Paul Charman: Teaching ragamuffins to read

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Paul Charman says Warkworth’s “Rugged Learning Adventures Camp”, cracks the literacy code for slow learners.
Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

Did you notice the powerful subtext of literacy running through Taika Waititi's hit movie, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople"?

How could anyone miss it?

The film's boy hero "Ricky Baker", played by young Julian Dennison, had missed most of the rungs on the Maslow ladder of basic human needs...

Ricky was a mess, a ward of the state with too many foster homes under his belt, he had been denied love, security, acceptance and the like.

Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker - a bad boy but great reader.
Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker - a bad boy but great reader.

But he had grasped the one powerful lever which, provided he survived his immediate problems, was likely to transform his life.

'Graham Crawshaw's vision of 'reading for ragamuffins or school for scoundrels', persists to this day'

Ricky was a great reader, he loved books and - just as in the Barry Crump novel the movie is based upon - hunted for fresh ones at every bush hut the pair ransacked.

If Ricky was a real boy and not a fictional character, his excellent reading skills would have been the doorway to education and a better life.

Meanwhile, grumpy uncle "Hec", played so beautifully by Sam Neill, turns out to be illiterate.

But (spoiler alert) toward the end of the movie Hec, though apparently aged in his sixties, learns to read in prison.

What a waste.

But, like Hec, more than 10 per cent per cent of Kiwi youngsters still leave school barely literate.

Usually they end up doomed to low paid employment, or perhaps turn to crime or some other course of self-destruction.

They are also denied the huge life-long pleasure of reading.

As I see it these youngsters - many of them Maori and Pasifika and most often boys - are let down by a system which remains in near total denial.

Massey University research has pointed out that an integrated and comprehensive use of phonics in teaching literacy - which our school system abandoned decades ago - still produces the best results.

Reading recovery flawed

Massey academics also say our system's much vaunted Reading Recovery programme is flawed and outdated. Apparently, in some cases, it does more harm than good, as some kids who fail to grasp this remedial method end up believing that they have failed their last chance.

I am a firm supporter of charter schools and other alternative methods to teach literacy to "hard case boys", at the so-called tail, or bottom end of our literacy statistics.

As I see it, if the public education system cannot deliver adequate literacy to its most vulnerable students, even after torturing them in its classrooms for 10-12 years, then it must stand aside and let others have a try.

Let's give alternative education methods a fair go, then judge them on results rather than ideological bias.

No more excuses about children not reading because they've missed breakfast, have experienced too many moves, or have had a tough home life...

I am persuaded that even with all such things against them a child can - like the fictional Ricky Baker - still become literate.

In fact, I've seen the evidence for this first hand.

My ideas on this were informed by a friendship with a renowned Northland literacy activist, the late Graham Crawshaw.

The dynamic Dargaville farmer put his energy and money into creating rustic "phonics farm" campsites at Arapohue, near Dargaville, and Windy Ridge - near Warkworth.

The latter got going again this week following a few years of inactivity.

Graham and his wife Joan organised more than 60 reading camps over a 20-year-period, achieving astonishingly results with children unable to acquire literacy in the school system.

Graham died in 2012, but what a massive dent he made New Zealand's literacy problem.

Aside from the literacy camps, he campaigned in the media and at Parliamentary Select Committee level.

Always his call was to restore a deeper and more comprehensive use of phonics instruction in schools.

He tested the reading levels of men being processed by the courts and found them to be woeful.

His Windy Ridge Camp was a favourite with men on Periodic Detention.

Outdoor activities were used to open boys' minds to literacy at Arapohue Bush Camp.
Outdoor activities were used to open boys' minds to literacy at Arapohue Bush Camp.

They begged for the opportunity to spend their Saturdays there, because - unlike some of the work elsewhere, which they saw as futile - they saw Graham as genuine and his work meaningful.

Graham, a non-church-going Christian showed love and kindness to everyone in need.

But he often seemed to get angry over the plight of children.

Conversation the key

He would not tolerate anyone who, as he saw it, patronised, belittled or showed insensitivity to children.

The key to it all, he used to say, even ahead of teaching a child to read, is to show them respect by engaging them in conversation, hearing what they have to say about their experiences, hopes and dreams.

Graham earned a QSM, and enjoyed wide public support, including from caring police officers who bought many children to his camps.

His unique and effective approach to the problem of poor literacy is now being perpetuated, thanks to a group dedicated to the same cause.

The Windy Ridge campsite - now re-named "Rugged Learning Adventures" - ran a reading camp from April 18 to 22.

The first camp of its type since Graham's death several years ago, it was actually a refinement of what went before.

The late literacy activist Graham Crawshaw.
The late literacy activist Graham Crawshaw.

Rugged Learning Adventures Trust Board member Dr Paul Pickering says more camps are planned at both Windy Ridge and Arapohue, with support from advocates Jeff Wedgewood, plus two of Graham's children, Miriam and Richard, among others.

This reporter has participated in four or five such camps and seen first-hand the transformation they can achieve in child literacy.

A Burt word recognition test given at the beginning and conclusion of every camp, invariably indicates a leap in reading age.

Miriam told me that it doesn't take much to instigate a reading camp or to find helpers, "as many people I speak with have a passion for the youth and young people. They recognise that the lack of reading skills is a fast track to low self-esteem, worthlessness and then onto crime and- prison".

The camps are tailored to boys' learning needs.
The camps are tailored to boys' learning needs.

She said the secret of the camps lay in the fact that the (mainly) boys who came to them were first treated with love and acceptance, secondly given a stream of "hard out" physical activities such as hikes, bush craft, mud slides and so forth.

"We do use a white board for very brief sessions extending to longer times by the end of the week, but a lot of the teaching time is sitting under a tree and the boys come by to sit for a few minutes at a time and have some one on one time. This becomes longer as the week goes on and the boys feel loved and accepted and are happy to be who they are."

Decoding words

But the core of the teaching is always use of phonics, the sounds letters within words make.

When I attended such camps as a leader, the boys used to play along, donning "letter bibs" to act the part of consonants and vowels.

They learned that "when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking", so a word like peat would sound the "e", not the "a".

The idea is to impart a phonics tool kit to assist word decoding.
The idea is to impart a phonics tool kit to assist word decoding.

"Handy H" could combine with a C, P, W or an S to make an entirely new sound.

They learned the consonant blends, including DR, SL, GR . . . and received repetitive reminders of the sound the short vowels make . . . a e i o u.

And of course the "policeman E" at the end of the word made the vowel in the middle say its name out loud.

What it amounted to was a "tool kit" for decoding any word that came the boy's way - and they loved that notion.

By the end of the week, after failing in their reading for years at school, the confidence of many of these lads had returned.

The boys are happy to participate in phonics role plays.
The boys are happy to participate in phonics role plays.

The final test at the conclusion of camp often showed a leap in reading age of one, two, three or sometimes even more years.

Often these results were put down, or trivialised by teachers when the boys returned to their school - but no matter.

I believe there are many men out there today whose literacy was transformed by attending one of the camps created by Graham Crawshaw.

I'm just so thrilled that his vision, he sometimes termed as, "reading for ragamuffins or school for scoundrels", persists to this day.

- NZ Herald

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