In the early '70s, 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 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 program.
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 program 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.
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