Parents of dyslexic children have launched an email campaign to bring back a systematic "phonics" approach to teaching children to read.

At least 75 parents have emailed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Education Ministers and the Ministry of Education, saying the current system of teaching new words mainly from the context is failing their children.

Christchurch mother Sharon Scurr said her 8-year-old dyslexic son Ben became really unhappy going to school "because he was just going nowhere".

"He just couldn't understand why he wasn't moving up the numbers [reading book levels]," she told NewstalkZB.

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"There's nothing worse than watching a little boy's sparkling eyes disappear and the smile disappear."

Scurr and her husband had to pay $650 themselves to get Ben assessed for dyslexia, and now pay for a speech/language therapist and a private tutor who uses "decodable" books - reading books that explicitly teach the "code" of English sounds and letters rather than just expecting children to pick it up.

"The first time we introduced a decodable book to him, his little face lit up and he said to me, 'Mummy, can I read another one please?'" Scurr said.

"I gave him the ability to read - and that's not my job, it's the Ministry of Education's job."

Sharon Scurr:
Sharon Scurr: "I gave him the ability to read - and that's not my job." Photo / Supplied

She asked other parents in the Dyslexia Support New Zealand group on Facebook to email ministers about the issue after the Education Ministry said last week that it had not changed its position on phonics and it was still "business as usual".

It denied a Herald report that it had done a "U-turn" by issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a new set of Ready to Read books and teacher materials which asked for "a more deliberate and explicit progression of a phonemic/word level learning".

"The intention is to build from research undertaken by Massey University and internationally that reveals that some early readers need explicit and sequenced instruction in the code of English in addition to accessing texts within rich language learning contexts," the RFP said.

The Massey research, referenced in the RFP and published this month on the ministry's website, recommends teaching children in four stages: letters and sounds; sounds represented by two or three letters such as "sh" and "tch"; vowel patterns; and finally syllables and other parts of words.

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Ben Scurr's smile is back on his face now that he is learning to read systematically. Photo / Supplied
Ben Scurr's smile is back on his face now that he is learning to read systematically. Photo / Supplied

One of the authors, Professor Alison Arrow, said explicit phonics instruction "is absolutely necessary for some children, and helps all children learn to read and spell effectively".

"Explicit instruction made the most difference to children who started school with the least amount of knowledge and not as much difference to those who started with more," she said.

Professor Alison Arrow says explicit phonics instruction is absolutely necessary for some children, and helps all children learn to read and spell effectively. Photo / Supplied
Professor Alison Arrow says explicit phonics instruction is absolutely necessary for some children, and helps all children learn to read and spell effectively. Photo / Supplied

"Children who start school with higher levels of print knowledge won't need explicit phonics instruction for as long, before moving into guided reading texts that form the basis of the rest of the Ready to Read series.

"Sharon's son, Ben, would be one of the children for whom explicit phonics instruction is absolutely necessary."

Ben Scurr, aged 8, is finally learning to read with a systematic phonics approach. Photo / Supplied
Ben Scurr, aged 8, is finally learning to read with a systematic phonics approach. Photo / Supplied

Scurr said she was ready to celebrate when she saw the first Herald report about the RFP, then despaired when the ministry said it was still "business as usual".

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She asked ministers in her email: "Why don't you care about my son and all the other kids that would benefit from a systematic phonics/literacy approach? Why don't you help?"

WHY are you not providing an education for all children? WHY is it that 15-20% of children fail each year in literacy...

Posted by Sharon Scurr on Sunday, 25 August 2019

One mother responded on Facebook: " I agree Sharon. I felt the same elation and then as if someone has pricked my bubble. I am still furious about how the education system has failed my son - knowingly. I will happily share with them how my child now tells me he hates himself."

Auckland mother Brenda Goulding wrote: "We are now forced to homeschool and pay a fortune in private tutoring to try and remediate the damage the education system has caused our two dyslexic sons. Change has to happen!"

North Shore mother Amanda Drumm posted: "For God's sake, please wake up and change this system! Do the U-turn and save some lives!"

Amanda Drumm:
Amanda Drumm: "Do the U-turn and save some lives!" Photo / Supplied

Scurr said 75 parents copied her into their emails and she believes others emailed ministers without copying her in.

Ministry official Christine Dew responded to the emails saying the ministry was "using both national and international research to demonstrate the benefits of providing a structured approach for learners who find it hard to learn to read".

"We'll be making ongoing improvements to the Ready to Read Instructional Series through updated resources that include greater guidance for teachers," she told parents.

"We have always supported a range of approaches to teach young children to read, including the teaching of phonemic and phonological awareness as well as making meaning and thinking critically about text.

"In line with this, we want teachers in New Zealand to be able to use a range of teaching methods recognising that individual readers have different needs. Ultimately we all want our children and young people to build a love of reading."

The RFP for new reading materials was issued on June 14, closed on July 12, and unsuccessful bidders are due to be notified of the successful bidder by this Friday, August 30. Ministry acting deputy secretary Pauline Cleaver said no contract had been awarded yet.