Thursday, 29 August 2013

New report says bring back phonics to fix widespread illiteracy


I posted this morning about the complete and calamitous systemic failure that happens when government departments go wrong.

Here’s one of the biggest, confirmed by just-released Massey University research: the minimising and belittling of phonics in teaching reading (begun by “The Look-Guess Lady” Dame Marie Clay and spread though govt Teachers Colleges, and govt schools with govt-mandated curricula) which has been disastrous.

Here is the research that proves it, with the blame squarely laid at the feet of government programs, including the $40 million-a-year Reading Recovery programme begun by Marie Clay herself to fix the flaws created by her own failed educational philosophy. The programme, says the report, is “fundamentally flawed.”

The problem created by Departmental obsession withe Clay’s methods is huge. Generations of New Zealanders have left school functionally illiterate without even the basic ability to read a newspaper or bus timetable.  “New Zealand’s relatively ‘long tail’ of literacy underachievement was a major concern for educators and policy makers that grew during the 1990s,” says the report. 

It was.

The comprehensive 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey surveyed adults worldwide from 16-65. The New Zealand portion of that survey found that for prose (the “ability to understand and use information from text”) a staggering 66.4 percent of Mäori were “functionally illiterate,” unable to meet the “complex demands of everyday life and work” and an equally tragic 41.6 percent of non-Mäori.

This represents more than half-a-million New Zealanders who were functionally illiterate. Nothing has changed since to improve that.

imageProfessor James Chapman says … “The current approach is not working for too many children  – and we need to change it.”
    He and his colleagues say the failure of the strategy is not the fault of teachers and principals, but the result of misguided policy decisions. They recommend major scientifically-supported changes to New Zealand’s approach to literacy education.

What caused this monstrous failure?  As the report notes, the unquestioned victory in policy meetings of Marie Clay’s look-and-guess method of teaching illiteracy, for which the effect on young NZers has been all-too-often disastrous:

New Zealand has followed a predominantly constructivist approach to literacy education for the past 25 years. In this approach literacy learning is largely seen as the by-product of active mental engagement. There is little or no explicit, systematic teaching of phonemic awareness (the ability to reflect on and manipulate the phonemic segments of spoken words) and alphabetic coding skills (the ability to translate letters and letter patterns into phonological forms). Yet, both phonemic awareness and alphabetic coding skills are essential for learning to read successfully.
  Underpinning the constructivist approach to literacy teaching is the “multiple cues” theory of reading (sometimes called the “searchlights” model). According to this view, skilled reading is a process in which minimal word-level information is used to confirm predictions about the upcoming words of text based on multiple sources of information (Clay, 1991). Learning to read is seen largely as a process in which children learn to use multiple cues in identifying words in text. Text-based cues (i.e., picture cues, sentence context cues, preceding passage context, prior knowledge activated by the text) are used by students to predict the text yet to be encountered. Letter-sound information is generally used only to confirm word predictions or guesses and for self-correction (Clay, 1998).

In other words, instead of using phonics to acquire the ability to easily decode words, in Clay’s “system” it was generally only to confirm (somehow) a child’s guesswork.


The report notes that “the scientific community has firmly rejected the constructivist/multiple cues model of
reading,” and highlights research indicating “that for progress to occur in learning to read, the beginning reader must acquire the ability to translate letters and letter patterns into phonological forms.”

Without that ability …


They find it hard because the phonic codebook was ripped away from them by the misguided decisions of misguided policy wonks in a misbegotten government ministry who watched all this happen and did nothing arrest it. 

One of the main changes this report recommends is to bring phonics back to their place of importance in early reading, and urgently.

Let us hope this time they succeed.

  • The report’s 11-page summary is here.  The full report is here.



  1. Don't conflate adult literacy with efficacy of reading teaching; the two are only weakly related. Beyond that the conclusions in the report just don't seem to fit the data. Why scrap reading recovery when they admit it works for large numbers? Working on improving interventions for the kids that it fails seems more optimal. I think they, like you, have allowed their world view to cloud the data...

  2. our local primary school in
    Australia has recently started moving back to phonics this year.

    Apparently you can only remember so many words, if you just try to memorise them, but if you use phonics, you can decipher 88% of the words used in the English language

  3. I've never really understood the Objectivist obsession with phonics. It's a weird ideological tick, like their hatred of abstract expressionism. Their climate change denialism is understandable; its solution requires collective action (and might mean that smoke stacks are discriminated against) and thus it's not allowed to exist, but this stuff's just weird.

  4. Typical. Phonics works so lets replace it with something inferior. Progress demands it.

    If you have grasp of phonics you can work out most words and once the sound is recognised recognition of meaning in context often follows.


  5. Holden MacGroin29 Aug 2013, 23:03:00

    "I've never really understood"

    You should have stopped there, fool.

  6. An excellent report.

    Marie Clay has a LOT to answer for. The fact that this saboteur of reading-education received a damehood shows just how deep the rot has penetrated into the education system.

    The TRUE hero of reading education in this country is the late Doris Ferry.
    She used phonics and got excellent results with the many hundreds of children that she taught.

    As good as this reportis, I am sure that it will be ignored by the education bureaucrats.
    They will issue soothing noises saying that they "have confidence in our education system", and this report will be left to gather dust.

  7. "I've never really understood the Objectivist obsession with phonics. It's a weird ideological tick..."

    Yes, right, being obsessed with effective methods with which to teach reading is a weird ideological tick.

    Make the most of it.

  8. You can relax, Peter. Unfortunately for the doomsayers and libertarians, NZ students' overall academic achievement is up there with the best in the world, so say the commies at the OECD anyway.

    There's a long tail of poor achievers, certainly, but the causes of that are a wee bit more complex than not using phonics, as I suspect you realise deep down.

  9. You do realise it's not just NZ who took away the 'codebook' from young readers, don't you. It's been a worldwide phenomenon.

  10. You said the apparently disastrous results from moving away from phonics were begun by Marie Clay. Make your mind up. Anyway, not seeing the global literacy crisis, are you? Look hard now.

  11. "You said the apparently disastrous results from moving away from phonics were begun by Marie Clay."

    In the NZ context, yes they were. AS the report reflects.

    Marie Clay was the local vector, but look-say was worldwide--as was the progressivism ow which it is a part.

    It is not about where NZ children are in relation to poorly performing readers overseas, It is about the 500,000 functionally illiterate NZ children being produced and having been produced--figures from the world Adult Literacy which you appear to want to ignore, and which the survey indicates is indeed part of a world-wide phenomenon with similar causes everywhere.

  12. The link between poor reading & writing and lack of phonics is pretty clear to me - just by observation.

    Firstly there's the generally poor writing and written comprehension of Gen Y compared to previous generations - which seems to fit the time at which Clay's methods held sway.

    Secondly (and more convincingly) there's observing how my young sons are actually learning to read. When they come across unfamiliar words there is sometimes an element of guesswork and memorisation involved, but the phonic sounding out narrows the range of possibilities dramatically, and they usually get pretty close with words they've never seen before by repairing to phonics. If they didn't have this foundation then every word they encounter could be anything, and require an enormous drain on their brain capacity to memorise every word in our language. It's common sense that you need phonics.

  13. "Firstly there's the generally poor writing and written comprehension of Gen Y compared to previous generations - which seems to fit the time at which Clay's methods held sway. "

    Evidence? Not there.

    "Secondly (and more convincingly) there's observing how my young sons are actually learning to read."

    Reduced to anecdote. No case then.

    "It is about the 500,000 functionally illiterate NZ children..."

    But there's no causal link with the move away from phonics (not even a correlation), and I suspect you realise this, but your weird ideological tick won't let you move on. This is despite NZ students generally performing well internationally, and global literacy rates being the highest in world history (even better than in Victorian times when libertarians ruled).

  14. Judge - if sophistory was the way to establish truth ( as opposed to opening your eyes, observing, and thinking) then you would know a lot. But it's not and you don't.

  15. No sophistry, Mark. However, assertion is certainly not the way to establish fact. Your approach is to say: "I reckon Gen Y can't read, therefore Gen Y can't read, therefore teaching methods are a disaster." Newsflash: that's not how it works. You guys should know all this. Reason is your highest standard

  16. Judge - A few brief words written on the comments section of a blog can't offer irrefutable proof for any position. At most it allows you to briefly state your view on the issue being presented and summarise the reasons why.

    Those who are reading in good faith (unlike yourself) and think you're onto something can follow that lead if they so choose and come to their own conclusions. The truth of an idea is established by how consistent it is with the reality we observe, not by how clever your sophistry is in a blog comments section.

    But that aside - if you think the dominant view on this blog (and the philosophy behind it) has nothing to offer, why do you bother to regular read it and make posts?

  17. If you only ever want to hear your own views parroted back at you, and never want to have your opinions critiqued then you're one sad individual Mark.

  18. Judge – Who said anything about not wanting debate? What you offer though is not rational debate but malevolent snarling and name calling. This post was about the importance of phonics. If you sincerely believe phonics is an unnecessary part of learning to read and write, then you should be telling us why – explain to us how a young mind can grasp the complexity of our language without phonic building blocks? But you’re not, you’re just flailing your sword wildly, hoping it hits something. I don’t know what motivates you to post, but it's not a sincere attempt to defend your beliefs. You seem to get some kick out of trying to put others down. I’m surprised PC indulges your posts.


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