Wednesday, 7 October 2009

There’s a frickin’ elephant in the schoolroom [update 2]

If there’s a silver bullet for improving the appalling literacy rates of the youngsters who leave NZ’s factory schools it’s not National Bloody Standards, it’s phonics. Phonics from an early age to teach youngsters properly what those marks on the page sound like, and at a later age to repair the damage of those teachers who told them the marks themselves didn’t matter – that it was okay just to guess.  Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen talks about the reintroduction of phonics in her own neck of the woods [hat tip Leighton Smith]:

    “It’s not often one gets the chance to say this: New South Wales is doing something right. At least it is when it comes to literacy. In recognition of the importance of phonics, New South Wales teaching guides now require teachers to spend part of each day teaching young children the sounds that make up words.
    “It sounds like a no-brainer that children should explicitly be taught the most basic building blocks of learning to read. Yet one more hurdle - the most important one - remains. New research reveals that new teachers on the cusp of entering our schools have little understanding of how to teach phonics.. .”

No wonder. The elephant in the literacy room is the failed ‘whole word’ – or ‘look and guess’ – method of scaring children away from learning to read, a non-method of non-teaching made up out of whole cloth by wholly ignorant academics. Yet the fight to rid schools of the ‘look-and-guess’ nonsense has been interminable, internecine, and still ongoing.

    “The drawn-out delays over better literacy teaching are nothing short of scandalous. This is not some piddling policy that can be set aside for another day. These delays hurt our most disadvantaged children the most; they often miss out on the added support of engaged parents willing and able to encourage reading.
    “These are the children politicians love to talk about when they use their grand rhetoric about education. . . ”

. . . and then generally leave behind once they get into office and get captured by the teacher unions. So it’s gratifying indeed to see there’s baby steps being taken, at least on one side of the Tasman.

  The next critical step is to teach our teachers how to teach reading. . .”

Sure is. But you’ll have to teach most of them to read first.

You have to laugh, or else you’ll cry.

And to help you laugh, here’s a funny story told by a favourite reading teacher of mine – a man who teaches troublesome teenagers to read in the blink of a five-day adventure camp. A story about a frickin’ elephant . . .

Five-year old students are learning to read.

Yesterday one of them pointed at a picture in a zoo book and said,

"Look at this! It's a frickin' elephant!"

I took a deep breath, then asked..."What did you call it?"

"It's a frickin' elephant!

It says so on the picture!"

And so it does...

" A f r i c a n Elephant "

Hooked on phonics! Ain't it wonderful?

UPDATE 1:  By the way, my friends and colleagues at the Maria Montessori Education Foundation – who swear by phonics – tell me I should remind you about two upcoming events for parents in Tauranga, this weekend, and Wellington in two weeks time.

TAURANGA: PUBLIC ADDRESS - 'The Child - A Social Being'
London-based Montessori trainer Cheryl Ferreira talks on Saturday October 10th on how the first step in ‘the child as a social being’ is to help the child develop all his functions as a free individual, which is what fosters that development of personality that actuates social organisation.
* * Saturday October 10th @ 7- 9p.m, $15 payment at the door (includes light refreshments)
* * Historic Village on 17th, Seventeenth Avenue, Tauranga
* * For ticket information and bookings email or phone Carol 021 111 4133.

WELLINGTON:  PUBLIC ADDRESS - ‘Children Creating and Developing Language from Birth Onwards' 
London-based Montessori trainer Cheryl Ferreira talks on Saturday October 17th on how children create and develop language from birth onwards
Join us to discuss the factors that impact on the development of spoken language from 0-6 and how this impacts on writing and reading'.
* * Saturday October 17th @ 7-9p.m, $10 payment at the door (includes tea &coffee)
* * Wa Ora Montessori School, 278 Waddington Road, Naenae, Lower Hutt, Wellington*
* * For ticket information and bookings contact or phone Anna on (04) 232 3428 by Tues Oct. 13th.

If you’re in Tauranga this weekend, I’ll probably see you there.  :-)

UPDATE 2: Sally reckons “Graham Crawshaw is to literacy and phonics campaign as Fred Hollows was to innovative cheap eye surgery.” Sally’s right.

And Graham now has a blog.  Set your bookmarks to:


  1. Let's hope this means Theodore Seuss Geisel comes back in style. As annoying as his books are when they burn into your brain and you find yourself chanting phonic repetitions in board meetings, they are very good at teaching children - in my case, a 3 year old - about language, sounds and words, and how to read, and how to love reading and writing.

    Geisel apparently favoured intensive, systematic, explicit phonics from kindergarten onwards.

    I found an interesting quote by Geisel on the US National Right To Read website (

    "Dr. Seuss told Arizona Magazine in June 1981, 'They think I did it in 20 minutes. That (expletive) Cat in the Hat took nine months until I was satisfied. I did it for a textbook house, and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey revolt in the '20s, in which they threw out phonics reading and went to word recognition, as if you're reading Chinese pictograph instead of blending sounds of different letters.

    'I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country.'

    President Bush signed HR 1, on Jan. 8, 2002, to assure 'no child is left behind,' to re-train teachers and implement synthetic phonics in every classroom.

    Whole word memorization is the Grinch that stole literacy from our country. Let's give kids just what they need. Give them real phonics. Then they'll read."

  2. "as if you're reading Chinese pictograph instead of blending sounds of different letters."

    That's the best description of the essence of the 'whole word' theory I've heard.

    (Ha! word verif: musing)

  3. Ah, key is introducing reading early so the child enjoys and loves books! I love New Zealand's school system's Story Book week -- it is amazing seeing all those children who love characters from book, come in the delightful customes...My daughter loves Cat in the Hat. She learnt to read, naturally, by absorbing sounds, sights...and also by phonics.

    Loved your post...

  4. Montessori Follower7 Oct 2009, 17:40:00

    PC, if you're in Tauranga on Saturday, does it mean that you won't refuse entry to Redbaiter if he turns up to have a chat?

    Hehe, I'll be there myself.


  5. Of course there is a "silver bullet for improving the appalling literacy rates". the key word here is "bullet" not "silver".

    Silver or not, just shoot kids who cant read by age 8 say. You might call me heartless - but you have to admin this would really improve literacy rates

    If literacy rates were really important, well that's what well do. Of course every independent report on NZ's economy says that literacy and university and book learning isn't what's holding NZ back - in fact we have far to many fucking lawyers and accountants and general uni wankers. What we don't have is people willing to work for what they're worth. And frankly, bullets, silver or not, could come in handy there too.

  6. f you're in Tauranga on Saturday, does it mean that you won't refuse entry to Redbaiter

    Just beat the crap out of him..

  7. Graham Crawshaw is to literacy and phonics campaign as Fred Hollows was to innovative cheap eye surgery. He now has a blog - go to


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