Thursday, 14 December 2017

Why Johnny Can't Read

Resolute Ignorance

New Zealand schools are failing.  The sad thing is that it is not going to change in a hurry.  In focus at the moment is reading and writing.  According to a NZ Herald Editorial,
The news that our children's reading abilities are slipping should be a wake-up call.  For the first time in 15 years, not only have we been overtaken by similar countries, but our literacy levels have actually regressed.  New Zealand dropped 10 places (to 32 out of 50 countries) in the latest international Pirls reading test for 10-year-olds — putting us below the global median.

Once again, we have a large gap between the results of the rich and poor — largely characterised by the shameful "tail" of Maori and Pacific children allowed to fall behind their Pakeha peers.  That is a trend we have known about for a long time, and done a limited amount to fix.  But the numbers also revealed something new — Pakeha children's reading skills are also falling. In fact, Pakeha literacy slid most steeply, down 13 points to an average score of 545.  [NZ Herald]
The government education system will not be able to correct this.  It is too hidebound.  It has set a course and it is not likely to backtrack.  There is too much ideological investment in the present direction.  Without humble pie being eaten in prodigious quantities, nothing will change.  Institutional inertia and vested interests will see to that.

Various experts have weighed in attempting to explain or diagnose why Johnny is no longer being taught to read and write in our government schools.
Perhaps one of the most interesting responses came from academic Tom Nicholson, who noted that England's (previously declining) reading performance had increased every year since 2006, when it started teaching phonics — teaching how letters sound so children can "decode" new words.

He said most NZ teachers still used the "whole language" approach as taught by our flagship Reading Recovery programme, encouraging children to work out a new word from its context.  Nicholson has spent his whole career studying the issue, and previously noted it has been 30 years since there was major professional development for teachers — when Reading Recovery was implemented.
Without knowing how to read and write competently pupils are locked into a lifetime of under performance in just about every area of human existence.  It seems incredible that children can attend Government schools all throughout their years as  children and young adults, and yet graduate without being able to read, write, or do arithmetic.  What is it about our modern generations that make them invincible to learning even the basics of knowledge?  Are our children now genetically programmed to be ignorant?  How is it that in previous centuries it was unheard of for a child to attend a school for twelve years and emerge illiterate and innumerate?  Or is there something wrong with the pedagogy now deployed in Government Education? 

The Government School system has blamed everything but itself for over thirty-five years.  It has bound itself philosophically to a cluster of pedagogical inanities and falsehoods and its failure to teach thousands of New Zealand children how to read and write and compute is close to being endemic.  Hence our steady drop in international comparison tables.  Or put the matter another way: why is it that thousands of New Zealand parents can home-school their children and have them emerge as successful and competent readers and writers, while the academically and professionally trained and deployed teachers in the Government School system fail to achieve these fundaments?  After all, they are supposed to be the self-proclaimed experts. 

What Tom Nicholson has done is attempt to unstop the plugged ears of his colleagues and suggest they return back to methods of teaching successfully deployed centuries ago.  When it comes to teaching a child how to read and write, that trusty, tested, and successful method is called phonics.  Phonics enables pupils from disadvantaged and poor homes to unlock the language  and master it.  It has been proven to be the case time and time again.  Moreover, it is a matter of common sense--and that is why the teaching profession hates it so much. The "whole language" method locks the language up in a room of mystery.  Phonics opens the door and turns the lights on.

But the government schools establishment has too much institutional and personal investment in the "whole language"  method.  Maybe when we get to be the fiftieth country on reading competence (that is, when we fall to the bottom of the list) there will be sufficient incentive to change. Desperation may enable the educational bureaucrats and teacher unions to open the eyes to allow a scintilla of light to penetrate.   But in the meantime, the teaching profession will bemoan poverty or socio-economic under-privilege or some other extraneous woe as the reason our kids do not learn to read in the Government Schools.  Anything, but to question the competence of teachers and the woeful track record of the "whole language" theory.

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