Quantitatives: stop destroying the reading chances of our youngsters: finding SEMO 3

Quantitative academics lobbied the minister for structured phonics to become the official reading policy and it was a doddle. It was down-with-teachers (or up them) music to the minister’s ears. A phonics programme for young children with early reading difficulties would have sounded just right to her. And for the quantitatives it meant they were closing in on their long-held dream of New Zealand teachers bending to their phonics structures. The totara of holistic to be laid low; a foreign invasive in its place.

And the only opposing voice it seems an aging former senior inspector of schools. The NZEI is in moral and ideological decay, the NZPF playing charades, the qualitative academics silenced by the government’s icy grip of universities, meaning teachers and children, and the holistic, almost entirely vulnerable to the depredations of quantitatives. 

With their detestation of ideas that develop from the classroom or require a substantial amount of teacher initiative to make them work, quantitatives are the elitist monopolists of education: attaching themselves to power structures to sue the government to leave the entire pedagogical field free for their raids – in return offering governments uncritical ‘expert’ backing for whatever education policies they had in mind (which would be quantitative in origin anyway).

A rule of thumb for distinguishing quantitative academics from qualitative academics is that qualitatives go to the media to put pressure on the government for such things as lowering class ratios, or criticising national testing,  or reducing poverty; while quantitatives go to the media to declare that national testing is good (in fact they have an advance on them), or to oppose reducing class ratios  (unnecessary if teachers would only follow their directions), or to minimise the education effects of poverty (the real problem is teachers), or attack teachers and certain programmes in schools (think of their intolerant and reckless attack on reading recovery) – all as a way to ingratiate themselves with politicians and insinuate they, and they alone, have the answers.

And in reading it is phonics – how 20th century, how boring … how wrong.

Finding Semo (the primary-school based part)

We know how to help children with early reading and that knowing comes from Picking up the Pace, a stand-alone part of SEMO (Strengthening Education in Mangere and Otara).

In charge of Picking up the Pace was principally Gwenneth Phillips, and education hero; and Stuart McNaughton, something of a fallen hero; along with Shelley McDonald, invaluable in organising the data collectors and gathering the data.

SEMO and Picking up the Pace was employed in Decile 1 schools and early childhood centres serving those schools. The means and results were reported in 2002.

For further information, teachers should go to Picking up the Pace as a report to the ministry of education on the Early Childhood Primary Links via Literacy (ECPL). A pointed caution though: not all reports from SEMO are equally valuable (Helen Timperley and Brian Annan (Auckland University), for instance, in their reports, get it wrong by skewing outcomes to the quantitative obsession with student achievement data).

As an overview, the present mixture of internationally acclaimed interventions for prevention – all with a primary school origin and basis – are:

  • Picking up the Pace (plus work that has continued since): for groups of students in low decile schools in the first three years (the rest of the population just need a balanced programme)
  • Reading Recovery: implemented as designed for any student not up with their peers after one year of schooling
  • Third Chance: designed for the approximately 2% of an age cohort who after their second chance in reading recovery are still not up with their peers
  • All these interventions catch children up to their peers and it has been shown that they continue to keep up after the intervention is finished.

If teachers were trained (as per the research) and all three interventions were implemented as designed then the children who could not read and write by the age of 8yrs could be reduced to 0.04% of a cohort (N= 57,000). 

Note: These interventions (including reading recovery) are all teacher training programmes not programmes for children per se. In the training, teachers are taught how to teach to the child’s strength rather than to needs, are taught how to observe behaviour in order to follow the child’s perspective of the task, and are taught how to help the child make decisions as to whether their own behaviour is right or wrong and so on.  Again, these three interventions are not programmes of instruction for children.  Within given frameworks for instruction children, as individuals or groups, receive very different instruction. Instruction is based on the ‘successful performance’ in the reading and writing of meaningful language. Success is defined in terms of the child’s own perspective of the task.

The best way to describe the results reported in Picking up the Pace is that with training the teachers managed to get the distribution of achievement of these students to match  a near normal distribution in all aspects of a the Observation Survey (and in other observations in later studies):

  • Almost 100% of the students came from families with a home language other than English living within a large low socio-economic area. These are the students who disproportionately don’t get underway in literacy in all education systems around the world
  • In the professional development the teachers specifically asked not to focus on any letter learning apart from what was built into the reading and writing of continuous text. Despite the fact that letter formation, alphabet learning and learning of sounds (in words in isolation) were taken out of the teacher’s programmes  the results of these aspect of the observation were enhanced. (These  practices were taken out in order to make more time for reading and writing meaningful language)
  • The results were achieved almost immediately and replicated across three groups of schools (and many other schools since in New Zealand, Australia, USA, and more recently China). Each group had a couple of terms of professional development – 12 half days. The other literature reports teacher change is slow! but not in this study.

Enough of that – now to the specifics of Picking up the Pace

This is a project that has produced the answers for children concerned and is the one we should return to if we are serious in our commitment to education fairness. The answers are all there: the context is our holistic philosophy and the kind of programmes the ones our wonderful stjcs developed and shared over all those decades.

I’m going to go straight to the things that worked and mattered:

A selection was put forward of the usual reasons given or assumptions made when people try to identify causes for the literacy gap: lack of quality pre-school or home experience; children’s English language deficiencies; lack of literacy experience; and an insufficient emphasis on phonics in classroom programmes.

The Picking up the Pace programme was to prove that the gap is not unbridgeable.

For early childhood centres it involved teachers going deeper and more intensively into Te Whariki with activities focusing on reading to children, guided writing, and telling or retelling stories.

For primary schools it involved teachers having greater awareness of the behaviours that signal children’s understandings of the task [notice how this is put in the positive], and hence an awareness of the relevance of experience and strengths in language and literacy that children bring to school [the positive again].

Two important parts of literacy success:

  • Helping children make connections between school literacy and children’s diverse social worlds and understandings especially in writing
  • Being able to observe children’s behaviour in reading and writing in more specific and focused ways in order to draw children’s strengths into the acquisition process.

Summary of the tests used

Literacy measures

Concepts about Print (CAP) – tests knowledge of concepts about written texts, for example, directionality, one-to-one correspondence, word order in sentences, and letter order in words (used in early childhood centres and schools)

  • Letter Identification (LID) – tests ability to identify a letter by any means (used in early childhood centres and schools)
  • Hearing and Recording Sounds in Words (H&RS) – tests ability to record letters for sounds heard in words (used in early childhood centres and schools)
  • Writing Vocabulary (WRVOC) – tests number of words written correctly in a 10-minute writing session (used in early childhood centres and schools)
  • Clay word recognition (WORD) – tests recognition of high frequency words (used in schools only)
  • Burt word recognition (BURT) – tests recognition of words generally (used in schools only).

Language measures

  • Tell Me language assessment procedure (RETELL) – tests ability to listen to and then retell an unfamiliar story to an audience (but not used at 6.0 years)
  • Peabody Picture Vocabulary test (PPVT) – tests receptive language (not used at 6.0 years).

Text levels

  • (TEXT) – Progress through a gradient of difficulty based on the core series of instructional books used in New Zealand classes was provided by a measure of text levels.

These were the measures and tests, but the success in their use was the context, partly explained before the measures and tests, and further explained below.

Rich texts

Effective teachers of literacy use activities involving texts rich in meaning for the children:

  • for reading, texts that engage children’s interest, draw on their cultural and social identities, and are used for a wide range of purposes that have meaning
  • for writing, texts written for a wide range of real communicative purposes.

Decoding taught in the context of real reading

Effective literacy instruction incorporates instruction for decoding using a wide variety of procedures, overwhelmingly in the context of real reading. Given these conditions, children have been shown to acquire detailed phonological skills and knowledge over their first two years of instruction.

A narrow focus on the strengthening of the letter knowledge and sound knowledge mechanics such as worksheets, skills, and drills in phonics (which might seem to be indicated from low achievement scores) has shown limited gains in literacy achievement. The consensus from many studies is that improvement in such skills has only limited transfer to skills in comprehension and the reading and writing of ‘real’ texts. As in this study, children needed to be shown how that knowledge and skills can be used in reading and writing. Lack of access to reading and writing continuous text reduces further acquisition of mechanics, sight word vocabulary, and text reading and writing skills, including comprehension.

Flexible and adaptable instruction

Effective teachers employ a wide range of instructional activities and forms of guidance – not as a recipe but as an integrated whole, and these are changed and adjusted to suit individual needs.

Systematic observation and personalised instruction

Through systematic observation, effective teachers get to know their children very well, well enough to provide to the children feedback that matches their level of understanding, informing them and motivating them to progress their achievement – in other words, personalised instruction.

High expectations

Effective teachers have expectations that children can achieve academic progress and believe that they can be effective in helping to do this. For example, in literacy, they believe that their children can attain independence in reading and writing, and they continually look for opportunities to move them up a gradient of difficulty with appropriate interactive support.

The importance of high expectations has become a catch-call for both sides of the education divide: the teacher and the holistic, and the anti-teacher and the fragmented – but the call is not enough in itself; it must be accompanied by the right support for teachers, the right policies, and the freedom for teachers to use and respond to those right policies.

Teachers as expert professionals

Regular classroom teachers can develop their expertise – they can deliver effective literacy instruction. Their ideas and expectations about their effectiveness and children’s capacity to achieve are important. A major hurdle for them is to be prepared to take responsibility for the outcomes of their teaching, not to believe that factors in the home and the child are unbridgeable causes for lack of progress.

A team approach

The kind of professional development undergone in this project is challenging and demanding in time and personal commitment to implement change – in ideas and approaches. A major source of support to meet these challenges is teachers’ awareness that they are not alone. A team approach was advocated.

Children from cultural minorities (indeed all learners) face a mismatch between what they know and what they need to know in order to make progress in acquiring literacy.

The primary perspective was that the teacher need to take responsibility for focusing instruction to enable children to ‘get’ learning.

Year 1 class sizes

The project findings point to a significant relationship between class sizes for new entrants and the gains made in their achievement levels. These suggest that compromises had to be made for some new entrant children during the study. For maximum benefit from this kind of approach, it is recommended that class sizes for children in their first year of schooling in low decile schools should not exceed 18.

The authors of the SEMO project are being conservative here: if reduced class sizes are beneficial to any year of schooling in any year, then they will be beneficial to all classes in any year. In reading alone, the children who benefited from this project, no matter the progress made, would have been vulnerable to inadequate teaching in the years that followed. Reduced class sizes would be important in guarding against such an eventuality.

However, the study showed that while class sizes did make a difference, the smaller classes the better the outcomes, but only in conjunction professional development – on the button professional development.


We owe so much to the work of Gwenneth Phillips who in contribution should stand with the legends of New Zealand reading. 

But what are we to do about Stuart McNaughton? Director of the Woolf Centre (under the auspices of which SEMO was organised) and whose work in the SEMO project is likely to prove his greatest moment. But since then he has seemed to slip to the quantitative part of his background. He is now the first Chief Education Science adviser and with that an outspoken supporter of clusters, and he would have advised the minister on those phonics projects but, clearly, not to public attention or to preventive, cautionary effect.

McNaughton about his own research, declared, not so long ago, that he had found the answer to reading, but he hadn’t, he was the foolish fabled man who thought the moon rose to his own command: he hadn’t found the answer to reading because it had already been found, found in SEMO, of which he was part, but from which he has seemed to edge away (possibly because quantitatives don’t like sharing the fame).

In SEMO, like all good qualitative research, the answer lies both on the surface and in the depths and, as such, everyone’s reading will be personal and different and the richer and more adventurous for that.

It is always with excitement that I reacquaint myself with SEMO and Picking up the Pace, because it is Sylvia Ashton-Warner rendered to my world. Think of the key vocabulary and its fixedness on the emotions, also the Maori transitional readers, and the organic writing and reading.

My reading of Picking up the Pace is that in early reading the meaning is not in the words but in the children’s sense of their world: with a host of consequences flowing from that in what should be read, how, and how children should be helped in the reading.

Reading and writing is a dialogue of being talked to and talking to. (Pure somewhat crazy, but oh so right Sylvia).

Reading and writing needs to be whole with any teaching points made sensitive to that context.

The children should be exposed to the Conventions of Print with the controlling understanding being that by looking after the process the product looks after itself. As a reminder: the Observation Survey is not a test but a source of information for the teacher; Running Records is not about what children don’t know but what it tells the teacher.

And overall, children should be within not only a rich literacy programme but a rich programme of ideas and abilities extending from drama to mathematics.

Finding Picking up the Pace in SEMO and acting on the successes of that programme is what we should unite on in confronting the fragmented and dustily arid programme being advanced by the elitist academics in association with an ignorant and wilful government.

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One Response to Quantitatives: stop destroying the reading chances of our youngsters: finding SEMO 3

  1. macninz says:

    Kelvin in light of this in the Herald today: “The amendment to education legislation would let schools “cheaply hire an unqualified person in an unsupervised teaching role”, the primary school union claims.”
    So clearly anyone can teach without the necessary training and this Govt. proves again that it has no real commitment to an education that sets our children up for their best future.
    Wonder what the general public would think if the words teacher/education/schools was swapped with doctor/hospital/health in the quote above.

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