In the NZ Herald today (26.04.2018), Natalie Akoorie has written an article on a just released review office report damning reading recovery. This report was then discussed by the review office and responded to by one of the Massey phonics professors, James Chapman.
The other Massey phonics professors who come even more into play as this bitter decades long story extends are Tom Nicholson and Bill Tunmer.
When I read the article in the Herald I wept, you must understand, if you haven’t already picked it up, I am old, and while I knew the Massey professors were still indulging in their qualitative phonics obsession, I had put it behind me. The Herald article made it come back with a rush.
In desperation to shift the blame for the plummeting learning achievement dropping in every part of primary school learning (not just reading it should be made clear), the review office is looking for scapegoats for the failure that was predictable 28 years ago given the institutional characteristics of the review office.
If there hadn’t been a change of government, reading recovery would have been declared as having failed and preparations underway for its closure. As well, in its place, an arrangement between Hekia Parata, the review office, and the Massey phonics professors, would have seen the professors’ reading programme, now being trialled, a success, and used as an argument against schools’ requests for more teacher support. It is essential that to establish if the professors’ trial is really working that it be carried out by the Dunedin Monitoring Unit. A description of that pathetic reading programme follows below.
It seems the review office is partly trying to protect itself by seductively flaunting the power it can make available to a minister and those in the bureaucracy; at the same time, though, issuing a veiled threat of its ability to make life difficult for Labour if it attempts to make significant changes to the review office.
The whole process of a particularly shonky review office report, lack of consultation, and announcement by media storm, is an education disgrace. An inquiry should be set up by the ministry to determine who is at fault, the motivations, the closeness to the phonics professors, and how due process and integrity of reports can be assured in the future.
This is the second time in quick succession the review office has organised widespread media breakouts. The first was the review office trying to escape fault for failure in primary school mathematics (Attack! 137).
I have long been aware, as a result of principals getting in touch with me, that review officers and some ministry people were talking down reading recovery and ESOL.
Since 1992 I have been following the behaviour of the phonics professors – I plead with you not to dismiss what I say immediately before you read what I have written further on.
I looked through pages of earlier writings of the review office and there was no hint of concern about reading recovery. A writing had the heading: ‘What was not working well’ but nothing about reading recovery, not even a hint.
The document under consideration: ‘Evaluation at a glance: A decade of assessment in New Zealand Primary Schools – Practice and Trends’ was really a review; that is, except for the section, right out of the blue, on reading recovery.
There are dozens of pages in praise of national standards and every formal test under the quantitative sun, also the review office’s indicators and myriad formalistic recommendations; there is, as we have come to expect, a complete absence of criticism of anything to do with government policy, indeed, fulsome praise for national standards and the like.
Review office reports are, of course, not research, they are government policy and review office self-serving propaganda produced for media consumption. But in this case, the review office has outdone itself with the damning of reading recovery. There are really only two sets of New Zealand research referred to:
- Chapman J. W., &. Tunmer, W. E. (2015). The Literacy Performance of ex-Reading Recovery Students Between Two and Four Years Following Participation on the Program: Is this Intervention Effective for Students with Early Reading Difficulties? Invited address at the 39th Annual Conference of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities (IARLD), Vancouver, Canada, July 8, 2015.
- Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
So one set was by the self-interested academics in 2015 and the other from the false research of John Hattie (Attacks! 143-144).
A circle of misinformation and distortion has developed involving: the ‘research’ (as contained in the review office report); the condemnation of reading recovery that followed; the Hekia-Chapman reading trial in schools; the phonics professors; and the review office’s alignment with phonics. In that circle of misinformation and distortion should be inserted the story being put around by the review office and the phonics professors that reading recovery doesn’t help Maori and Pasifika children.
I challenge anyone to go to Hikurangi School and say that to Bruce (see Comment letter at the end); and because teachers on staffs around New Zealand keep me informed about one thing and another, let me choose another principal and school that uses reading recovery and very successfully, how about Barbara Ala’alatoa of Sylvia Park School?
A pivotal statement in the review office report is: ‘There remains an assumption that all students that have not progressed initially when learning to read will participate in RR and will succeed.’
This is a decidedly nasty way of putting the blame for reading failure on to reading recovery. The review office is really saying that the assumption is wrong and reading recovery is to blame for that assumption being held. On the other hand, the assumption being left by the review office is that it knows how all children will succeed.
The following from their report:
‘New research is providing teachers with useful teaching strategies, and ERO has seen
considerable gains for students in some schools who work with targeted students within the classroom. In these schools, leaders have chosen to support teachers to take responsibility for the success of every student in their classroom, teaching team and/or across the school, rather than rely on out of class interventions. Teachers engage with many different, targeted PLD programmes to improve their teaching practice, in particular focusing on their understanding of the technical aspects of teaching reading, and how children learn. Results for Year 1 students improve considerably when teachers determine whether the student needs more focus on decoding, fluency, or comprehension and provides targeted teaching to match the student’s needs.’
The thought that this dug up old rubbish will lead children to succeed is tragically laughable. Do you see the attraction to Hekia and the review office? the formalism, the phonics, the coming from experts, the coming from the review office, the putting down of teacher knowledge, and the non-need of support teachers.
It is a failing education system that is letting reading recovery down. All children do better in a holistic environment – which happens to be consistent with neuroscience findings and Maori and Pasifika holistic philosophies – but, relatively, Maori and Pasifika do even better. The holistic, however, is anathema to the review office because it is significantly constructed on teacher knowledge.
Reading recovery hasn’t let children down, the system has, and that system has been the hierarchical and national standard system imposed and managed by the education review office.
I point out to the review office that reading recovery was there when New Zealand was top in reading, so it is illogical to blame it when New Zealand is not. What has changed is the decades of formalistic approaches wrought by national standards, the excessive testing demanded by the review office, and, in the case of reading, the huge increase in phonics teaching, also demanded by the review office though a lot of it introduced by young teachers from their teaching training by quantitative academics. (Which raises the question about the quality of teacher training and whether we need institutions separate from universities to which we can appoint some of our top class principals and teachers to the staffs. Teachers having been cut off from their cultural roots by a North American-style quantitative narrative – but that is another matter for another time.) The report says that many teachers aren’t up to it, but somehow this is looped back to the fault of reading recovery, rather than the hierarchical environment established by the review office. It is not reading recovery’s fault that reading is now a plethora of written comprehension, templates, and phonics.
The report says: ‘Recent data … suggests that gains seen during the RR programme may not be sustained.’
Reading recovery, to flourish, needs a supportive classroom and education system environment – it was always part of reading recovery that the children who graduated from reading recovery would be picked up by classroom teachers with the philosophy to extend children’s initial progress. But just the opposite environment has been imposed on classrooms for the children to return to. The environment provided by the ministry, the education review office, and corporate advisories has been formalistic, national standards driven, phonics sated and meaning deprived, and frankly boring. And there has been reduced teacher support help available.
The Herald article refers to struggling readers which is just the kind of imprecision needed by the pitiless opponents of reading recovery – opponents like the Massey professors and the review office. Reading recovery is for children who need a hand-up to enable them to join the other children in reading; it is not for deeply struggling children – those need long-term individual attention of the sort provided by support teachers, in association with teachers, but hardly ever was, because the previous government kept the supply in cruelly short provision (and nary a reference from the review office or the Massey professors about that).
As though heads of junior classes over all the years would have worked with reading recovery and the processes around it if it wasn’t sustained.
This is another sad chapter in the book of reading devastation wrought by the phonics professors, James Chapman, Bill Tunmer and Tom Nicholson.
After Judith Aitken replaced Maurice Gianotti at the review office, I predicted exactly where the massive shift to phonics promoted by Aitken would take us; the review office was vociferously supported by the Massey professors who revelled in the formalistic environment established by the review office and set out in hot pursuit to undermine the knowledge of senior teachers of junior classes.
A reading panic was developed by the professors and review office regarding children who were behind in their reading. The professors and review office declared stjcs had it wrong and there was an urgent need to change to a deep concentration on phonics, a drilling of phonics in a sense, phonics without necessarily being associated with meaning. As usual, Maori children were highlighted and, to me, crocodile tears shed, to review office and phonics professors’ power advantage.
As part of helping Maori children national standards were introduced (yes – can you believe it?) – which had the effect, as we all know, of continually reminding any children having difficulty with their reading of their reading status and how little satisfaction they gained from reading. Children, it was implied, had one rate of learning, and if they didn’t keep up, they needed to be made to through phonics.
The professors saw reading recovery as their power opposition because it attended to both phonics and meaning when, to them, phonics should have overwhelming priority – as well it was based on stjcs’ teacher knowledge which they dismissed as superstition.
There is a new sheriff in town. The education review office wrote its report for a different government and got caught out.
Ellen MacGregor-Reid of the ministry came out in adamant support of reading recovery.
There is something out of kilter in the criticism by the professors and the report by the review office. So from both the Massey professors and the review office I would like an assurance that any personal or professional connections that might have a bearing on the report and response, or the appearance of a bearing, is made clear. And, I hope Chapman, in advocating small group rather than individual reading help, can give us an assurance that he is not connected to any reading programme so based.
What follows comes in the form of some quoted paragraphs from Attacks! 24-27 – ‘The battle for primary school reading – is the phoneme on the wall?’ which was written nearly 24 years ago.
Also an article mainly about Tom Nicholson written even longer ago, showing one of the
professors in action.
There are two parts to this Attack! First: Excerpts from a 1994 article in Developmental Network Magazine, republished in The File.
Second: An article written in 1992 for Developmental Network Magazine, and republished in Primary School Diaries, Part Three, Curriculum
- Excerpts from a 1994 article in Developmental Network Magazine, republished in The File.
The battle for primary school reading – is the phoneme on the wall?
This writing is about 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 going 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.
Another reason for this writing 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, Brian Cambourne, or Kenneth Goodman), nor even to local heroes (for instance Warwick Elley, Ruth Trevor, Marie Clay, or Don Holdaway).
A further reason for the writings 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.
These writings are not to advocate for pressure on schools in any particular 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 writings 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, this treasured group, 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).
There is another way the phonics-focused 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 other publications, selecting what suits as a means to set up straw arguments 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, Goodman). When teachers protest that, as a rule, official policies have little effect on what they do in reading, that is ignored. Just as 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 a philosophy and 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, technically-loaded admittedly, but still pipsqueaks. Which brings me to another of their expressions 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 high intensity systematic phonics approach because their balanced way is better, has been shown to be better, to their satisfaction, for decades, in thousands of situations where it matters, in the complexity 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.
For a number of reasons the wider leadership of the group of women has been weak – one of those reasons being 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, those 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. Academic controversies are disruptive to collegiality, emotionally wearing, and distracting from further research and writing. In the end, Clay cried off from full engagement.
Then there is the complex matter of how children learn to read: there is no convincing evidence that comprehending alphabetic print requires readers to first convert visual symbols to sound; indeed there is accumulating a large amount of evidence to the contrary. I invite readers to consider again the writing now in Attack! 7 Greedy Cat. There is more going on in Amy’s fascination with Greedy Cat more learning
occurring and more strategies being employed than simply converting visual symbols to sound. Amy is insisting on putting meaning first, ahead of any concern for developing decoding skills. Amy – as is natural for human beings – has gone directly to the search for meaning, using such things as: visual symbols, including the visual symbol of C-A-T, pictures, syntax, and prior knowledge. As well, Amy was of a time when opportunities for producing sound to print would have been provided, allowing her to write her thoughts and validate her ideas and experiences. Such an experience, though, is a delicate operation requiring skilled and systematic teaching – skill now in very short supply.
There is more support for what Amy’s behaviour tells us about reading. There is a report (now in Attack! 23) that provides strong confirmation of the correctness of the New Zealand balanced approach. In a comparison of the New Zealand balanced approach with the Scottish phonics approach, the New Zealand approach was found to be much more successful in teaching reading to all levels of ability and in maintaining in children a long-term love of reading. And in a second study, the reading characteristics of Japanese kindergarten children, Japanese adults learning to read, and New Zealand students taking Japanese in high school as a second language were looked at. The researchers found that the same cognitive processes in learning to read words in an alphabet-based system occurred in children learning to read a syllable-based system, such as Japanese. In other words, the need to convert visual symbols to sound so stressed by the alphabet-based phonics academics is shown to be severely overplayed. This is powerful evidence that human cognitive processes allow and encourage readers to go from visual symbol to meaning without first going through sound, and powerful evidence that the New Zealand balanced approach has it right.
As has been discussed above, in the wider world, the media, and large parts of the education system, 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 advantage, 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. Then there 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 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.
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 leverage their way into a direct say in what happens in schools – for phonics-focused academics, teachers having the edge in control over reading is akin to there 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. Teachers need to be on guard against the collusion between phonics-focused quantitatives, conservative politicians, and commercial companies to produce book and computer programmes – programmes always riven with flaws and rigidities. Holistic reading requires highly skilled teachers, in free interchange with other highly skilled teachers in close relationship with their school communities. But these teachers have been seriously reduced in number by the lack of sympathy and understanding of principals, private consultancies, and the education review office.
The group of treasured teachers I refer to are reducing in number and they are despondent about directions being taken in reading. A key point I want to make now is that the balanced approach, which once dominated in classrooms has proved wonderfully robust. But the growing insistence on words-in-isolation and highly structured approaches is leading to this kind of reading becoming seriously challenged. 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 are diminishing numbers of highly-skilled teachers of the balanced approach available to rescue them.
- What follows is an article written in 1992 for Developmental Network Magazine, and republished in Primary School Diaries, Part Three, Curriculum
Pursuing Nicholson (and Tunmer and Chapman)
This posting touches on teachers’ battle and my battle with Professor Tom Nicholson and his professorial brothers-in-arms, William Tunmer, and James Chapman. It was a battle to combat the unrelenting promotion of phonics and the associated undermining of the status of teachers and, not incidentally, that of reading recovery.
This phonics versus teacher knowledge issue has recently been brought to a definitive conclusion with the rout of the arguments of the professors and a stunning confirmation of those of teachers. Some highly convincing research findings have demonstrated that the New Zealand contextual approach had it right, oh so spectacularly right. The findings had Nicholson a few weeks ago spluttering in a resultant interview on National Radio. This is the academic who, along with Tunmer and Chapman, introduced the 20% mythology and the early reading panic still plaguing us today, and who nearly brought down reading recovery.
In her final years Marie Clay’s ideas on reading were relentlessly attacked by these men with our wonderful stjcs both undermined and sidelined in the debate. ‘The battle for primary school reading’ series is my hymn to those terrific women. (Attacks! 24-27) I pursued Nicholson and Tunmer for years, spooking their conference presentations and analysing their writings in Developmental Network Newsletter. (By the way, Nicholson was trundled out to be an academic expert on one of Anne Tolley’s bogus national standards advisory committees – you’re not surprised are you?)
Nicholson and Tunmer used their professorial status to full advantage: they were constantly in print, on TV, and on the radio; they were particularly fawned on by National Radio; glossy magazines like Metro made Nicholson a hero in contrast to those indolent, uncaring, ignorant teachers; the Business Roundtable sponsored Nicholson; Don Brash, Donna Awatere, grandma from Kapiti Coast (representing the uninformed amateur who is always there), and others lined up to berate teachers and laud phonics; and many in the ministry were nervously in awe. (The one oddity was that the education review office, unlike their bureaucratic equivalents in other countries, stood firm for the balanced approach. [This happened in the brief moment between Maurice Gianotti being head of the review office and Judith Aitken taking over.] That stand has long disappeared, engulfed by the review office’s now emblematic mindless obsession with testing and measurement, but the stand was significant, occurring as it did when the fear and loathing induced by Nicholson and Tunmer was at its height. I know the people in the review office responsible for that splash of enlightenment and thank them. And while on thanks – NZEI, over the years, did a very shrewd job in taking some of the wind out of the Nicholson, Tunmer, and Chapman sails.)
A particularly unwelcome phenomenon was the near terror exhibited by advisers, reading specialists, lecturers, and teachers in speaking out against Nicholson, Tunmer, and Chapman. The sources of that fear are too complex to detail here, all that I will say is that vested institutional interests were at stake. The fear was palpable. We understand that fear better today, but back then it was a new phenomenon, now our system is riven with it. What about the interests of the children you ask? Oh come on, smell the coffee! This is education late-20th century style, don’t start bringing the children into it. This is about vested interests: job security and promotion, PBRFs, research grants, funding for developing tests, professional development contracts, international travel, conference speaking fees, publishing companies, global education agencies, international testing agencies, OECD, power, status, and bureaucratic and political advantage. This is about the ideology of managerialism holding sway. This is about putting down the idea of public service. This is about academic certainty which can be set out as prescriptions by academics – not about the intuitions and insights of teaching as an art, acquired and developed from experience based on a holistic philosophy. This is about what academics know, not those pesky, no-account teachers. Get with it! And as for the children, teachers just have to do what the elite say and they’ll be all right.
Some years ago, a conference at Auckland (1992) was themed: ‘Elements of the campaign for a phonics-focused future and against the balanced reading approach’, and Tom Nicholson’s paper was headed: ‘Do Children Read Words Better in Context? A Classic Study Revisited’.
His 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 (Kenneth Goodman) said they should do.
(We now leave the conference for a moment.)
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 what Ken Goodman and a number of others had argued.’
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.’
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 attention to 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 one-to-one 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.
What Nicholson was doing here was establishing an American-style debate about phonics. If the American experience is anything to go by, the only people to benefit from that are 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 singularly unimpressive.
Nicholson was being disingenuous when he equated 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 – colonising the curriculum – 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. It did not take long, though, for the correction to occur.
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 of 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.
To be honest why bother.
In early January this year I was in the foyer of Travelodge hotel, picked up a Sydney Morning Herald and turned to the editorial section. There in the headlines was an Australian professor saying something about reading recovery.
He said reading recovery was a failure because it was teaching children to read for meaning when the attention should be to the reading. The professor reverently quoted the Massey professors and all their skewed assumptions and research results. With glee, it seemed to me, he announced the end of reading recovery in his state.
The moral: quantitatives deeply resent ideas based on teacher knowledge.
What goes around with quantitative reading professors comes around – in Sydney too, and wherever they are situated.
- A final sign off from Attack! 133: The media are immediately biddable to these groups. If the media took even a mildly sceptical view of all those involved in school education, that would require them to research, give thought, but what perilous territory they would find themselves in. How much simpler to believe in the unsullied motivation of authority. Except for some sentimental and patronising items, classroom teachers are invisible.
School education is a battlefield, a fierce contest of will, ambition, and power rapaciousness. This may not be universal but it is widespread and, on the whole, a good rule of thumb for judging individuals in the hierarchy. This is why I identify with classroom teachers.
Continued in Part 3