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Trouble in the Mecca of Reading

New Zealand showed America--and the world--how to abandon traditional phonics. Now its own students are struggling and some critics question the methods that made the nation a literacy legend.


AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Given that reading instruction has become one of the major exports of this emerald green spine of islands, right up there with kiwi and lamb, the critics here seem almost unpatriotic when they spout off like naysayers everywhere:

What's wrong with our schools?

Reading has been a source of national pride in this tiny nation since 1970, when its students finished first in the world on an international test.

Within two years, Marie M. Clay, an Auckland child psychologist, was touring the United States, touting her views on how kids "emerge" as readers, based on years of watching them, one on one.

Then came Wendy Pye, a shoot-from-the-lip publisher who in the 1980s helped market this nation's distinctive "little books" for beginners, some just eight pages long, in which colorful cartoons tell a story so simple that the children almost do not need the words below. As in "Huggles Goes Away," in which a purple creature takes "Some clothes" "Some toys" . . .

On her way to distributing 85 million books around the world, Pye soon was rich enough to breed thoroughbred horses and boast, "I'm the lady that took it to America and made it happen. I've transformed barren classrooms into magic places of learning."

By the 1990s, teachers in all 50 states, especially California, were filling hotel ballrooms to learn how they could abandon traditional phonics lessons and create "child-centered" classrooms. Their gurus were former New Zealand principals and teachers, anointed as $3,000-a-day consultants.

So why, then, does New Zealand have its knickers in a knot over reading? Why are the practices that for decades received gospel-like respect now denounced by some prominent academics as "snake oil" or "nonsense"? Why do business leaders complain, just as in the United States, about workers who can neither read nor spell?

Last summer, the New Zealand government's Educational Review Office warned that eight of 10 high school students in one part of Auckland were illiterate. University of Auckland researchers reported that nine of 10 working-class children in other areas were up to three grade levels behind. And 60% of indigenous Maori students come out of high school needing tutoring.

Then this: New Zealand's 10-year-olds tumbled from first to sixth in the most recent international ranking of reading skills. Educators now have to explain why this nation is four spots back of its most avid pupil, the place that spends tens of millions of dollars importing its books and ideas--the United States.

Tension Between Two Approaches

Heading north from downtown Auckland to Onepoto Primary School on a weekday morning is reminiscent of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco to Marin County. Traffic is light even as, in the other direction, the bridge is jammed with business executives and professionals on their way from hillside homes to offices in the city.

But Onepoto's students do not come from such families. Rather, the modest but well-kept school serves a pocket of deprivation amid plenty. The community's white, or pakeha, families send their children to private schools or take advantage of a nationwide open enrollment policy to send them to public schools farther away--but with almost all-white student bodies.

That leaves Onepoto to serve Maori, Tongan and Samoan children, most of whose parents are unemployed and lack cars or even telephones--a testament to the economic hardship that has spread in the past decade as government social programs have shrunk.

"A lot of kids used to come to school already able to read, but the kids here come not being able to hold a crayon or even knowing their letters," said Principal Alan Kick. "You have to go right back to the very basic stuff like writing your name."

That doesn't mean drilling in letters and their sounds. Instead, though some of the kids have never owned a book, they plunge into one the day they start school--on their fifth birthday--then spend 80% of their time writing, conversing and reading.

Well, perhaps "reading" is an exaggeration.

Seated cross-legged on the floor, teacher Faye Norman's seven pupils chant along as she points to the words in an oversize volume called "Houses." In only four days they have memorized--through daily repetition--the book's simple phrases: "There is a green house." "There is a red house."

"How do you know this word is 'green'?" Norman asks. The response, "We look at the pictures!" earns a hearty: "Good!"

Norman's lesson, and the "Big Book" she is using, are New Zealand trademarks.

The large book enables her to call attention to words or letters she wants the students to notice. The theory is that children should be given a chance to extract "meaning" from a book even before they can "decode" the words using letters and sounds. They are expected to be creative in figuring out words they don't know--if not by using the pictures, then with "cues" from the shape of the word, its first letter or from surrounding words.

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