Susan Nixon

For over sixty years New Zealand has been implementing and in thrall to the ‘whole word‘ system of teaching reading.

This sight vocabulary method, which relies heavily on guessing or memorising words based on their form or contextual clues, found its way into our schools in the nineteen fifties and sixties unintentionally following the invention of a program by educator Gallaudet which was designed to teach deaf children to read.

These children, who could not hear the sounds attached to language and had no established store of words or understanding of their meanings, had to be taught to read every individual word as it “appeared on paper and for its meaning. Words were associated with visual pictures not sounds.” Unfortunately, this method, which was designed for one specific group only, was fatefully integrated into our schools as a way of teaching every child.

Children with hearing ability who arrived at school with a large “speaking vocabulary” which they had acquired by listening to sounds, and who already knew the meaning of many words, were faced with a system of teaching reading that ignored the fact that alphabet letters stood for sounds shaped by our mouths and so they were deprived of the symbolic means of decoding the written language.

The resulting inability by large numbers of children, particularly boys, to process what should be the easily accessible relationship between letter symbols and sounds, so that they could consequently become fluent readers and writers, has resulted in an epidemic of what we call dyslexia.

This situation has been facilitated by educational establishments that have implemented confused and flawed teaching methods which have abandoned if not obfuscated a phonics-based approach. It is difficult to calculate how many children have suffered as a result.

Dyslexia is not an inherent flaw within the child but is instead a learning disability created by our teacher educators and our schools. They have continued to teach a reading program which is confusing and excludes knowledge of the “symbolic representations” on which our spoken and written language is based. Intelligent children have been “crippled” by this approach because “they cannot learn to read our written language when it is taught pictorially, or sight associationally.”

New Zealand now has an embedded literacy ‘problem’ because of the extensive and long term use of this reading system. Many children and adults have been diagnosed with ‘dyslexia’ and a large number of working adults are functionally illiterate. Statistics confirm high levels of illiteracy among prison inmates. It is also indisputable that the inability to read effectively from a young age affects both mental health and feelings of competence. Our infatuation with the whole-word method of teaching of reading must stop if we are to reverse the above statistics.

First of all, it is crucial that we rediscover the importance of the creation of the alphabet and why it is central to learning to read. The development of the alphabet, writes Blumenfeld, was a “tremendous intellectual advance,” and “was a perfect means of recording the spoken language on paper by way of a sound-symbol writing system.” It allowed people to communicate their ideas and thoughts across the span of history, and reading allows us to tap into the entirety of that human discourse. This legacy and intellectual heritage has been made unavailable to many because of a lack of understanding of the role the alphabet symbols/letters play in teaching people to read.

It is obvious to many of us that intellectual life in New Zealand has been in decline for some time. This is in part due to an education system that has failed to establish competence in the mastering of spoken and written language. There is a lack of depth and sophistication in our national ‘conversations’ and debate that is making us vulnerable to poorly articulated ideas and shallow thinking.

It is imperative that a phonics-based approach to the teaching of reading be restored across the entire country, and this should be a priority for every political party. Such a move would allow children once again to become competent in the use of language and enable them to go on to engage meaningfully with the great ideas and thinking that have shaped our world.

Phonics resources and training are available at this excellent site.  

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