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Karl du Fresne

Doris Ferry and the phonics debate

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In 1994 I wrote an article for the Evening Post (R.I.P.) about a remarkable woman named Doris Ferry. Doris, who was then 78, was a retired teacher who lived on the Kapiti Coast. All she wanted to do was devote herself to her large garden, but instead she found herself spending half of each day providing individual tutoring at home to local kids who had fallen behind at school. The reason they were failing, without exception, is that they couldn’t read. Parents came to her in desperation after word got around that Doris was succeeding where schools were failing. By the time I interviewed her, she had brought 1500 kids up to speed with their reading – kids who, in many cases, had fallen hopelessly behind at school, even after completing so-called reading recovery courses. The difference to their lives was dramatic.

I’m sure Doris’s empathetic manner and one-on-one tuition  helped, but there was no doubt in her mind that what counted most was her use of the teaching method known as intensive phonics, whereby children learn to read by recognising letters or combinations of letters and the sounds associated with them. Many readers of this blog will recognise that description, because until the 1960s it was how reading was taught in all New Zealand schools. Then, in one of those sudden theory-driven shifts in direction to which the education system seems fatally susceptible, phonics was supplanted by a method known as whole-language.  Under the whole-language approach, children are taught to recognise words by the context in which they occur.  Critics of the phonics method – and here I’m quoting from my 1994 article – say it takes a mechanical approach and inhibits understanding of words by divorcing them from their context. Advocates of phonics, on the other hand, argue that the whole-language method takes a “near enough is good enough” approach, encouraging children to guess words from their context or the illustrations accompanying them.

The results achieved by Doris, and the gratitude of the parents whose kids’ lives were transformed under her tuition, demonstrated convincingly that the phonics method often succeeded where whole-language failed. At least one academic – Tom Nicholson, now an emeritus professor of education at Massey University, and still an advocate of phonics – endorsed Doris’ approach. But what seemed both incomprehensible and reprehensible when I wrote that story was the education system’s single-minded zealotry in enforcing the whole-language approach. The teaching of phonics, which had previously been mainstream, was now deemed heretical. Official disapproval was so vehement that the parents of Doris’s pupils feared serious repercussions if their kids’ schools found out they were learning from her. Children would crouch down out of sight when their parents delivered them to Doris’s address, or make their way to her house using a neighbour’s gate further down the street. Parents spoke to me only on the strict condition that I didn’t use their names in my story.  I was exaggerating only slightly when I described Doris’s clandestine teaching activity as reminiscent of Resistance operations in Nazi-occupied France.

It had somehow been my impression in recent years that this battle was now history – that the Ministry of Education had relaxed its uncompromising opposition to phonics. But no: according to Morning Report, some schools are raising large sums of money – hundreds of thousands of dollars in one case – to fund the teaching of phonics because the ministry still refuses to, despite clear evidence the officially approved method, which is apparently now known as “balanced literacy”, isn’t working. RNZ reporter Ruth Hill interviewed several principals whose schools had adopted phonics – sometimes against initial resistance from teachers who had to unlearn the officially approved method – and all were emphatic about the benefits, which one described as “phenomenal”. Another said it was impossible to put a price on what her pupils had gained. All sounded exasperated by the ministry’s refusal to provide funding for alternatives to “balanced literacy”, especially when the ministry throws more than $29 million a year at reading recovery programmes of dubious benefit. (Incidentally, no one from the ministry was available for an interview. Fancy that.)

These schools have learned, at considerable expense, what was obvious to Doris Ferry and the parents of her pupils 30 years ago, yet still the bureaucrats cling doggedly to their failed doctrinaire model.  We can only wonder how many New Zealand children – those not fortunate enough to attend schools that are prepared to buck the system – are being penalised as a result by being denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential.