In March 2006, the RRF received an enquiry from a Caribbean island about synthetic phonics. Elizabeth Nonweiler, one of our committee members, arranged to go there in June. Below are some comments which she made before, during and after her visit.
Before: Next week I shall be far away on a beautiful Caribbean island, but it’s not for the scenery and sunshine. I’m going to meet Mrs Niles, the Education Officer for Carriacou and Petit Martinique, and some of the teachers there. Together we are going to plan a project to improve literacy in the islands’ schools by introducing synthetic phonics teaching methods. Mrs Niles is well informed, and some of the teachers have already read Diane McGuinness’s book, Why Our Children Can’t Read, and are excited about the methods.
It all began in March, when the Reading Reform Foundation was approached about the possibility of setting up this project, and it has snowballed from there. Other RRF colleagues hope to join me when we go there again later this year to provide training.
Carriacou and Petit Martinique are part of the state of Grenada. Carriacou is seven by three miles and the total population is about six thousand people. It has five primary schools, two secondary schools and one sixth form college. Petit Martinique is a tiny island and has one primary school. Most of the time the weather is wonderful – warm and sunny – but they have suffered from hurricanes and there isn’t much money to spare for education. Our project depends on donations. We’ve already been given some teaching resources and some money towards covering expenses, but we need more.
By the time this newsletter has been distributed, my initial visit will be over. I’ll keep in touch and let you know about the progress of the project. Now I must think about packing, resources, notes to take ... and get ready to go!
During: I’m here in Carriacou!
I met Mrs Niles, the Education Officer for Carriacou and Petit Martinique, on Monday. After an hour talking with her, the schools’ counsellor, and an American linguist who used to teach at a local school, the British High Commissioner (I’m not sure I have her title correct) arrived on the boat – her first visit to Carriacou – and discussed the possibility of providing funding for the project.
On Tuesday I gave a two-hour talk to all the school principals and the heads of English. They are all well informed and interested. One principal in particular asked very searching questions, for instance, about abandoning a sight vocabulary and not teaching consonant blends. At first I thought she was hostile, but then I realised she was simply listening and thinking clearly about the consequences of changing. Mrs Niles is enthusiastic and determined to encourage change in all her schools.
Since then I’ve been visiting the schools. It seems to me that the situation at present is very similar to the best mixed-strategies schools in England. The problems are also similar. I’ve listened to children read. Some read fluently; some clearly can’t, but don’t want me to know. One little girl appeared to be reading a story fluently with wonderful expression, but suddenly she stopped, looked confused, and then started again – no relation to the print – she’d memorised the rest!
To summarise, the people I have met who are responsible for education here are critical and thoughtful about the issues, but also enthusiastic and willing to change the teaching of reading on all the schools on the island to synthetic phonics.
I’m having a truly wonderful time. I feel very privileged.
After: It’s all go for training at the end of August. Susan Godsland and Maggie Downie are coming to help with training; Geraldine Carter has offered to come and write an article about the project. Money has been raised so far to cover some of our travel, and Eileen, who first contacted Debbie, is providing her house for free accommodation. There are more ideas in the pipeline.
The person who makes the decisions about education on Carriacou and Petit Martinique is the Education Officer, Mrs Niles. I spent more time with her than with anyone else. She is determined to have all the schools using synthetic-phonics teaching methods. The principals and teachers I spoke to are also very willing to try. I felt by the questions and responses of those who attended my ‘workshop’ (a two-hour explanation of synthetic phonics teaching methods) that they understand fairly well what is involved. The teachers of the youngest children didn’t attend the workshop, although I did meet some of them later. Their training before next term will be especially important. However, the secondary school teachers are also keen that we train them to help their weak readers. Several of the teachers mentioned that common problem of mixed strategies – children who seem to be learning to read without problems until they hit Grade 3 or 4 (our Years 4/5) and then can’t read well enough after all.
Although standards in reading and writing did not seem to me to be very different from here, their facilities and materials are far less. Teachers are paid directly from local government, and I was told they have to raise money for everything else – upkeep of buildings, materials, etc. The British High Commissioner gave me the impression that the British High Commission will help financially, providing I write a good enough project proposal. She emphasised that the project must be ‘sustainable’. As I understand it, this means they want teachers trained in such a way that they will train others, they want the proposal to cover several years (whether I’m involved or not), and they want plans for it to spread to other parts of the Grenadine Islands. I found someone to advise me about headings for the proposal.
I now need to get on with the project proposal, planning the training, deciding how to assess children and communicating with all involved. I think of it as a Reading Reform Foundation project and I welcome comments and advice from all of you.
If Newsletter readers would like to contribute to this very deserving and exciting project, cheques made out to the Reading Reform Foundation can be sent to Eileen Measey, Nine Hills Cottage, Offchurch, near Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, CV33 9AQ.