Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Graham Crawshaw, 1931-2012

I’ve just received the very sad news that inspirational literacy campaigner and friend Graham Crawshaw died on Sunday at his home.


Graham Crawshaw’s greatest passion was teaching young boys to read. In around two weeks on what he called his Reading Adventure Camps, he gave un-reading and troubled young boys “alternatives to angry behaviour, offering them activities involving the three key elements boys love – mud, fire and water. After awhile, they forget to be angry.” And they were taught to read.

Graham’s  two criteria for choosing boys for his camps were 1) they couldn't read, and 2) they were considered unmanageable. From this unpromising material he changed young lives.

Graham began his life’s work in 1962 on a small scale, starting camps for boys on his farm. He always loved working with the “hard cases”—the kids forgotten or ejected by the factory school system; the misfits, the rebels, the rejects, the ones who didn’t fit in. The first camps were held in his woolshed, where a loft was constructed for the sleeping quarters.

The boys loved it [he remembered a few years ago]. Later on, they helped us build 10 rough cabins – it was this hands-on approach, as well as our focus on activities designed particularly with boys in mind, that made us different from the many other camps that were around.
The boys came to us from the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle – some were very hard cases. We could see the camps were making some radical changes in them. You could see the delight in their faces when they were doing things they enjoyed. Camps were held regularly from 1962 through to 1991.

Over time he identified a common theme with his troublemakers, and the troublemakers he met elsewhere.  Following his intuition he began to haunt the courts, astonished at what he found: the troublemakers at both the courts and his camps had all been through the mainstream schools system, yet nearly all of them had never learned to read.  Victims of Dame Marie Clay.

The year 1991 was a key time, he says. We had 42 boys at a camp and I decided to test their reading ability. We were appalled at some of the results. The problem cut right across wealth and ethnic boundaries. Although I knew nothing about teaching reading, except my memories of the good primers we had had at school which taught phonics, I decided to try to do something to help the boys who had such low reading ability. It was a case of trial and error.
    We started with the poorest readers. Then, in 1995, we held our first reading adventure camp in Titirangi, which was attended by about 30 boys. Girls didn’t seem to need the camps as much as boys - they seem to have been better at surviving the whole language (look and guess) methods used by schools. I realised that conversation is an integral part of literacy learning and there is a marked absence of conversation in many boys’ lives. We hear of boys disrupting the school, but I sometimes wonder if it is the school system disrupting the boys’ learning style. Since then we have held 70 reading camps, now called Farmstays. I still believe the level of illiteracy in our nation is a national scandal. No boy should pass his seventh birthday without being able to read. If there is a problem, such as dyslexia, Irhlen or Asperger syndrome, then they need to be diagnosed early so teaching can be adjusted accordingly.

Graham adjusted his teaching.


Many kids find reading hard. They don't need to. Poor reading is mostly a result of teaching reading poorly—especially teaching based on the failed 'Whole Language' method. Using phonics, Graham taught kids who’d given up on reading that it's really not hard once you "break the code” -- that reading is fun, and far less difficult than they thought. (Try reading that hieroglyph above by “whole language” and it will be difficult. Decode it syllable by syllable however and you’ll crack it.)

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 on-going.

It was a fight that set many school teachers against a man who only wanted to give schools’ inmates the learning they never received.

Since 1995, Graham held 69 six-day Reading Adventure Camps up at his Phonics Farm near Dargaville, teaching over 1400 children the joy and skills of reading there, and many more at his Windy Ridge Boy’s Farm, south of Warkworth, that he opened 12 years ago.

He was a legend.

Said one parent after one of Graham's reading camps,

My son wasn't that keen on going to a reading camp. But the difference towards reading was amazing. He read his first novel in one week and couldn't put it down... It has been evident to me this camp is essential for all children with reading difficulties...

And so they were.

You can read more about Graham and his reading camps at page 11 of the digital edition of Free Radical 73 [pdf], and an interview with him in Free Radical 74, page 12 [pdf]. And of course, feel free to enjoy the rest of each magazine.

To help you laugh, here’s one of Graham’s favourite funny phonics stories. 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...

" African Elephant "

Hooked on phonics! Ain't it wonderful?

Graham talked to Lindsay Perigo last year:

I will miss him. 

Since this has turned into an obituary for my old friend, let me post the obituary that he wrote for The Free Radical magazine in 2007 on the death of Dame Marie Clay, the person he held more responsible than any other for NZ’s disgraceful legacy of illiteracy being passed down the generations.

The Look & Guess Lady”
Marie Clay (January 3, 1926 – April 13, 2007)
By Graham Crawshaw

Reading advocate Graham Crawshaw has for many years “picked up the casualties of the present system of reading instruction” at his reading camps for boys and girls. He challenges here the many glowing tributes to her that have appeared since her death in April.

A NZ Herald obituary to Marie Clay – I refuse to recognise her grand title of “Dame” – concluded that “her influence on literacy in New Zealand is unparalleled.” With that judgement I wholeheartedly agree – except perhaps for the equally disastrous influence of her mentor, Clarence Beeby.

Marie Clay [her first name is pronounced MAH-ree, but hey, just go right ahead and guess; it’s what she used to encourage] has certainly earned for herself a place in literacy history that is unchallenged. She is credited with changing the face of primary school literacy in New Zealand, and she did: largely by discarding the teaching of phonics as the very foundation of learning to read, leaving several generations of New Zealanders adrift in a world of words, and without any means by which to decode them.

The results can be seen in literacy surveys such as the 1996 world survey on adult literacy, which demonstrated all too clearly -- and it's worth reminding ourselves of this fact frequently – that too many New Zealanders emerge from school without two of the basic skills that were once (pre-Clay) taught there: they can neither read nor write at a skill sufficient to function in the modern world.

The survey found that 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 that up to 530,000 New Zealand adults have inadequate literacy and numeracy skills.

530,000 New Zealand adults! You’d have to think that levels of functional illiteracy that dire did not happen by accident, and you’d be right. They happened after Marie Clay’s “look and guess” method of reading was substituted for the teaching of phonics.

Phonics teaches children to match the sounds of letters and groups of letters that make up words, a skill that once mastered allows the student to match letters to sounds and vice versa – in short, to learn to read. Eighty-seven per cent of the English language can be easily learned using phonics, and the remaining thirteen per cent by rote and memory -- not a difficult task once the groundwork has been laid. It is a tried and true method by which the mystery is removed from those mysterious marks that appear on the page.

Marie Clay rejected this thinking altogether. In her book Becoming Literate (given me by a training college student for whom it was required reading), she writes,

Teachers may feel that the critical thing for the child to learn is his sounds, and they may provide an elaborate scheme for teaching that overrated aspect of reading known as phonics… Current thinking suggests that we may have to revise our thinking about the value of phonics…

Perhaps instead, given the tragic results of lost generations before us, we might find more value if we “revise our thinking” about the work of this woman, who threw out the baby of phonics without even leaving any bathwater behind. I suggest a more appropriate name for her book is Remaining Illiterate, which sums up the situation for several generations of functionally illiterate New Zealanders who have her own overrated system to thank for their minds having been turned to mush.

Although some schools and even some of Clay’s own protégées claim to teach phonics as part of a “mixture of methods,” in reality this teaching is mostly confined in the early stages to teaching the ‘names’ of the letters (rather than their sounds) so that children may identify the first letter in words, at which point children are encouraged to guess what words say by using “the context of the story,” or “picture clues,” and then to commit them to memory by “shape.” Other approaches bizarrely introduce children to whole words first, only then getting them to sound out letter combinations within words. Where more structured phonics is taught it is usually later on, and then chiefly for spelling purposes.

However research evidence shows that pupils do not learn to distinguish between the different sounds of words simply by guessing, or by being exposed to books by a process of osmosis. They need to be taught the connection between letters and sounds, rather than an over-reliance on guessing.

Supporters of Clay will point to her much-vaunted Reading Recovery programme, initiated by Clay to pick up the casualties caused largely by her own implementation in NZ schools of the wholesale rejection of phonics, and which earned for her a Damehood. It was adopted by NZ schools in 1983, and for a time even bought overseas in both the UK and the US, and in Australia.

However research in the US and by James Chapman and Bill Tunmer at Massey University in NZ show that the true results for this programme have been grossly overrated. Reading Recovery programmes often resulted in lower self-esteem, they found, and no long-term improvement in reading ability. US education writer Martha C. Brown summarises the reasons that made California and Texas drop Reading Recovery and Whole Language and begin again to embrace phonics. Reading Recovery's stated goal, notes Brown, is to bring “the bottom 20 percent of readers up to the average reading level in their classroom.”

The Reading Recovery programme claims an 83 percent success rate, promising to cut other remedial costs. However, Timothy Shanahan, professor and Literacy Center director at the University of Illinois, and Rebecca Barr, professor of reading at the National-Louis University in Evanston, Ill., found Reading Recovery rejects some eligible children and drops others who progress slowly. Reading Recovery omits these children in figuring its success. With this data included, the researchers found the short-term success rate was 51 percent, not the 84 percent Reading Recovery claimed with one group of children…

A New Zealand Ministry of Education study blames Reading Recovery's failure on lack of "systematic instruction in word-level strategies" (phonics). Reading Recovery uses "principles and practices very similar to those of whole language," says Patrick Groff, emeritus professor at San Diego State University. Reading Recovery books, like Whole Language books, contain repetitive sentences and pictures to help children guess.

"The Whole Language approach to reading simply does not work for children with reading disabilities. A structured, phonics-based approach is more likely to help them," concludes a 13-year study by 100 researchers in medicine, education and psychology.

Despite flawed methods and high cost, Reading Recovery 's average annual enrollment increase between 1986 and 1998 was 47 percent, based on figures from Reading Recovery Council of North America. Nearly 11,000 U.S. schools use Reading Recovery, and 560,000 children have participated.

A Battelle Institute study shows the average annual cost of a Reading Recovery tutor is 30 percent more than the cost of a teacher for other remedial programs…

The scandalous problem of rampant illiteracy has for too long been denied, disguised and explained away by insiders in the training colleges and the elite clique of educationalists who have followed along behind Clarence Beeby and Marie Clay. Their confusing ‘look and guess’ system of illiteracy is increasingly discredited, and continues to consign the young people who can’t cope with it to the scrap heap. Her influence on New Zealand literacy has indeed been unparalleled – and I do not intend that as a compliment.

And his 15-point cure for the malaise:

Putting a Rocket Under Reading

Here are fifteen things governments could do immediately to stem the rampant and almost unchecked illiteracy in our very beautiful country:

  1. Restore the teaching of phonics at training college level to equip teachers to teach literacy properly. This will mean replacing most training college principals and staff.
  2. Utilise existing qualified and able literacy experts such as Cathy Aplin, Janet Barnaby, Brian Botting, Miriam Holloway, James Chapman, Doris Ferry, John Lewis, Tom Nicholson, Bill Tunmer, Anita Bagrie, Ann Emery, Lindsay Middleton, Soraya Landell, Pam Rogers and others.
  3. Retrain existing teachers.
  4. Recognise support and utilise existing programmes that help.
  5. Make reading more ‘boy friendly’ and ‘girl friendly,’ recognising their unique learning needs.
  6. Make the phonics teaching a compulsory part of the curriculum, as it is in Texas, UK and elsewhere.
  7. Reorganise primary schools’ schedules to focus more on literacy, as is being done in Abercanaid in Wales.
  8. Re-establish the responsibility and authority of parents in training and building up their children and empower them to select suitable sub-contractors eg., teachers who will efficiently perform their tasks, focusing on teaching the basic skills (weren’t they once called the three R’s?).
  9. Reimburse and finance parents for payment of outside tutors, camps, etc.
  10. Reprint suitable books, such as the Progressive Primers. Use existing proven materials, such as the Bannatyne Programme, Australian Language Foundation. Dump superficial material now used in schools. Curtail or cancel over-rated and over-expensive programmes such as Reading Recovery.
  11. Clip the wings of the NZEI and make teachers and educationalists accountable.
  12. Test teachers’ own literacy levels.
  13. Revamp the selection process for teachers entering training colleges, ensuring that each prospective teacher genuinely respects children and will show them respect, compassion and understanding.
  14. As children enter school it is very important that their literacy level is clearly established, and that they keep moving up from there in an environment where they can flourish.
  15. Visit prisons, identify the illiterates, test their reading levels and apologise to them for not being taught to read. Implement suitable top quality phonics-based reading programmes. When anyone is arrested, test their reading when their fingerprints are taken.

Farewell, Graham. There will be none like you again.


  1. Great post, and a great man, although I didn't know him.

    (Anyway for you to graft a post-tweet button on your blog, Peter?)

  2. Wonder if he'd be allowed to run a camp in his woolshed these days?


  3. A splendid post in tribute to a splendid man.

    A true contrast between someone who helped others who could not help themselves and someone who had a theory that elevated themselves at the the expense of others.

    It's small wonder my graduate nephews write like imbeciles.


  4. Very sad to hear of his passing. I was taught to read via 'phonics'. My daughter (now 11yrs) was taught the 'look & guess'- what a crap way of learning- it just didn’t work. When she was reading, she would 'guess'- the guess was always wrong. I had to teach her 'phonics' & she started to be able to read- of course her stupid ‘look & guess’ teacher tried to take the credit!

  5. I met him at the Libz conference in 2011. A likeable and inspirational man. He did his best and made a difference. A sad passing indeed.

    Chris R.

  6. Oh no. So sad to hear this. I met Graham in 2005 in Dargaville. I already knew all about his heroic deeds from reputation. He was a soft-spoken and gentle man, but passionate about his mission. What a loss.

  7. Richard McGrath28 Aug 2012, 12:26:00

    Like Chris, I was privileged to meet Graham briefly in 2011. A friendly and approachable man whose achievements with his reading camps are a great legacy.

    I'm starting to worry now, that's two of Perigo's interviewees who have died this year...

  8. A great man. I'm sorry to hear this.

  9. Thanks Peter, this is a fine tribute

    The funeral is at his beloved Bush Camp near Dargaville:

    You can pay tribute at NZ Herald Obituaries here:

    Browse this website to learn more about his and Joans' mission http://windyridge.ning.com/

  10. I've got many a great memory of Graham's Arapohue Bush Camp.
    A place where boys could do Boy-stuff, hike round hills,cook on open fires & best of all slide down a giant mud-slide into a swamp.
    He gave under-privileged boys great times & will be missed.
    Peter Linton

  11. Graham, thanks for taking my boys under your wings over the last few years i learnt so much from you and your heart for boys
    god bless

  12. The first time I met Graham was in 1972.. The experience was so over whelming that I looked forward to every school holidays to get away from my despondent family life, to be treated with love and compassion.
    Back then it was not all about reading but about belonging. I looked forward to all the adventures on the farm and the friendships that I would make.
    Graham made me very welcome in his family and I will remember all the “One on One” time that he put in to me.
    If everyone else had the same passion "to make an effort.. too make you belong" the world would be a compassionate place.
    Enjoy the life after Graham.. You deserve the rewards of your labour.



  13. Reading Recovery helps teachers to be careful observers of children; to analyse carefully what a child can to and to lead them on to the next manageable step. It does not prescribe a one size fits all programme to all children (unlike many phonics programmes). It is inaccurate and ridiculously simplistic to refer to it as 'point and guess'. You may not realise it but when you are reading this you are drawing on your knowledge of syntax, phonemic awareness and general knowledge of the world. You are not analysing each word letter by letter. Unlike Spanish and Maori, English is not a phonetic language. If it wasn't for Reading recovery my child and many others would still be struggling with reading.

  14. @Nicolas: "You may not realise it but when you are reading this you are drawing on your knowledge of syntax, phonemic awareness and general knowledge of the world."

    Yes, that's what you and I are doing, as adult with some years reading experience. But that is not what a child of three or four is doing when they look at a page covered with strange marks on it, a child who has neither knowledge of syntax nor phonemic awareness nor very much general knowledge of the world.

    What that child needs is a code to unlock the strange marks on the page before him. That starts with recognising letters and letter groups, then recognising that letters and letter groups make sounds...

    If you don't help him unlock the code, and you continue to insist on your "whole word" teaching (relying only on a non-existent knowledge of syntax and phonemic awareness) then your system does amount to point and guess--which is what I will continue to call it. Unapologetically.


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