for advocating ‘more of the same’. What seems to have occurred is a repeat of that phenomenon of Tunmer being unrelenting in his writing, but apparently soft-soaping when face-to-face with people (see Part 2 and Part 4). McNaughton is surprised with the claim he is simply for ‘more of the same’. He points out that the Literacy Experts Group, of which Tunmer was member, came to a unanimous decision for the need to ‘focus attention on the developmental of word-level skills and strategies …’ He goes on to say that this was linked with the general position that the ‘recommended changes do not require a radical shift in what has been established as good teaching practice …’

The Massey critics also label McNaughton a ‘whole language/constructivist’ as though that in itself is a self-determining criticism. McNaughton first answers this in an academic way, then more transparently. The book, McNaughton says ‘argues that teaching and learning need to be understood in relation to the activities that constitute the literary practices of school.’

The way the label ‘whole language’ is used as a slur by the phonics’ academics is discussed in other postings; I want here to discuss the way they use the label ‘constructivist’ as a slur, as well. The matter is important because these academics are playing dirty pool here, and they know they are; and if they can behave in such a shifty way in this kind of false interpretation, how shiftily, it seems fair to ask, are they behaving in other parts of their academic work?

The phonics’ academics have made a hero of an Australian academic, Michael Mathews, who was sponsored by the Education Forum to analyse the state of New Zealand education, especially the status of knowledge within it. Mathews wrote a book about constructivism, and the place of knowledge in science. I happen to agree with Mathews about the tenuous position of knowledge in primary education, indeed, wrote an article saying so. But Mathews has a wider agenda, in particular, against liberal and progressive trends in education. Mathews is a clever writer with a penchant for getting ideas across in an accessible manner. He is also a prolix, partisan, fantasist. What he does is to bring post-modernist ideas about the relativism of knowledge, ethics, and philosophy under the constructivist umbrella and then tags most within New Zealand education with this wider post-modern label.

In effect, McNaughton and Mrs. Jones, junior teacher of reading, are charged with being post-modern constructivists because they encourage children to ‘guess’ words. Once teachers (and McNaughton) are labelled constructivist and the label sticks, by implication they are not interested in children reading words accurately; are not interested in children getting the meaning intended by the writer; and are content for the children to construct any meaning they like from words.

Constructivism is not a word much bandied about in junior parts of schools. Teachers want children to read words accurately, but they occasionally let a word slide by that makes sense in the sentence in the wider interests of children’s reading. Allowing children to occasionally substitute a word that makes sense, is not because teachers believe that there is ‘no direct or unmediated knowledge of any external or objective reality’ (which is the kind of language Mathews uses); it is just because, in the circumstances, it would be better for Billy’s reading if they came back to it later.

If cognitive constructivism is explained to teachers – that is, that any idea received by children will always understood by them differently – they will all agree they are constructivists. If a child reads the word ‘aeroplane’ in a story, that word will have a different effect on children according to their prior experiences, but it doesn’t mean a child will be unchallenged if he explains it as a bird (unless it is being explained metaphorically). It doesn’t mean a child will be unchallenged (in the longer term) if he pronounces it as ‘aerosol’. Mathews, however, leaps on teachers’ agreement (more implied agreement) about how children receive information, and extends matters fantastically. The sly use by the phonics’ academics of Mathews’s interpretation and application of constructivism is deplorable.

McNaughton’s telling insight

In our search for the truth of the matter McNaughton provides a marvellously powerful paragraph, one that should resonate through the halls of academia, and the corridors of schools, and of power. What McNaughton says, our treasured group has said for decades, and so have all primary teachers (we expressed it, for instance, as reading needing to be much more than barking at print).

McNaughton says, ‘I agree with the general need to ensure children to develop the phonological skills to which they refer, because the research literature is clear. But the problem with a simple implication, such as adding some instruction that provides explicit teaching for children in South Auckland schools, is that we found that children’s alphabetic knowledge and phonological knowledge were learned rapidly and at or near national levels after a year of instruction. Clearly, it was not more explicit instruction in this item knowledge in isolation that was needed; rather, it was explicit instruction in how to deploy and integrate that knowledge into the reading and writing of texts.’

This is why McNaughton is dangerous to the Massey group. He brings academic weight to our primary school long-held understandings about the nature of early reading. In the introduction to these postings I referred to the activities of two New Zealand-style strategies for helping early readers, they worked on phonological skills as well as the reading context. They are right, McNaughton is right, our treasured group is right, and we in primary education are right.

The Massey group’s final little condescending slash

Tunmer et al. say that McNaughton’s book has ‘major shortcomings (that) include inappropriate use of subheadings, the inclusion of too many footnotes [the point being made was that some of the footnote information should have been in the body of the text], and the poor integration of ideas.’ They add further on that ‘The use of well-constructed topic sentences in paragraphs with appropriate transitions between paragraphs would have been much kinder to the reader.’

McNaughton responded mildly. ‘With my editor’s help I was trying to increase the degree to which the reader’s mind and the writer’s mind could meet. Clearly I failed with Bill Tunmer, Jane Prochnow and James Chapman.’

What Professor McNaughton would have recognised was that the ill-founded and cheeky criticisms of the presentation were really a stalking horse for undermining the message.

Advertisements

The battle for primary school reading: Part 4

20080403072744_scan0001

The battle for primary school reading – Is the phoneme on the wall?

A reading treasure reduced and reducing: Part 4

A few years later – a conference at Palmerston North

This year’s research conference (1995) was at Palmerston North. The reading presentation strand was led off by Geraldine McDonald, followed by Tom Nicholson, then Bill Tunmer and James Chapman. (The details for this posting were drawn from an article I wrote – ‘An Academic in Never-never Land’ – in ‘Developmental Network Newsletter’, 1995, 3.)

To illustrate the importance of cultural ideas as a motivation for reading, McDonald showed a medieval representation of the Virgin Mary reading a book. McDonald was, in fact, making some points to the academics she knew were to be the next speakers. The points were to pay more attention to the social practices which can encourage literacy; to pay more attention to the quality of explanations; and cautioning educationists against setting themselves up into doctrinal camps. Following on from my ‘men are from Mars’ comment in the previous posting, I am permitting myself to say it was a gentle, allusive argument from ‘women are from Venus’. In other words, not likely to be taken seriously by the male academics who followed.

McDonald began by saying that before the telephone was invented, keeping in touch with distant friends required the ability to write letters. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’, there is a passing reference to a servant girl, Martha, from whom Miss Matty Jenkins had ‘received a line or two …’ The point McDonald was making so nicely was that individuals have learned to read and to write by all kinds of methods and motivations. She referred to a small group of farmers from a Philippines’ island who receive no formal teaching but in their lives learn a script so they can carve songs on bamboo cylinders as tokens for courtship.

She then went on to support the idea that, in the modern context, children learn literacy at home and go to school to practice it. She was, though, gracious enough to acknowledge that while social and cultural variables provide sufficient reason to suggest that methods of teaching reading are not the whole story, neither sets of variables (that is from the social or cultural, or from the teaching side) provide a fully satisfactory answer.

McDonald said her research into various reading interventions has shown that they produce excellent results at first, but tend to disappear as children move through the levels of schooling. She then discussed her main contribution to the debate in recent years: that children adapt to the class level in which they are placed and to the curriculum offered – as a result, the class level a child is in, is more important than the teaching methods employed. In the context of the reading controversy, it was clearly intended as a signal to the academics not to be dogmatic about reading ideas whether proposed or criticised.

Nicholson then took the floor. He started off by saying, and I want to emphasise, good-humouredly, that he disagreed with everything the previous speaker had said. Some off-the-cuff remarks followed. Again I say good-humouredly. What followed, though, was an account of how unfairly he felt the phonics camp was being treated. It was significant, though, that all his references were international, emphasising how caught up he is in bringing the phonics’ debate into New Zealand. He then said that phonics’ academics had been called ‘phonicators’. Though stated in a lighthearted way, this was an unfortunate reference. The expression is not one that would ever have occurred to a New Zealander.

Nicholson proceeded to detail his study involving university students tutoring small groups of new entrant children from low-income areas in simple phonics, and comparing results from the same low-income areas and from high-income areas using what Nicholson describes as the ‘whole language’ approach. Seven points or questions are made or asked, some of which I would make or ask about most of the research of phonics’ academics whether here or in America. This is dubious, fiddly research with correspondingly dubious, fiddly outcomes; the basis for setting up the control groups is suspect (there is no one form of any kind of reading); the use of the expression ‘whole language’ – an expression central to the North American debate not ours – gives Nicholson’s game away; the lack of reference to the Hawthorne effect is inexcusable (were both groups set up on the same basis with the same degree of enthusiasm?); there is also a lack of reference to the sustainability of any so-called improvement which is always an issue in any reading intervention; was like being compared with like – in  other words, was one group (the phonics’ group) being set up with a small defined task, as against the balanced group which requires a wider reach and a more complex process to implement its strategy and achieve its aims?; were the results just focused on making sound in response to markings on a page, or was there a wider focus inclusive of comprehension strategies, semantic and syntactic knowledge, and sustaining interest in reading?

Tunmer and Chapman’s research was about specific language-related  factors at school entry that place some children at risk of failure; and their working with new entrant teachers to test certain activities that might help children in their reading. Chapman focused on the idea that reading self-perceptions form an association with pre-reading skills and reading performance within the first year of schooling. This won’t come as a bolt from the blue for teachers. The main point Chapman is making is that teachers should act fast and decisively in response. This will also be accepted by teachers, but with the huge proviso that teacher judgement about the nature of this response should not be overridden by, for instance, the ideology of any reading advocates. In particular, there is a need to be mindful here of the excellent success that teacher-developed intervention programmes have with such children (see Part 1 of this series) – intervention programmes which use a version of the New Zealand-style balanced reading approach.

As for the activities suggested by the academics for teachers to use, there is not much to say, except they are quite acceptable as long as they are not portrayed as being significantly different from what is already occurring and they are not portrayed as being of any great moment. Tunmer’s main argument is for teachers to nudge their reading practices a little more in the direction of phonics. (What he says at conferences like this, however, and what he writes in academic journals seem greatly at odds.)

The academics let their guard of reasonableness drop with their presentation of a table headed ‘Continuum of Approaches to Beginning Reading Instruction’. The headings were:

  •        Isolated Skill-and-Drill Approach
  •        Metacognitive Strategy Teaching Approach
  •        Whole Language Approach

In the context of the presentations, the first and third headings come across as parodies; the second heading complete with halo. The partisanship of the academics is laid bare.

Towards the end of the presentations, some of the activities and resources Nicholson uses with his experimental groups were handed around. They were unexceptional, as were the activities intended to accompany their use. For Nicholson, or so he says, it boils down to these resources and activities, and allocating them about ten minutes a day. He adamantly refuses to accept they can be worked into reading programmes in an integrated way. For Chapman it boils down to beginning these activities from children’s first days at school.

Tunmer then used the classic ploy to demean teachers described in Part 1 – that of referring to a publication as being an exact description of what occurs in classrooms; of teachers being exactly beholden to a particular publication. He made a reference to ‘Reading in Junior Classes’ in this manner.

It was now the end of the presentations.

I asked, ‘How do you know about what you say you know about the nature of reading practice in New Zealand classrooms? You seem to be saying that primary teachers are locked into one line of thought or other – a line of thought which is your interpretation.

Nicholson got to his feet.

Tunmer, ‘Anecdotal, really.’

‘So, as a person who puts a great weight on a systematic gathering of statistical evidence, you don’t know? You are willing to characterise New Zealand reading practices on the basis of anecdotal information?’

‘Yes, really, I wasn’t meaning to say teachers blindly followed ‘Reading in Junior Classes.’

‘But …’

Nicholson was now centre floor.

‘We’ll end it there. It’s controversial.’

And we filed out.

 

The battle for primary school reading: Part 3

20080403072744_scan0001The battle for primary school reading – Is the phoneme on the wall?

A reading treasure reduced and reducing: Part 3

The ‘Listener’ article, 15 July, 1995

We drop in on the academics (Nicholson and Tunmer) three years later. They provided the information and probably the motivation for an article by Noel O’Hare in the ‘Listener’, 15 July, 1995. It will not surprise readers of this series of postings that the target for the academics was reading recovery and the number of children who go through the programme. It was presented as a double criticism of New Zealandreading: The numbers of children going through was one criticism; the other was what they saw as the lack of success of the programme. Supporters of the academics might say they targeted reading recovery because of research-based information the academics had developed; sceptics like me will say they were clearing the field of a teacher-developed reading support programme so that their ideas on reading could dominate by default. (The details for this posting were drawn from an article I wrote – ‘The Listener Article’  in ‘Developmental Network Newsletter’, 1995, 2.)

Tom Nicholson repeated his claim about the so-called high reading recovery numbers being an indication of the failure of New Zealand reading approaches.

‘One in four children ends up in reading recovery,’ echoed William Tunmer.

The cover of the ‘Listener’ carries the banner: ‘Why one in four children needs special help’.

The ‘Listener’ article is predicated on this one in four number. It is the only evidence put forward for New Zealand’s so-called failure in reading.

Imagine if you are one of our treasured group, with all those years of experience and that knowledge of the success you have achieved, and you read something like that. In a research article I read at a later date, New Zealand’s success in international reading tables was explained away by one of the academics as being the result of spending much more time on reading than elsewhere. As if they really know how much time is spent on reading in classrooms around the world; and even if they are right, who is to say New Zealand junior teachers are wrong in their priority.

Nicholson carried on his castigation of New Zealand primary teachers by saying that an ‘anti-science attitude is common in New Zealand’.

He seems to sneer at teachers by saying that they prefer to ‘know through gut feeling what children need’.

Is there a whiff of chauvinism here? I know I’m getting into tricky waters, but there has always seemed to me to be a ‘men are from Mars’ strain to the debate. As well as the debate being between academics and teachers; it has also been a debate between a group of predominantly males and a group of predominantly females. The academics, in my view, did not carry the debate in a way that was acceptable to women; they confronted them. They did it in a way that puzzled, emotionally hurt, and alienated many teachers, nearly all of whom were female. The academics needed to get beside teachers in a long term way, and work with them in a co-operative manner. They have had, at times, a useful enough message to deliver, but they should have been willing to have their message vie with other messages, and with the reality of the characteristics of existing practices. This would not have provided them with a great sense of power, but would have, in the end, provided them with a greater sense of satisfaction. Primary teaching, in my view, does not attract people who can, or want, to battle it out with academics, or get involved in curriculum controversies at any level. And it especially does not attract such people at the early reading end of junior classes. They really just want incremental help at the classroom level to improve programmes, and to get on with their life’s professional purpose – helping children to learn to read. The irony has not escaped me though, that in response to what I see as the male oriented combative style of the academics, I am writing in a similar style in return. In a way, it sums up the point I am trying to make.

The figure of one in four is incorrect both mathematically and in interpretation. These paragons of scientific research somehow got it very wrong. As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series of postings, if there is reading recovery time available, irrespective of children’s actual reading status, or reading recovery guidelines, schools will take advantage of that time by slotting children in. That also means that the number of teachers available for reading recovery will have a direct effect on the number of children going into reading recovery. If you want to halve the number of children going into reading recovery, then halve the number of reading recovery teachers available.

It gets worse for our research-based academics. First, the figure for 1994 – which was the year in question – was 19.6 per cent (not 25 per cent as the academics suggested).

Another error by Nicholson et al. is that they describe reading recovery as a remedial programme. It is not. It is an intensive, intervention programme which, after a year of teaching, is intended to help children having difficulty with their reading to make sufficient progress to enable them to work satisfactorily with their peers. (Some failing children, incorrectly and against the guidelines, do get into reading recovery, but the percentage is small.) The blanket assumption that the children going into the programme are failing is incorrect. So not only are the reading recovery figures wrong, so also is the premise on which the figures are based.

This was a busy media time for Nicholson, what a great time he was having, for instance, in 1993 he kicked things off with ‘Our illiteracy?’ in ‘North and South’ (how sensitive of him to include a question mark); in 1994 he wrote a letter to ‘Metro’ headed ‘The best in the world?’ (the question mark again); and in 1995 he was interviewed by Warwick Roger in ‘Metro’ for an article called ‘Adventures in the reading trade’.

These academics are a worry.

The battle for primary school reading: Part 2

20080403072744_scan0001The battle for primary school reading – Is the phoneme on the wall?

A reading treasure reduced and reducing: Part 2

Some years ago – a conference at Auckland: Elements of the campaign for a phonics-focused future and against the balanced reading approach 

Tom Nicholson’s paper was headed: ‘Do Children Read Words Better in Context? A Classic Study Revisited’. When it comes to ‘classic’, though, the real classic is the tactic referred to in Part 1 of these postings – that of identifying some publication (in this case a book by Kenneth Goodman) and implying that the ideas contained predominate in New Zealand junior reading practices. Attacking the book (which indeed overstates its case) then becomes a means of undermining the professional credibility of classroom teachers. (The details for this posting were drawn from an article I wrote – ‘An Academic in Never-never Land’ – in ‘Developmental Network Newsletter’, 1992, 3.)

In Part 1, I also referred to unreceptiveness of conference audiences to addresses by the phonics’ academics, especially Nicholson, who is point man for the group. It came as no surprise to experienced conference-attendees when Nicholson, in a defensive ploy, asked that there be no questions until the end. So much for the cut and thrust of academic debate.

The main argument was put early – New Zealand teachers were wrong in encouraging children: to predict while reading; to think ahead to what the next word or words might be; and to use initial letters to unlock words. And that is what New Zealand teachers do because that is what a book by an overseas writer said they should do.

This claim was reinforced in a radio interview I heard on the way to the conference.

‘New Zealand reading programmes aren’t working’, claimed Nicholson. ‘They aren’t working because children should be given lots of phonics through word lists, but they aren’t being given lots of phonics because of Goodman and a number of other writers.’

Nicholson continued, ‘What does it matter if children can’t understand words they are reading? Meaning can come later.’

‘New Zealand reading is being portrayed as a whole language success story, when it isn’t.’

‘We are still in the top group [in the recent IEA survey] in the 9-14 year age group, but look at the failure of our younger children.’

Nicholson gave evidence for this by pointing to the ‘large number of children going into reading recovery at six years of age.’

‘There’s the proof New Zealand reading is failing.’

These statements by Nicholson are a mixture truth and trickiness. In classrooms I visited at the time there was a significant amount of phonics’ work occurring, some in the context of general reading, and some in the form of word lists. For some children struggling with their reading there was greater attention to phonics using word lists, but there was always concern that these children were not excluded from the ‘I can read’ idea characteristic of New Zealand junior classrooms. For children who were forging ahead in their reading, the emphasis in phonics was contextual. There is, indeed, a tail of children in difficulty with their reading, and those children needed then, and need now, plenty of one-to-one supervision.

The idea, though, that the numbers of children going into reading recovery is an indicator of failure in reading is absurd. If reading recovery time is available there will always be children slotted in, irrespective of their ability (and reading recovery guidelines), to take advantage of that time. As well, the more reading recovery teachers there are, the more children there will be in the reading recovery. The reading recovery programme was not designed as a remedial programme for children who were failing, but as an intensive intervention programme for children who needed some help so they could participate in reading with their peers. Put another way, reading recovery is for the below average child which statistically there must always be. When, in Part 1, I said the academics weren’t above being partisan, this is an example. If academics can be tricky like this, how much faith can we have in their wider research?

What Nicholson is doing here is to establish an American-style debate about phonics. If the American experience is anything to go by, the only people to benefit from this will be the academics. Teachers are demeaned because they are talked about as if well-meaning but mainly misguided and passive third parties; while academics are aggrandised because they present themselves, and are seen, as the people who know, and amongst whom resides the answer. The irony of all this is that phonics dominates in American classrooms, and has dominated for decades; it has been the laboratory for phonics on a national scale. The results have been significantly unimpressive.

Nicholson is being disingenuous when he equates what Goodman writes as an accurate representation of what our group of women do in their reading programmes. New Zealand primary school teachers teach the way they do because of a number of influences – the most important being the primary school tradition of teachers making many curriculum decisions for themselves, particularly in the field of reading and language. The symbolism of Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Elwyn Richardson is still powerful.

New Zealand primary teachers appreciate that a wide variety of approaches is needed in reading because of the wide variety in children’s needs. Reading leadership advice has never been to dispense with letter-sound association; it has been to use it as one strategy, albeit an important one, amidst other strategies, and to use a range of language activities as a means of developing children’s understanding of letter-sound association. Having said that, there have been some swings of the pendulum, for instance, there was a period when rather too much weight was put on the big books’ approach which had some effect on the amount of time spent on systematic letter-sound association. It did not take long, though, for the correction to occur, perhaps partly spurred on by the phonics’ campaign by the academics.

A major point of difference between our group of women teachers and the academics is that the academics believe all children need a lot of intensive, systematic phonics’ teaching irrespective of children’s reading ability; while the women teachers put a greater emphasis on getting the children to act as readers from the very beginning and within this providing extra letter-sound association for the at-risk readers. Putting an emphasis on getting children (as a matter of course) to decode words in detail, to read words in lists, pulling in words for a detailed examination of what’s inside has the inevitable effect for most children of reducing their interest in reading, of reducing the likelihood of them becoming independent, self-motivated readers – which, surely, is the purpose of the exercise. As well, the academics do not seem to give recognition to the way letter-sound association is learnt in overall language programmes, for instance, the New Zealand practice of getting children to write from their early days at school. This is a powerful way for children to examine words – their structures, meanings, and various associations.

Nicholson completed the radio interview by misrepresenting whole language. He boiled it down to the matter of how phonics was treated. While that might be whole language in America, it isn’t in New Zealand. In New Zealand, whole language is just another restatement of the long-established child-centred language tradition. Whole language in New Zealand refers to all parts of language, and language being affectively as well as cognitively significant to children. An important point, though, is that while teachers might talk of whole language in reference to the total language school experience of children and even how it can contribute to reading as part of language, they do not talk a lot of a whole language approach to reading. There is no reference to whole language as a reading approach in ‘Reading in Junior Classes’, there is no index reference to whole language (there is a brief reference to the importance to meaning, of learning in wholes); there is, however, a whole chapter on ‘A Balanced Reading Programme’. New Zealand teachers accept no responsibility for what ‘whole language’ means to academics like Nicholson, or means in the United States of America, or is done in the name of whole language by teachers in that country. (Teachers, writers, and publishers do sometimes refer to a whole language in talking about reading, but it is well understood amongst teachers that whole language is a philosophy rather than a reference to the practicalities of how the parts of language are taught; the important point, though, is that its interpretation is particular to New Zealand.)

Now back to the conference in which Nicholson discussed his latest research. In Nicholson’s study, the children read the words in lists before they read them in context; as well as in context before they read them in lists. The ‘results’ showed the poor readers always improved their word recognition in context, but the good readers only did so if they read the lists first, indeed, they actually did better with word recognition in the lists.

The point Nicholson was wanting to make was that the poor readers read better in context because they are using linguistic clues as a crutch, which, to Nicholson is not good – instead they should learn to decode words in lists using phonics. There is some disentangling to do here. First, it needs to be remembered that Nicholson’s presentation was made in the aggressive context that New Zealand teachers were wrong, and the academics were right. This is important because New Zealand teachers also happen to believe that poor readers need more letter-word association study – so what is Nicholson’s problem? However, New Zealandteachers also want as many children, as early as possible, to act like readers, to be readers, to feel they are readers. For this to happen, poor readers are, indeed, going to need to use linguistic clues more. As for good readers being better at words in lists than in context, that is no surprise at all, because good readers are usually fast readers who have developed the confidence to scoot through sentences, often making mistakes in word recognition, though not in overall meaning, in the process. The point that Nicholson is really drawing attention to, is that good readers are good at decoding words in lists, the question is: What came first, the chicken or the egg? I struggle to see any significant implications for reading, one way or another.

Of all the Tunmer, Nicholson et al. research findings I put to teachers, the ones they found most at odds with their experience, and the most laughable, were to do with good readers being good readers because they were good at phonics. The teachers said good readers usually end up being good at phonics, but many of them have an extended period when their reading is quite good and their phonics only marginal.

At last the meandering address came to an end. My feeling was, and I think shared by a number in the audience, that you’re not entirely wrong, but you’re going about it in the wrong way. You have locked yourself into a silly, emotively-based argument with a substantial number of New Zealand teachers, leading yourself into overstatement and misrepresentation, and to a lack of good sense in the direction and interpretation of your research. The last thing teachers need, at any time, is an academic lording it over them, telling them they are failing, and whipping up unjustified anxiety.

Anyway, it was time for questions. They didn’t come. The address, it seemed to me, was so poor, and the argument so unconvincing, that few had the heart to say anything, or the inclination to prolong such a dismal affair. Almost out of pity I asked if he had considered sufficiently the difference between reading in sentences and decoding in lists, and the effect of too much of the latter on the former. I can’t remember what the reply was, but I can remember Warwick Elley’s, ‘Plausible – plausible’ resounding in the stillness, in response to whatever it was that he did say. And that was it, all over quarter-of-an-hour before its scheduled completion. This was a pussy cat delivery to a radio introduction tiger.

William Tunmer’s address followed, blessed or was it encumbered? with the unexpected extra quarter-of-an-hour. He had not been long in the country. Of the phonics’ academics, Tunmer was to prove the jargon-overdrive expert.

‘We first describe a model of proximal causes of reading performance differences’, he began.

He went on to develop his theme with: ‘Developmental differences in initial processing ability are thought to produce differences in the development of the metalinguistic abilities necessary for acquiring basic decoding and comprehension monitoring skills.’

In other words: Children with an early aptitude for reading learn to read better and better.

The main point in his argument derived from this is that children who don’t develop an early aptitude need special help early on or they will get further and further behind. On the whole, New Zealand teachers wouldn’t have much difficulty agreeing with that.

In question time the key question came when he was asked: ‘What are the implications of what you say for classroom practice in New Zealand?’

‘Pretty much keep as you are. I like the way, in particular, that your early encouragement for children to be writers helps them in their letter-sound association work.’

The year of the conference, by the way, was 1992.

In the light of what was to follow from Tunmer, I think we are entitled to ask: ‘What happened on the way to Massey?’

The battle for primary school reading: Part 1

20080403072744_scan0001The battle for primary school reading – Is the phoneme on the wall?

A reading treasure reduced and reducing: Part 1

Introduction

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.

Teacher Diary teacher identified

Dear networkonnet reader

Thank-you for your interest.

The teacher’s classroom you read about was Elwyn Richardson’s who, as you probably know, taught at a two-teacher school in Northland during the late ’50s and early ’60s.

The purpose of Teacher Diary was to show that teaching, in its fundamentals, has hardly changed, nor is it likely to change. As well, if the Elwyn Richardson of that time was available in this time he would be just as wonderful a teacher – a sensation.

The four key characteristics of Richardson’s teaching were his attentiveness and sensitivity to the responses of the children; his demand for children to be rigorous in their observations, thinking, and expression; the way he linked thinking with imagination; and his determination to work things out for himself – teaching as a personal journey.

As society becomes more technocratic, pressured, and impersonal; and computers become more commonplace, and less beguiling – there will be greater demand for teaching that is about creativity and expression. We do not need to go to America’s Howard Gardner, and the like, to seek inspiration and sanction for programmes that feature creative expression – we have our own heritage and icons. (I intend later to have a look at Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s education significance.)

I know in my writing of Teacher Diary I used some subterfuge as a way of protecting the illusion allowing Richardson’s universality to be demonstrated, in other words, his relevance to today and tomorrow. That is why, for instance, I make references to computers, and have the two fathers and their sons visit the wasps up close when, in fact, the whole class visited them in such circumstances – oh happy days!. However, while I have put together the narrative a bit like a film, and have reshaped descriptions and explanations, I am confident you will recognise the voice speaking to you as Elwyn Richardson’s.

Richardson in his wider life and, in particular, his later life, showed himself to have a number of personal inadequacies. As well, his educational writing and contribution tended to lose focus once he was away from close contact with children in the classroom. But you can read more about this in my series of postings about Elwyn Richardson, and read his book ‘In the Early World’, which was re-published a few years ago.

Very best wishes

Kelvin Smythe

Teacher Diary 7

The children were working on some papier mache masks when I noticed a boy wander over to a few wasps congregating on an apple core.

‘All workers still, but it won’t be long now,’ Eric said to his sister.

That was the beginning of a prolonged study on wasps.

Towards the end of the study the nest was tracked down by two fathers. It was on a hill behind the disused dairy factory close to the school. Two boys accompanied their fathers. The fathers and their sons found two water sources with wasps visiting, and assumed the nest must be between the two.

Eric told us of their discovery: ‘We followed the wasps up the hill and watched the sky to see the line of flight. The number of wasps increased until we heard the low buzz of the nest in a nearby dry gully bank. The ground seemed to throb.’

David said laconically, ‘Eric and his father got too close and they both got stung. Eric got stung twice.’

The children paid close attention to the boys’ account.

‘Those are the guards,’ Eric said, ‘those ones. All the ones that fly close around the hole are there on duty – That’s why he “got” me.’

I took the children for a walk near the nest at a ‘safe’ enough distance.

Eric and David reported back on their next visit with their fathers.

‘We hadn’t been digging long before Dad got stung again. We dug out the nest and the rest of the earth. The wasps came storming out and we had to wait for them to settle before we could dig any more.’

‘Then,’ said Eric taking up the story, ‘we went back on Friday and really got to work.’

Many of the children took it on themselves to visit the nest site in their own time.

Georgia said, ‘We have just been up there. The hole is two metres deep and three metres wide and there are chunks and layers all over the paddock just where they left it – Ann put her finger over one of the cells and wow, she was stung – Mere dug up some of the paper cells and Ann carried them because she had a cold and couldn’t smell the stink.’

‘I went up there, too,’ said Lewi. ‘The nest is dead. We saw the queen and the drone. The nest is well dead because of the rain.’

Dead wasps were examined and drawn; a slide of wings was made for projection; various foods were tried to establish which were the best enticements (honey was the best); a diary was made of wasps’ preferences and behaviours; microscopes were used for detailed examination; a survey was undertaken to establish whether the day being sunny or dull made any difference to the numbers visiting. Towards the end of the study, the children went to the computer for further information, with the study being extended to ichneumon flies, horn-tailed wasps, and the yellow wasp.

There was, of course, the usual flurry, of poems, descriptions, paintings, lino cuts, and diary entries.

A rare bush snail was found in the hills near the school and was to lead to a study of the common snail. The characteristics of the style of teaching and learning that we had developed can be seen in what followed. First, there was the way an informal, incidental occurrence became part of the main programme. I try to be alert for ways to keep the children involved – one way is to build on ideas they throw up. As part of the work on the rare bush snail, the children pondered the significance of the lines on the snail. Some thought they indicated age, others only stages of growth. This represented another characteristic – the children being directly involved in the formation of knowledge. When the common snail was studied, the children were sufficiently informed and motivated to work independently and creatively – another characteristic. Underlying all my teaching is the availability of time and space for the children to try things out, and to work at a pace and in a manner that suits them. I like children to be able to bring forward their own thoughts in their work and in doing this indicate how the study has affected their thinking and imagination. It is this link between thinking and imagination that is at the heart of all that we do.

At another time I may write a diary on how the other parts of the curriculum are taught and learnt. However, for me, the relationship between the immediate environment, direct observation, and truthfulness in expression in art, writing, and drama is what motivates me. I intend to continue to demand from the children exactness in observation and reflection; to emphasise the children evaluating their work and the work of others; to maintain the expectation that the children will experiment, persevere, discover, and refine; to be alert for incidental happenings to build into the main programme; to be guided by the children in directions the programme will go; and, related to that, develop the democratic strain to classroom that has arisen.

[To find out who this teacher is, and more about the teacher, go to ‘Teacher Diary teacher identified’.]