Tuesday, March 28, 2006

C. A .T. says cat - or does it?

  Posted by Picasa The reading wars continue endlessly; ‘whole language’ versus phonics. The trouble is that the proponents of phonics seem to see the world in black and white!

Like everything in this interconnected world nothing is ever so clear.

A couple of day ago the debate was rerun on National Radio motivated, I would think, by a biased point of view of the interviewer.

The interviewer set the scenario. Phonics has just been mandated in all primary schools in the UK. California has thrown out ‘whole language’ (inspired by NZ educators in the 80s) and has also introduced phonics approach. And our 20% reading ‘achievement tail’ was produced as evidence that primary schools are failing to teach students to read and, of course, the simplistic notion that our scary prison population has resulted from reading failure. Not that our long ‘achievement tail’ is not a serious one.

The protagonists were Tom Nicholson, a rabid phonics fan who has just written a book on the subject, a pro phonics professor from Californians, and in the other corner our current Minister of Education.

It wasn’t such an uneven debate as might have seemed expected. A determined effort by the interviewer to force the Minister into mandating phonics in our schools didn't come off. Tom Nicholson stated no one had been taught to use phonics for three decades, that teachers were not allowed to, and that the ‘mixed’ NZ approach was not doing the trick as evidenced by the ‘achievement tail’ and the illiterate prison population.

The American professor admitted that whole language had been found wanting in California but that after phonics had been introduced the scores hadn’t changed. This he put down to immigration, cultural differences and poverty. Seemed like a clue to our ‘achievement tail’?

The Minister, fresh from seeing for himself the results of intensive literary training in a group of trial school which had shown remarkable success, was up to the occasion. He stated his belief in the NZ ‘balanced’ literacy approach, one which included phonics, while admitting teachers need a better understanding of literacy teaching including phonics.

While Nicholson (and the interviewer) wanted the Minister to follow the UK way and mandate phonics the American supported the Minister’s idea of providing phonics in realistic contexts as part of a balanced programme. He warned against simplistic solutions.

It was great to hear our Minister talking about the need for: a ‘personalized’ approach, the need for ‘rich’ language experiences, tailoring instruction through diagnostic teaching to the needs of the learner, as preferable to a ‘one size fits all’ mandated approach. He shared the ideas of ‘evidence based teaching’, he had just seen, where students and teachers could both articulate what they could do and what they need to learn or teach; and he shared impressive statistics to show how much these learners had progressed.

It is obvious that phonics is no ‘silver bullet’ but useful tool in decoding reading for students at risk. And worldwide there is research to indicate it would be mistake to mandate phonics as the number one way to teach reading.

The new draft NZ Curriculum includes grapho-phonics as an element of reading within the context of a language rich programme that challenges students to want to learn.

This is as it should be. We just have to do it better.


Anonymous said...

I think that the "tail" in or education system is almost surely related to the economic, social and cultural state of a large number of our isolated and impoverished single/mixed parent families. Also a large number of these families are seperated from their own historical cultural realities. I am reminded of a comment I saw about a Polish family who came to NZ soon after the secound world war. This family decided to try and assimilate into our english culture quickly by avoiding their own rich culture and pick up an other, The result seemed to be that the oldest children did best as they still had a grounding in their original culture, the results were not so good for the younger chidren. I wonder how this related to Maori kids and Polynesian Kids? I also wonder if most of our future children will simply speak "sponge bob" or "Bro Town"or some other TV inspired synthetic culture. The best attempt by TV at the present is Maori Television.Perhaps this is a cause not the debate between Phonics Vs a Mixture of language teaching tricks.

Bruce said...

As you say, to solve some of the particular problems of society, such as poor literacy or prison populations, we have to look at the bigger culture/'picture'.

All cultural groups, indigenous or immigrant, need to strive to keep alive many aspects of their heritage as well as seeking ways of dealing with the present world. This must be a struggle in a 'Euro- centric' world and I guess many people do not manage this.

I also think the failure of many schools to achieve better results is because their teaching does not tap into the real life experiences of their students and in this way to use literacy as a means to develop positive learning identities based on each student's personal culture.

Anonymous said...

Bet your cat doesn't care if he called using 'phonics' or 'whole language' - as long as he is fed. It is all about motivation not methods. He hunts for what is meaningful, as does any learner/reader!

Bruce said...

My cat like answers only his hunger and his comfort. 'Whiskas' and 'Chef' satisfy his first need and lying around in the sun or the sofa, in state of relaxed alertness, satisfies his second.