Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Failing In The Duty of Care

Slow Learners

Yesterday we took a look at the continuing failure in government schools to teach mathematics.  Today's piece focuses upon reading.  The reality is that government schools are failing to teach kids from low socio-economic strata to read.  This means that the children from low socio-economic homes grow up and stay poor.  They are unable or unlikely to escape the poverty trap.

On the other hand, kids from middle class homes and families generally do OK.  They learn to read satisfactorily, if not well.  How does this work?  It works as one would expect.  The most potent educational environment is the home.  Pupils from middle class families pick up enough knowledge about language (they hear it spoken, they observe their parents reading, there are books around the hous--and so forth) and they arrive at school more ready and more primed to read.
One academic described it as similar to the "Matthew effect", where the "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" and said New Zealand needed to address the way it taught children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  "You have the children that come into school with lots of literacy knowledge, enough to attach new knowledge to, so they will learn to read no matter how they are taught," said Massey University's Dr Alison Arrow.  . . . kids that come in with limited knowledge have nothing to build on. They don't know spoken words have sounds in them, for example. So if they don't get explicit instruction when they get to school they struggle to catch up and they will lag behind for the rest of their school career." [NZ Herald]
Well, say the official Left, the solution to the plague of illiteracy amongst the poor is glaringly obvious: eradicate poverty and hey presto the kids from poorer homes will match the reading ability of middle class kids right through all their years of schooling.

Catherine Delahunty, of the Green Party, said the Government already knew what the problems were, and should address them instead of studying them.  "You can't overcome poverty with more research. Why don't we feed kids, ensure warm and stable housing, and strengthen our communities. That's how we're going to get our kids doing better on every level."
Catherine shows evidence of coming from a low socio-economic family and graduating from a government school.  Her superficial mantras and mindless incantation of leftist slogans evidence the quality of her education.

This issue is too critical to leave it to the official Left.  If kids from poorer homes are taught how to read, write, and do arithmetic they have the tools and equipment to escape poverty in their generation, if they use them.  Without those tools they are almost certainly consigned to enduring poverty and dysfunctional lifestyles.

Why are our government schools failing in their most basic mandate?  The key reason is that the teaching methods for reading have been devised and subsequently entrenched in our government schools by middle class academics who have assumed that everyone else in the world has been made in their image.  These teaching methods for reading presume that all kids arrive at school primed with lots of latent literacy knowledge.  The common phrase for these teaching methods is the "look and say" method.  Expose kids to books, practice sounding out whole words, and they will just click on to reading.

One of the fatalities of this method is that it makes learning to read mysterious.  No-one can be sure why some kids just click on and for others the light never shines.  That's why far too many teachers in our government schools are puzzled and unsure when it comes to teaching reading.
For example, ERO found . . .  that 30 per cent of teachers in Year 1 and 2 classrooms had "little or no sense" of how critical it was for children to develop confidence and independence in early reading and writing; and had "minimal understanding" of effective reading and writing teaching.
But if a pupil is not already primed for reading by the time he or she goes to school, language and reading is likely to remain a perpetual mystery to them.  The solution is to use phonics--which has taught multitudes of generations of children how to read--many from desperately poor backgrounds.
One academic is working on a pilot project called the Early Literacy Project.  It deploys the phonics method.  The programme differs to regular intervention in that it is based on phonics (learning sounds), and begins within six months of the child starting school. New Zealand's traditional intervention, Reading Recovery, is whole-language based (reading books) and children wait until they are 6 years old to take part.

The divide between the two approaches has previously been labelled as the "reading wars", however most teachers use both methods in the classroom depending on what children needed.  However, Dr Arrow said current support for phonics, or "decoding", was patchy and could be used more effectively in Year 1. It would help all children, not just those from underprivileged homes.
Phonics is a very simple idea.  It teaches the shapes of letters, then the different sounds of letters, then the sounds of combinations of letters.  Before long children can sound out polysyllabic words and they are reading with great facility.

There are other factors of course, but using the right teaching method that "decodes" the language for new entrants is vital.  How long will it take before government schools learn this lesson?  Let's hope that Dr Arrow's pilot project is a stunning success.  It likely will be.  Then it will be time to tackle the entrenched resistance of the academics and the teacher unions and the educational bureaucrats.  That will be a very different matter.

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