22 May 2024

Changing the building blocks of reading

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 22 May 2024

The government's order that schools adopt structured literacy might sound high-handed, but the change is being welcomed by many educationalists

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Photo: Pixabay/BeFunky

Education is facing a bunch of changes, but the important ones are not banned cell phones or woke foods. 

The government has ordered teachers to adopt 'structured literacy' to get children reading. 

That means Reading Recovery, a system New Zealand pioneered and spread to the world, along with 'whole language', is out. 

The decision has met with split reactions, with some in the sector welcoming the system change, and others disappointed by it. 

The Detail speaks to proponents of both today, looking at the pros and cons of each. 

Historically New Zealand schools have taught a mixture of whole language and balanced literacy. 

That involves being immersed in and surrounded by books and all different kinds of words, in the belief that children will learn the same way they learn other skills in life - by observing and repetition. 

However structured literacy means recognising the symbols for different word sounds (phonics), then recognising them in words. The word often used in conjunction with it is 'decoding'.

"The term itself, structured literacy, was coined by the International Dyslexia Association - so it has trademarked the term," junior teacher and literacy publisher Micaela Bonnar tells The Detail.

"It's an explicit, systematic way of teaching literacy that is seen as building blocks - so you start at the very early stages of teaching letter sounds, then you're looking at spelling patterns, you're looking at the way we can put different word parts together," she says.

"Whole language - from about the 1970s into the '80s - came about with [Dame] Marie Clay," Bonnar says.

She was the pioneer of Reading Recovery, developed as an early intervention in response to the numbers of children struggling to learn reading and writing.  

"The philosophy behind whole language is that learning to read is the same as learning how we talk and listen," Bonnar says. 
"The idea is that it's a natural process - therefore if we just surround children with language and literacy-rich environments, lots of books, we read to them, we put them in front of them, that eventually they will learn how to read.

"Balanced literacy is what is - and has been - the most prevalent in schools in the last couple of decades. Not many schools actually teach whole language anymore. Balanced literacy is very similar to whole language - I'd kind of describe it as whole language but with phonics sprinkled on top. You're looking at quite a small amount of phonics being taught."

Now the science says structured literacy is the way to go.

"The science of reading has developed over the last four to five decades and it's based on brain science, cognitive psychology, educational psychology - all these different areas of science. The wealth of research that's come out has really shown us the way children truly learn how to read. Structured literacy is the practice that has come out of the science of reading."

One thing that's being scrapped from the new teaching approach is Reading Recovery - which Bonnar is "pretty excited" about.

However, University of Auckland associate professor of literacy education Rebecca Jesson, who led a recent refresh into Reading Recovery, is "very disappointed".

"We've done a lot of work, we've worked really hard on implementing the structured approaches to literacy that the ministry have asked us to implement, and I worry now about children who aren't making progress in their classroom programmes."

She says there's a "vociferous" social media campaign against Reading Recovery.

"There are a number of structured literacy advocates who are very anti the reading recovery work." 

The Detail also speaks to Leeston-based structured literacy teacher Betsy Sewell. She compares teaching structured literacy to ocean swimming.

"If you imagine little kids learning to swim and some of them are dog-paddling and some of them are putting their head down in the water... and some of them are learning to breathe properly. They can all do it - but only one of those systems will work if you're in the ocean and caught up in a rip. It's much the same with reading."

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