RRF Conference 2007: Gertrude Niles 'SP in the Caribbean'

Transcripts and Reports of Talks given at past RRF Conferences.
Susan Godsland

RRF Conference 2007: Gertrude Niles 'SP in the Caribbean'

Post by Susan Godsland »

Address by Mrs Gertrude Niles, Education Officer for Carriacou and Petite Martinique

I still cannot believe it; my mind rages on. Our children are reading every word on the page. They are not guessing. They are attacking every word and doing so successfully no matter the length of the word. This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the story of the children of Carriacou and Petit Martinique since the introduction of synthetic phonics in September 2006. The children of Carriacou and Petite Martinique, two islands in the southern Caribbean, are beaming with confidence, teachers are overjoyed and parents are overwhelmed and as Education Officer I must confess that I am unashamedly happy.

Many problems confronted us as we tried to have all the children in every grade learn to read over the years. Problems such as children guessing words on the pages, saying what they think a word is based on its shape and at times just making a wild guess or, in the extreme case, the child who could not identify the shape on the page did not say anything. We thought that they were rude, disobedient or even troublesome but that was not the case. I have to admit now that the majority of the children then were not taught the decoding skills that would have enabled them to decode the words on the page. We have tried many strategies but yet many children continue to move from grade to grade unable to read.

As I monitored the teaching/learning process on a daily basis every grade teacher was able to identify the children with reading difficulties. The frustration on teachers' and students' faces was visible. I certainly did not have the answer, but I was very concerned, and so my strategy was to meet with teachers on a regular basis to discuss the problems and identify some possible solutions. Coming out of the discussion we realized that children lacked the basic phonetic awareness that was needed to attack the many words on the pages of the numerous books that they took to school on a daily basis. We got a phonics program for all schools but still the problem persisted. I have to admit now that I did not supervise the implementation of the program in the schools effectively.

When Universal Secondary Education was introduced on Carriacou in 1997 you can just imagine the multitude of problems that surfaced - the inability of some children to read and write effectively or not at all, ill-discipline, and drop-out.

This problem obviously impacted negatively on all subject areas taught on the curriculum. If you cannot read then how can you read and write for the other subject areas? You can see how impossible it was, you can feel the teachers' frustration and the discipline problems that arose as a result of those key factors - children cannot read and write. You can also empathize with those teachers who had the daunting task to teach.

This problem posed many challenges to the principals and staff. They had to find a solution and to do so ASAP. One of the good things though is that the principals did not keep the problem in-house but shared it with many individuals and so we had concerned citizens and individuals coming together to help. Mrs. Eileen Measey was one such person. The task was daunting but they persisted.

One day in my office Mrs Measey came to see me, together with another teacher, Miss Ostick, and their mission was clear: “Would I entertain a visitor from England who is involved in teaching children to read using synthetic phonics?” She went on to explain the success story and the result. Of course I listened, but to be honest I really wanted to tell them to get out of my office with their idea. I remember now the name of the program because I am intimately involved with it, but back then if you had asked me I would not have been able to answer. I recall telling them that I would facilitate the discussion, but if anything has to happen we must get permission from the Curriculum Unit of the Ministry of Education.

The motion began.

(Gertrude read out the following email from Mrs Measey to the Reading Reform Foundation)

"Hi Debbie

You no doubt get tired of messages asking for your help but I hope you will read this one, as it really addressed through you to your colleagues at the Reading Reform Foundation and other researchers you know who might be interested, rather than to you alone. ... there are places other than the UK where people are eager to try new methods and prepared to take on the whole system and one of these is Carriacou.

Carriacou is a small island in the Caribbean, part if the tri-island state of Grenada. The island is 7 miles long by 3 miles wide and our total population is about 6,000 people. We have 5 primary schools, two secondary schools and one Sixth Form College. We have a problem with literacy and I believe that there are several reasons for this.
First is that most of our teachers have very little appropriate teacher training. As we are such a small part of the State of Grenada, a country made bankrupt by two hurricanes, we come very low down on the Government’s list of priorities to finance teacher training.
Second is that our primary teaching is done in large rooms or halls with many other distractions going on at the same time.
Thirdly our teaching is primarily ‘chalk and talk’ with little money left over for appropriate books or materials.
Fourthly, most of our children are ‘virgin readers’ with few books, newspapers or magazines available at home.
Finally, and you must have come across this amongst ethnic minority groups in the UK, the English taught in school is very different from the English spoken at home and amongst the children.

However, our very small size and relatively unsophisticated population, could be exactly what might attract some of your trainers or colleagues wishing to make a study of reading development using the synthetic phonics programme. Of course we would have to look for funds if you were able to find interested people. A population of 6,000 is enough to make the project statistically significant and to enable an interested individual to make a real contribution to a whole society.

Do you know any educators who could use a project like this ...? To see if it is possible to lift the literacy level of a whole population, using the synthetic phonics teaching method? Or do you have any teacher trainers able and willing to take on something as important as this? If it could be shown to work on one small island, the method would quickly spread throughout the Caribbean and third world countries might be able to copy the study as well. I know that if it was possible for all of our primary school teachers to be taught, monitored, supervised and helped through one year, using the phonics reading method, an enormous change could occur here on Carriacou. Some teachers have already read Dr Diane McGuiness’s book – we have four copies circulating the island schools - and are very excited about the method; also the Education Officer for Carriacou is well informed.

I do hope that you will consider my suggestion – which you will see is at a very embryonic stage – and talk to your colleagues. It could be a really exciting project."

Indeed, Mrs. Nonweiler was given the green light to come and in the month of May 2006 I sat in my office awaiting this lady. I could never forget that moment. As I opened the door to receive her I saw a short person dressed in a brown dress and to me looking excited or should I dare to say “flustered”. She had in her hands among other things a Jolly Phonics Kit.

I guess we were both very anxious to get on with the business of the day and so I had my first introduction to ‘Synthetic Phonics”. In clear precise terms she introduced me to her subject area. I listened intently to all what she said, but I did not hear everything. I nodded in the right places, and smiled broadly at times. The torture continued for an hour or more and I agreed to set up a meeting with all principals and the head of the English department at each school and did just that. All this time the Jolly Phonics Kit stood looking at us as if to say, open me if you please.

We gathered at the T.A. Marryshow Community College, located at Six Roads, to hear about this new method of teaching reading called “Synthetic Phonics”. I remembered inviting a former colleague of mine, Dr Kephart, a linguist, to listen to the discussion and to advise me accordingly.

At the meeting/workshop the principals and teachers listened intensely and discussed points raised heatedly, because the principles expounded were new, the ideas seemed crazy, but if this lady said it is working then we could try it. I think the discussion opened many possibilities and I sat and listened, giving what I think was the right support, never thinking that it would have led to me speaking to a group like this later on.

At the conclusion of the discussion we agreed to be trained at the end of July 2006 and to implement Synthetic Phonics in September. I guess some of us really wanted to eradicate this vexing problem, so we would try anything, while others were genuinely interested in phonics as the answer to the reading problem. One such principal was Mrs. Corine Mc Donald, principal of Dover Government School.

When Mrs Nonweiler left us she asked me to try the phonics on my daughter. Of course I told her yes but I had no intention to do so. The Jolly Phonics Kit stood unopened in my office as any other ordinary boxes that I have collected to store things from time to time. In saying so however, I recall that as I visited the different schools on the island, children were “reading for me” but their eyes were not on the pages. I also recall reporting my observation to the Principals. That troubled me intently because our children were not reading, they were cramming words and regurgitating them verbatim for teachers, parents and myself when the occasion presented itself. Of course parents were happy to tell all and sundry that their child could read. I did not want my child to fall in the same bracket but at the same time if I am honest I had no program to teach my child to read. I was hoping that I would get things off the INTERNET to help her. Oh how naive I must admit. I was in for a pleasant surprise that has transformed my life, and my belief system.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the mistake that I made was to give Mrs Nonweiler my email address. She emailed me religiously and inquired about my daughter’s progress. I lied on several occasion and told her that everything was going fine. I did not even open the Jolly Phonics Kit that she left with me. Her persistence paid off however and I finally decided to read the manual and try it because my conscience was pricking me as we would say in Carriacou. I was also afraid that Mrs Measey, who resided on the island, would ask me about my daughter’s progress because I knew that she was in contact with Mrs Nonweiler.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I read the manual and started to teach myself and my daughter. Yes, I must admit I had very little knowledge about the importance of letter sounds for reading purpose much less to know some of the sounds myself. I have learnt to read but I cannot recall how and as a teacher I have never taught children “how to read”. Many teachers my age would tell you the same story - we did not know how we learnt to read. The journey began.

My fellow colleagues, when I saw the progress my daughter Edwina made at the end of the second week because I was following the manual verbatim, I was shocked. She was pronouncing some CVC words like “sat, and cat” for me. I shared the news with a teacher whose daughter was the same age as Edwina and together we taught our children over the summer vacation. I knew then that I was going to support the program wholeheartedly. I knew then that if I wanted things to happen on Carriacou I had to lead from the front, supporting teachers and monitoring progress aggressively in the initial stages. I also knew that it was not going to be easy but I had to be smart, and do the right thing at the right time. I also recall Mrs Nonweiler saying that we were going to see progress at the end of the first year. That was an awfully long time but I was confident. Nothing was going to daunt my belief because I saw the progress in my daughter, Edwina.

At the end of July teachers were trained and the implementation began in September. We must admit that all schools started, but not all principals and teachers supported the program. I was not daunted. I worked with those who implemented it and in our regular meetings I listened to the comments – "the children are making progress", "I think that one letter sound a day is too much", "they must learn to spell their names", "the children love the songs" and the actions and the list went on and on, but what was heartening was that generally teachers felt that the children were showing interest in reading. I persisted.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I recall that at the end of September 2006 every teacher who was using Synthetic Phonics was jumping up. They reported that the children were reading and the method used was working. Teachers were smiling when I visit classrooms and the talk of the island was Synthetic Phonics. Teachers were saying that Synthetic Phonics was the best thing that ever happened to them. You have to remember that many of the teachers were teaching for more that ten years and it was heartening to see the relief on their faces - something had finally worked for the children and for themselves - lessons prepared, children reading and parents are happy. I started to breathe a sigh of relief, but I had to convince my bosses on mainland Grenada that we had something that we must cherish and promote.

The Honourable Minister of Education, Mrs Charles, was invited to visit the schools on Carriacou to observe, to talk to principals and teachers and to make a decision regarding the future of the project. I was not afraid because I saw what was happening in the classrooms, I had listened to the teachers and some parents were making comments on the change in attitude of their child from one of disliking books to now taking an interest in books. As the Honourable Minister move from school to school principals, teachers and children demonstrated how happy they were with this new technique and I think that she was more that satisfied. The Ministry of Education then decided to say that it was pilot program and that gave us the official permission to continue. I breathed a sigh of relief then.

The success of synthetic phonics spread and a documentary was commissioned by the MOE which was shown on local television. In that documentary every school teacher and principals interviewed spoke their heart out – "It is working, despite initial misgivings it is working and everyone in the State should use it," one principal stated. We must applaud the management of the MOE for ensuring that Synthetic Phonics is the phonic approach that has to be used in every school.

As a result of that, Ladies and Gentlemen, I was invited to speak to all principals and education officers at the end of August 2007 to sensitize them on the implementation of Synthetic Phonics on Carriacou and Petite Martinique. Miss Nerissa Fortune accompanied me to demonstrate to the audience how to teach a lesson. This young lady had been introduced to synthetic phonics as her only teaching strategy when she entered the teaching profession in 2006. The records would show that all the children in her class were able to read at the end of year one. Mrs Nonweiler made special mention of that in her report to us.

You can only judge the success of a venture by the reaction to the initiative. Ladies and Gentlemen, since I have spoken to the principals I have been overwhelmed by invitations to visit schools on mainland Grenada - from Sauteurs in the north to St. Georges in the south. I have travelled to many schools spreading the news and encouraging them to implement synthetic phonics as the teaching strategy that would help students to learn to read and I have also listened to the teachers and principals who have tried it at their school. Comments such as “It is working”, "The children are enjoying it", "It is a pleasure to hear the children sing the songs", "I had my doubts but I did not let it get in the way and I am surprised how it is working", "We need to meet with the Minister to tell her about its success", "We need reading materials", "We are raising funds to buy our kit", etc, etc, etc. At one school the principal has shown me a class of nine students who were trouble makers last year. They could not read. However, she implemented Synthetic Phonics in September 2007 and personally took responsibility for teaching that group. Ladies and Gentlemen I am happy to report the good news - that group of children are doing very well now. There is one young man who stood out because he was the worst in the lot. He could not read last year but has now made tremendous progress. I know because he read for me when I visited that school.

Before I conclude Ladies and Gentlemen, I must tell you this story. There is a school that has just started using synthetic phonics with their grade 6. That class I was told had many students who could not identify the letters of their names. To her great surprise success was near at hand and one little boy in particular, who could not read or write before, decided to leave school because he can now spell cat and rat. Although she begged him to return, his response to her was that he did not know anything before and now he can spell cat and rat so it is time to go. She is still trying to persuade him to return though. There are many more that I can give you, but time would not permit me.

Apart from me visiting schools, other teachers accompany me from week to week. If they cannot then I go alone: Emma Williams, Nerissa Fortune, Cindy Fletcher, Elizabeth Bedeau, and Ulrica Samerson.

On the other hand, principals and their teachers from Grenada have visited schools on Carriacou and Petite Martinique in their numbers. I have simply lost count. On some occasion Mrs Measey has worked with them in demonstrating how Synthetic Phonics works. More schools will be visiting Carriacou, I have been told, and they are excited. I am monitoring the progress for my vantage point but you can just imagine how excited I am.

I must say thanks to Mrs. Eileen Measey who took the chance to visit my office to talk to me. She is really a remarkable woman. Not only has she taken the chance to visit my office but she must be recognized for her selfless effort in raising funds to ensure that the program is sustained. To Mrs. Nonweiler I say thank you for training us and convincing all of us that Synthetic Phonics is the way to go. I would also like to thank these two women and their families for granting my family and me a resting place in their homes for this conference. To my sponsor I say thank you, to members of the RRF I say thank you for inviting me to speak and to share my experience, my only complaint is that time was too short. To my attentive listeners I say thank you. The task for us now is to continue to spread the word around the Globe. I have indeed loved working with Mrs. Nonweiler and I must thank Chris Jolly for affording me the opportunity to visit St. Vincent with her so that synthetic phonics can be implemented there. My husband Edward, and our two children, Edwina and Grace, would certainly not have missed this opportunity for anything. Thanks to all who made it possible.