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Educators need to read the room

Although the observation that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is probably wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein, it remains sound nonetheless.

As such, it’s a great relief to see Minister of Education Erica Stanford has followed through with her promise to make ‘structured literacy’ New Zealand’s default method of teaching reading and writing, announcing late last week that all state schools will be required to take this approach from the first term of next year.

Structured literacy breaks language skills into smaller parts – like sounds, phonics [the relationship between sounds and letters], letters, syntax [sentence structure], and the meanings of words – that are taught in a specific order, building on each skill, and making sure a student understands each step before going on to the next one. In other words, how literacy used to be taught.

Although some schools – including several in Wairarapa – have already been teaching structured literacy in response to falling student achievement, the method that has held sway in our schools for decades is referred to as ‘balanced literacy’ or ‘the whole language approach’.

This was born of the idea – apparently inspired by the theories of Noam Chomsky [who, although famous for providing Marxist critiques of American foreign policy, is first and foremost one of the world’s leading linguists] – that reading and writing are concepts that should be considered as ‘wholes’ that are learned by experience and exposure [via a holistic approach, if you will] more than analysis and instruction.

The only problem is that this idea was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Chomsky’s work, which convincingly argues that language is a universal, pre-programmed human skill, like walking. Literacy, however, is a human invention – more akin to driving a car or flying a helicopter – that needs to be taught.

Tellingly, Chomsky has never endorsed the ‘balanced literacy’ approach he was the muse to, presumably for the very good reason that there is no evidence that it works. Indeed, it appears that those kids who’ve learned to read and write under this system have done so despite it, not because of it.

And yet this has been the favoured method in this country since the 1970s, the upshot of which is that recent data shows that just 56 per cent of Year 8 students are at the expected level for reading, and just 35 per cent for writing.

It’s bizarre – not to mention shameful – that our education establishment has presided over this system for all this time – dismissing those who’ve argued for a better approach in the interim – while the achievement of our kids has continued to plummet.

[Of course, it’s not the only highfalutin theory that has escaped institutions of ‘higher learning’ and proved disastrous when applied in the real world [perhaps readers would like to nominate other examples…].

It’s also concerning more of those working at the education system’s chalk face didn’t identify issues with ‘balanced literacy’ and advocate for change many years ago, and that education unions now appear lukewarm about the tried-and-true approach being reintroduced.

“We don’t expect politicians to tell doctors exactly what to prescribe for every patient, and politicians reaching into every classroom and telling every teacher how to teach every child undermines the professionalism of teachers,” the president of the primary school teachers union has said.

Know what really undermines their professionalism, though? Turning out kids who can’t read and write.

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