In the early seventies, Faye Berryman and I met and started up the Fitzroy Community School in North Fitzroy, an inner suburb of Melbourne.
Faye had been a secondary teacher who had witnessed first-hand the sad results of children emerging from primary schooling with poor literacy skills. I had been a philosophy lecturer, specialising in logic and linguistics. We had not been trained in primary schooling, but were confronted with the problem of teaching young children to read.
We believed that fluent and accurate reading was at the core of a good education. We were unaware that schools at the time had dropped the phonic approach – the traditional technique of deciphering words by sounding them out. We were puzzled that we couldn’t find any Readers (i.e. simple books designed for children to read aloud) in the educational bookstores.
At the time we didn’t realise that in other schools, stories were being read to children, and that the plan was that after sufficient immersion in these regular stories, children would in time get to know how each word looked and, in this way, gradually become fluent readers and writers. Time has proved that this method (whole language) is inadequate for many children and does not support spelling well. But until the 90s, it had dominated the primary school system.
We constructed our own little stories from basic spelling principles – like the easy-to-sound-out early Fitzroy Readers: A Fat Cat, A Big Pig and The Pet Hen. We waited until Story 9 to bring in our first digraph (‘oo‘), and after that only very gradually introduced the rest of the digraphs into our programme.
There are, of course, some words that don’t fit into the system – words like the, said, and eye. We call these special words, i.e. words that have to be learned by sight. We made sure there were only a few of them with each story and warned the child (and teacher) about them on the back cover of each book. They were not to be sounded out, but only read as whole words. They could be practised before the story was read.
The secret of the Fitzroy Readers’ success is that children actually read the books for themselves, their confidence grows, and, as a result they will want to try the next one.
It soon became obvious that Faye was the better story writer, and the majority of the story ideas are hers. I set out to sequence and edit these stories without ruining their flow, making each one the right length, using the previously learned words – and bringing in the new sound where possible. I added some stories to make a complete, gentle, logical progression.
Every story is constructed so that there are no surprises in vocabulary. This no surprises aspect is what has restored the reading confidence of many children who previously struggled with literacy.
At first, we created these Readers just for our own students. We were surprised when our students started regularly winning national poetry awards and other writing competitions; gaining first-percentile scores on literacy tests; and often passing entrance exams to highly selective secondary schools.
Teachers soon started asking us what reading method we used and urged us to share our readers. Up until that point our texts had only ever been hand printed and roughly illustrated by me – a non-artist using one black pen.
Nevertheless, we photocopied a few hundred of each, offered them to other schools and, lo and behold, they were snapped up. This made us fully aware of the great need for materials of this kind, so we engaged an artist who drew much better, full-colour pictures. We got the words typeset in a plain English font and printed thousands in a new edition. These, too, were quickly snapped up.
From there a whole new project developed, one that has helped children in over 3500 Australian schools. The Readers have also been taken up by schools in other countries, including: New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Korea.
It is our hope that one day our programme will be used in even more countries to instil reading, writing and grammatical confidence among students who wrongly feel that they are poor learners. We want them to experience the frequent little victories over English script that the Fitzroy Method provides.
May children everywhere share the advantage of literacy.
THERE is a marvellous moment in the movie Greystoke, a grown-up version of the Tarzan story. Visualise an aristocratic dinner party in Victorian England. Tarzan has been brought out of the jungle, is dressed in fine clothes and is being shown off to the guests.
Inevitably, one arrogant blue-blood passes a very denigrating remark, in exquisite English, about the “savage” at the table. The party freezes, embarrassed by the unpleasantness. The silence is soon broken however by Tarzan himself, who repeats the insult, word-perfect, imitating flawlessly the noble accent in which it was uttered. Delightful.
What Tarzan is demonstrating here, to a rare degree of refinement, is the human ability to reproduce the sounds of one’s environment. In hunter tribes, this ability is a matter of survival. Imitate the prey, get close, catch dinner. In modern times this aural/oral mimicking is still a vital living skill, but the only sound most of us now go to great pains to imitate is the speech of our fellow humans.
And in what is still the most extraordinary feat of learning regularly performed on this planet, infants acquire fluency in a modern language in just a few years, starting from a zero-language basis – normally without the help of the school industry.
In short, we humans are genetically endowed with amazingly elaborate hardware that enables us to first mimic, then comprehend, and then articulate utterances in the local language. A high degree of linguistic competency is already evident by the time we start school.
School, we hope, will then broaden the range of texts the children are exposed to. Improved vocabulary and more refined grammar should painlessly follow. What does not automatically follow is the ability to read and write.
An interesting suggestion was put forward some years ago – that perhaps literacy is acquired in the same way as language. Just immerse them in the written word and they’ll pick it up. This notion became, for a time, educational gospel.
But alas, the Tarzan faculty of language by osmosis does not extend to the written word. Written symbols have arisen very late in human evolution, and a facility for decoding them has not become innate. Proof of this can be expressed in one simple statement: virtually everyone can speak, but many cannot read or write – despite being surrounded by visual symbols.
Many a post-primary educator finds that a proportion of students have to be taken aside for catch-up English before they can effectively engage in the other subjects at an ordinary level. I think it is safe to say that most literacy educators now recognise the necessity of involving human phonic skills in their English program.
Of course English spelling is notoriously inconsistent. But given the oral/aural genesis of human language acquisition, children gain immensely by becoming conscious of the common ways of writing the sounds of English.
The Fitzroy Readers have made this job easier for thousands of teachers. Philip O’Carroll
There has been a tendency in recent years to avoid the issue of spelling. The dominance of whole-word recognition has meant that students have lost ground in word attack.
Many students lack a logical approach to the reading and writing of words they have not been personally introduced to.
The balanced approach of the Fitzroy literacy materials meets this need. Each step in our program makes the student aware of a word family (for example, the ar words or the tion words or the ire words, etc), as well as a small set of special words (for example, said or through or eight).
This is, in fact, a phonic approach combined with a whole word approach for special words.
Students who use Fitzroy materials prosper in spelling. The secret of our success is that we make students aware whether each word is normally spelled (belongs to a word family) or has a special spelling (and must be learned by rote). Flagging each word in this simple way gives students a head start in accurate reading and writing.
One academic was quoted in the newspaper last year as saying something like, “Well, correct spelling is only a convention anyway.” To this we say certainly, correct spelling is only a convention, but it is one which society shows no intention of abandoning!
Fairly or not, people are judged by their spelling. Many a job seeker or letter writer is discredited because their document is mis-spelled. Computer spell-checkers do not help with homophones (such as their, there, and they’re), and anyway are not always available. Spelling is an enjoyable part of the curriculum if you take advantage of the naturally occurring word families of English – as the Fitzroy materials do.
Indeed, once you get past the extremely common sight words such as a, of, the, to, I, who, are, etc, you find that the vast bulk of the “higher” vocabulary fits quite obediently into the 50-or-so common digraphs in English spelling. Words like procrastination, therapy, manufacture, and envious, for example, hold no fears for a Fitzroy student who has completed story 50 or Word Skills 5.
Spelling is here to stay. You will not find any set of literacy materials that supports spelling as thoroughly, as systematically and as successfully as the Fitzroy materials. Philip O’Carroll