A quarter to a third of New Zealand children may be missing out on reading simply because we are using the wrong methods to teach them.
That's the view of some experts, such as the head of Massey University's education school, Professor James Chapman, and dyslexic tutor Zannie Danks Davis.
But Ministry of Education spokesman Vince Cholewa says the ministry is not wedded to any one method of teaching reading such as "whole language", which encourages children to work out the meaning of words from the context.
"Any parent will tell you that their children learn differently. The official philosophy is that teachers are trained to use different strategies for teaching reading and that they apply those strategies based on what the needs of each student are," he says.
Chapman says the whole language method has systematically failed 25 to 33 per cent of children, who can't link letters of the alphabet to sounds.
Reading surveys show that New Zealand combines the best performance at the top with mixed results further down.
The last survey of 27 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2000 found we had both the world's highest number of top-level readers (19 per cent) and the second-biggest total variation in student performance.
Contrary to popular myth, this does not mean we have a very long "tail" at the bottom. Only 31 per cent of New Zealand 15-year-olds scored below level 3 on the OECD's five-level scale, the same as in Australia.
This was a much longer tail than in the top-scoring country, Finland (21 per cent), but a shorter tail than in the US (39 per cent) or three-quarters of the other OECD countries.
But we have a bigger average gap between girls and boys (9.1 per cent) than any other country except, ironically, top-performing Finland where girls are 10 per cent ahead.
Chapman believes fewer than 1 per cent of children are "hardwired" in a way that stops them learning to read. The rest just come to school without language experiences connecting letters and sounds, such as playing "I Spy" and having Dr Seuss books read to them.
He tested this by giving new entrants in seven schools posters, cards and activities related to the sounds of the alphabet, and found the children's average reading age was 14 months higher than other children by the end of Year 2 and the reading gap between Maori and Pakeha disappeared.
Various systems make a difference.
American engineer Ron Davis developed a programme which includes making clay models of words that can't be visualised, such as "if", "of" and "for". Cashmere Primary School in Christchurch has become a champion of this method. The Dore Achievement Centre, a British group which opened a branch in Auckland in 2004, says it achieves a 90 per cent success rate by strengthening brain connections through exercises such as tossing a beanbag from one hand to the other while bouncing up and down on a large air-filled ball. Its programme costs $4000 to $5000.
Auckland teacher Zannie Danks Davis has developed her own $40-an-hour technique which has followers in Australia and Kenya as well as here. A dyslexic herself, she became involved in the issue when one of her children was diagnosed with the disorder in the 1970s.
Dyslexia is broadly defined as difficulty in learning to read. Signs include confusing letters such as "b" and "d", difficulties telling left from right and problems with learning the alphabet and the times tables - combined with being bright in other ways.
Davis puts words on cards and gives her students tricks to memorise a word.
"A visual word would be 'bicycle'. I say, 'You can hear that bi'," she says.
"'Now, a bicycle has how many wheels?' Two wheels - 'c' for the first wheel, 'y' as the pedal, 'c' for the second wheel, 'l' for the handle bars and 'e' for the light. It's teaching them to visualise and use their senses."
Then she gets her students to walk around while she shouts out the words they have just learned and helps them with the tricks.
"Walking and exercise also train the brain," she says. "Then after they have done that, they sit down and become my teacher. I am walking up and down and they are giving me the words and the clues. And after they have done that we sit down at a desk. I sit away from them and I give them the words one after the other and I don't give them any tricks, and they write it down."
Davis says most of her pupils can forget the tricks she has given them after about a week because by then they have a visual memory of the word. "It takes about two years to get them up to their chronological age."
Wiremu Tipuna, 36, is one of her success stories. He felt classed as a "dummy" by being placed in lower classes from almost his first day of primary school, and again at Wairoa College. "You become very frustrated. You don't understand what they [teachers] are talking about," he says.
He left school early and worked for 14 years as an electrical journeyman until a sporting injury forced him to look for something else. At the same time, a mistake on a benefit application form forced him to see a lawyer, who referred him to a psychologist, who referred him to Danks Davis.
Finally, he learned the rules that taught him to spell - "little tricks on how to understand words, little sayings like, 'When Mr Ing comes along, Mrs E doesn't like him so she runs off, so you don't put the 'e' because the 'ing' is coming'."
"It's opened up my mind," he says. Tipuna is about to start his second year of a university degree in history and Te Reo Maori. "I am actually loving reading. Before, I would only read for 15 minutes and get a pounding headache."
Auckland Educationalist Professor Tom Nicholson, believes direct teaching of the 44 letter-sound combinations in English can help most dyslexics.
"If they are taught a good programme so they can learn the rules that actually work for English, you are giving them a tool that makes them independent," he says. "Once they learn the set of rules, they can crack the code. I have never found a child that didn't respond to learning that way."
Nicholson believes that his own brother was dyslexic. "He was taught phonics but it was not taught properly," he says. "He had to sit at the back of the class because he was 'dumb'. He was put in a special class that got no expert help at all. Instead these pupils did menial tasks around the school like emptying rubbish bins."
Nicholson runs reading clinics at Devonport, Grey Lynn, Orakei and Flat Bush, and Waikato University colleague Sue Dymock runs a similar clinic in Hamilton. Middle-class parents pay $15 an hour at the Auckland clinics, but in Flat Bush local property developer Murray Alcock and two anonymous donors make free tuition possible.
"I'd like as many parents as possible who need the help to contact me, especially if they can't afford to find another way," he says.
"I can usually find a tutor. When I think of my own family, if the money runs out I'll do anything I can to get out there and get more help."
Nicholson is on 09 443 9685, email@example.com.By Simon Collins Email Simon