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November 2001 Cover

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Sounding better

The perception persists overseas that New Zealand has the highest literacy rate in the world. We did once. That was back in 1970. Things have changed. A 1997 OECD survey put New Zealand as, at best, middle-ranked. Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden are all more literate than we are.

A 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey found that 45 percent of New Zealand adults in employment had literacy levels that were inadequate for full functioning in a developed economy.

Whatever can have gone wrong? What is known is that in the 1970s New Zealand’s schools adopted a ‘whole language’ approach to learning to read, an approach built around having children use context to ‘guess’ at unfamiliar words. We may have been misguided.

Prof Bill Tunmer
Professors Bill Tunmer and James Chapman, of the Massey University College of Education, believe so. For more than a decade they have researched how children learn to read. Their findings favour a return to the use of word-based strategies (phonics) as the primary instruction method for the teaching of reading. Their submissions to the Education and Science Select Committee said as much, and the Committee’s report has accepted their views: teaching methods for children should include word decoding, including sounding words out.

Prof James Chapman

Tunmer and Chapman hope that this will bring to an end the long ‘war’ over reading instruction. The debate has raged for decades – should children be taught to read using the whole language system, where they guess unknown words from the context, or phonics, where they are taught to sound out the words. The professors are firmly in the phonics corner of the ring. That’s not to say they dismiss whole language altogether, but they say it should be used as a secondary tool in a reading instruction system where phonics is dominant.

It’s all about balance, which doesn’t mean an even split of the two, says Chapman. He likens it to the food pyramid, where you have a larger proportion of what’s good for you (phonics), complemented by a smaller proportion of sugars and fats (whole language).

The whole language approach on its own just doesn’t work, say Tunmer and Chapman. The approach relies on children recognising whole-word visual symbols, rather like learning Chinese. Given that it takes 10 to 12 years of study to learn 2000 Chinese words, this is obviously an inefficient learning method.

“Predicting words from context is a highly ineffective and inappropriate learning strategy. Children should be encouraged to look for familiar spelling patterns first and to use context to confirm hypotheses about what unfamiliar words might be, based on available word-level information.”

If a child is confronted with the sentence “The boy took his brother to the park”, for example, and the word “brother” is unfamiliar, how can he or she work it out using only the whole language method? The child is asked to guess what the word might be or put in a word that makes sense. There is a myriad of choices that make sense, and without using a word-based strategy, or phonics, they could guess the missing word as bike, dog, ball, mother, sister...

A major flaw in the theory behind the whole language system is that it claims that reading and writing are acquired ‘naturally’, in the same way that we learn to speak and listen, Tunmer and Chapman say. But given that the world is awash with print, why do so few children learn to read before going to school, with those who do typically having received lots of instruction, encouragement and support in literacy-related activities at home?

The simple answer is that learning to read is not natural, they say. “If it were, then why do a staggering 20 to 25 percent of all six-year-old children in New Zealand require expensive, intensive, one-to-one Reading Recovery tutoring after having been immersed in a print-rich environment for an entire year?”

Another flaw of the whole language approach is the assumption that the words of text are highly predictable as a result of the developing meaning of text. Tunmer and Chapman point out research has shown that the words that can be predicted are typically the frequently occurring function words that children can already recognise. This leaves them trying to predict the meaning of the least predictable and least frequently occurring, but more meaningful, content words.

The professors say the use of letter-sound relationships in identifying unfamiliar words is essential for growth in reading. If children can’t make spelling-to-sound connections, the visual system becomes overwhelmed, to the extent that they are left in a situation similar to trying to learn 50,000 telephone numbers to the point of perfect recall and instant recognition.

The whole language method relies on assumptions about a child’s pre-school literacy preparation. “It’s a comfortable, middle-class model that assumes basic language skills are in place before the child starts school. And for children who don’t have those skills, it’s like being thrown off the end of the pier to learn to swim,” they say
Tunmer and Chapman’s research indicates that phonics might be a more ‘natural’ way for children to learn to read. They found that most children rely primarily on word-level information to identify unfamiliar words, even though they have been told to do otherwise. Their study asked children in years one and two: “When you are reading on your own and come across a word you don’t know, what do you do to try to figure out what the word is?”

The results showed that at each year level most children said they used word–level information to identify unfamiliar words in text, and the tendency increased as the children grew older, from 52 percent in year one to 66 percent in year two.

Even more revealing was the relationship between how children identify unfamiliar words and their later reading achievement. The research showed that children who were placed in Reading Recovery were four-and-a-half times more likely to have said in their first year at school that they preferred to use contextual guessing and picture cues when confronted with an unfamiliar word. They say phonological awareness at school entry is the best single predictor of future reading achievement.

The professors advocate a systematic approach to the teaching of phonics, where children learn letter-sound patterns outside the context of reading text, but are also taught how to use these skills during reading. Tunmer says it is like learning to play tennis, where you need to play the game to improve, but you also need to practise the skills of different components of the game, like the serve, backhand and volley.

Reading Recovery was developed in 1985 by whole language advocate Marie Clay to help children having trouble learning to read after a year of formal reading instruction. But where it falls down, say Tunmer and Chapman, is that it provides more of the same type of reading instruction that these children have already failed at.

Their studies showed that children selected for Reading Recovery showed major deficiencies in phonological processing skills. But they also showed Reading Recovery did not eliminate these deficiencies. Even for children considered to have succeeded in the Reading Recovery programme, it failed to significantly improve their literacy development, they say. Their studies found that these children showed no sign of accelerated reading performance, and one year after completing the programme they were performing at about one year below age-appropriate levels.

Proponents of whole language favour a literature-based approach to teaching reading, using ‘real books’ that contain a full story per book. The phonics reading programmes, which use graded books based on controlled vocabulary and sentence structure, are dismissed as being non-authentic and uninteresting.

The professors agree that this point has merit, and certainly early phonics-based books, like the Janet and John series, were designed to emphasise particular letter-sound patterns without much regard for producing an interesting story.

“The authentic literature fits with the philosophy of reading for meaning and enjoyment, but it actually places a greater need for word identification strategies because there are more unfamiliar words being introduced.”

But the good news is there are books that offer a compromise, teaching letter-sound skills while still being interesting. The Dr Seuss series, for instance, uses rhyme, humour and repetition to hold children’s attention, while focusing on repeated letter-sound patterns to teach the basics of phonics.