Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Reading, writing and teaching that works

As the International Adult Literacy Survey demonstrated -- and it's worth reminding ourselves of this fact frequently -- too many New Zealanders emerge from school without two of the basic skills necessary to function in the modern world: they can't read or write.

A staggering 66.4 percent of Mäori are below the minimum level of “ability to understand and use information from text,” and an equally tragic 41.6 percent of non-Mäori. 40 percent of employed New Zealanders and 75 percent of the unemployed are below the minimum level of literacy competence for everyday life and work. Universities organising remedial reading and writing courses for first-year students report that "University students can't read, write or spell," and that "Students fail basic skills," and the Labour Department estimates up to 530,000 New Zealand adults have inadequate literacy and numeracy skills.

It's not good, but the problem is not confined to New Zealand. Lecturers at some UK universities are calling for "a public debate on standards because they say functionally illiterate students are being passed so they do not drop out of courses." Meanwhile, as Martha Brown points out, the United States, like Haiti, is among the seven out of 39 Western Hemisphere nations that entered the third millennium with a literacy rate below 80 percent.

Things are bad all over.

Literacy figures across the western world have been getting worse and worse for years, and Martha Brown's article suggests some of the reasons. Can you imagine then, in a world of rampant and increasing illiteracy, a school which goes against fashion and where students are actually taught to read, and to write well?

A school whose students are asked to correct their parents' letters? A place where, when a law professor evaluated the school for her children and she saw samples of the junior high students' essays, she asked whether she could photocopy them to show her law students what real writing looked like. A school in which new entrants learn to write complete, articulate, properly punctuated sentences; lower elementary students learn to write coherent, grammatical, well- structured paragraphs; upper elementary students learn to write clear, fluent, logical essays; for junior high students, who have been through this evolution, the writing process is second nature. Says Lisa Van Damme, who runs such a school,
In an age plagued by misguided efforts at preserving students' "self- esteem" (by leaving their mistakes uncorrected), classrooms bursting at the seams, teaching-to- the-standardized-test methods, and a disdain for the traditional, rigorous, academic approach to education, essay writing is simply not taught. It is taught at VanDamme Academy.
The method of teaching she outlines is is not rocket science; it's something every school could do if they weren't busy with more fashionable and more politically correct "learnings," and if teaching writing and thinking was a genuine focus.

At her school, says Van Damme, the writing process "is broken down into small, incremental steps learned, practiced, and mastered over the course of their nine years at the school" -- those steps are outlined at Van Damme's article, The Writing Process: One Step at a Time [available here shortly at her Pedagogically Correct blog].

Make no mistake about the importance of good writing. It's full importance is not just that it allows us to communicate with others -- it's real import is as a tool for thinking, for collecting and organising one's thoughts. Says Van Damme:
It is important that a child learn to write not just so that he can draft a compelling essay for his college applications or compose a persuasive cover letter for a resume. The repeated practice of a deliberate, structured, systematic approach to writing is critical for training students in a deliberate, structured, systematic approach to thinking. It is in writing class that they are asked to take the knowledge they have gained in other subject areas, contemplate it, organize their thoughts, and express their understanding with clarity and purposefulness.

If we want students to develop clarity of thought on any issue, if we want them to harness the power of the knowledge they gain over the course of their education, they must learn, practice, and master the skill of writing
As I said here the other day, children have an enormous capacity to learn, but most modern educationalists steadfastly refuse to use that capacity; they fail to fill that enormous capacity for knowledge and and for learning, leaving these young students (even as they reach adulthood) adrift in a world they can barely understand and with brains that have never automatised the skill of actually thinking.

George Reisman berates educationalists for that signal failure in his article A Root Cause of the Failure of Contemporary Education. His criticism of contemporary educationalists and their factory schools -- and the "simple uneducated men and women" produced by those schools who emerge with very little ability to understand the world in which they live -- stands in stark contrast to the teaching championed by educational heroes like Van Damme, and the students produced by her Academy.

Subscribe to her Pedagogically Correct blog, and keep up to date with how teaching and learning should be done.

UPDATE: Lisa Van Damme's article The Writing Process, One Step at a Time is now online at the Principles in Practice blog.


  1. The stats in your first paragraph are a disgrace. Worse, they guarantee a future nightmare scenario.

    I compare this situation with my (nearly) 94 year old grandmother, still living independently in her own home. Like most of her generation, she left school for full-time menial work after eight yrs of primary school, aged 13. Money was extremely tight; her dad was out of work for a time during the Depression & Nana's wage was cut by 25% and never changed.

    With my grandfather, she went on to run a successful small business for many years. Her comprehension and literacy skills are as good as I've seen, in spite of that limited education in a tiny Taranaki country school from 1918-1926.

    Ah, but things are so much more complex these days, aren't they.


  2. It is predictable that you're going to praise Lisa Van Damme as a hero for no other reason other than she's a supporter of Montesorri. I do expect that after this post, all the Libzs would jump in to defend Ms Van Damme.

    On her website , she claims that 8th grade achieved success in pre-calculus & calculus courses. This is an assertion which has no proof, such as to show the course material (topics) on her website, so one can see if is indeed true or not. Perhaps she have have the testimony of some children who went thru this program.

    If her program is so successful and defy the mainstream methodology , then she would have been interviewed in shows like Oprah, Dr. Phil, 60 minutes, 20-20 or other current affair shows. She would be treated like the motivational speaker as Tony Robbins, who is a multi-millionare for his books, TV shows, etc. Ms Van Damme would be on TV all the time.

  3. Yeah, that's right FF, if she hasn't been on Oprah then she must be lying.

    FFS, and you call yourself a scientist?

    Details of her courses and methods of teaching appear all over her Academy website and elsewhere. Turn off Oprah and go and have a look.

  4. If those stats in the first paragraph are accurate then that is the most scandalous thing you've ever blogged.

  5. The decline of the Roman Empire was preceded by a decline in all education standards as well. It's not a cause, but a symptom.

    Why do you need to read if the state gives you all the benefits you'll ever need?

  6. Has anyone ever said to you, "oooh that looks intellectual", if you happen to be clutching a book over 400 pages that hasn't featured on Ophrah.
    Literate societies don't do that.

    However, a society made up of baristas, hairdressers, bank clerks, salespeople, and real-estate agents does.


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