S is for Sylvia (Ashton-Warner)

18 06 2017

Sylvia Ashton-Warner‘I harness the communication, since I can’t control it, and base my method on it’ (Ashton-Warner, 1966, p.85).

Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1908 – 1984) was a primary school teacher in rural New Zealand, where she was entrusted with teaching reading and writing, using textbooks that were imported from Britain. The content of these ‘primers’ bore little resemblance to the world of her pupils (most of whom were of Māori origin). Their inability to identify with the textbooks and their consequent failure to develop good literacy skills was a constant source of frustration for Ashton-Warner. She wrote (cited in Hood, 1990, p. 91):

There’s no communication … you see they’re not thinking about what they’re writing about or what I’m teaching. I’m teaching about ‘bed’ and ‘can’ but they were thinking about canoes and grandfathers and drowned men and eels.

This frustration led to her abandoning the use of the imported textbooks altogether and, instead, developing an approach – and the materials to go with it – that ‘emerged’ out of the lives and experiences of the children themselves.

In her successful novel, Spinster (1958, p. 67) she describes the germination of this idea:

A rainy, rainy Thursday and I talk to them all day. They ask ten thousand questions in the morning and eleven thousand in the afternoon. And more and more as I talk with them I sense hidden in the converse some kind of key. A kind of high-above nebulous meaning that I cannot identify. And the more I withdraw as a teacher and sit and talk as a person, the more I join in with the stream of their energy, the direction of their inclinations, the rhythms of their emotions, and the forces of their communications, the more I feel my thinking travelling towards this; this something that is the answer to it all; this . . . key.

Conscious that each child had a unique inner imagery, she reasoned that if she could just capture and label these ‘pictures of the inner vision’, she had all the material she needed to provide the foundations of literacy – what she called the ‘key vocabulary’. These were the words that, once written down and recognized, would unlock the ability to read and write texts that included them. These first words, she believed, ‘must have an intense meaning’ and ‘must be made of the stuff of the child himself’ (1966, p. 28).

kids with cards cropBecause the words that emerged from the children provided the basis for their initial writing and reading tasks, she called the approach to literacy ‘organic’ – it grew naturally out of the ‘stuff of the child’: ‘I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, and use that as our first working material’ (1966, p. 28).

How did it work? The first stage in Ashton-Warner’s ‘key vocabulary’ process is the eliciting from each child of a ‘key’ word, i.e. one that has strong associations for them, and writing it on a card which the child takes ownership of.

After play … we turn our attention to the new words themselves. The children pick up their books and run to the blackboard and write them up: the words asked for during the writing of the morning. They’re not too long ago to be forgotten.  Some of them are, when a child has asked a lot, but they ask you what they are.

Since they are all on the wall blackboard, I can see them from one position. They write them, revise them, the older children spell them and the younger merely say them… Of course, there’s a lot of noise, but there’s a lot of work too. (p.63)

girl at boardThese words then become the basis of sentences that the children individually write on the blackboards that ring the room. These sentences in turn form the basis of mini-narratives, usually autobiographical, that the pupils write into their notebooks and share, the teacher supplying correction at the point of need. Ashton-Warner used these texts as the basis for writing her ‘infant readers’ which she herself illustrated. Out of this ‘raw material’ – and with no explicit teaching as such – the ability to read and write develops.

In  her life-time and beyond, Sylvia achieved a considerable degree of fame, not only as an educational innovator but as a novelist and counter-cultural icon. For a while she was revered by the progressive schools movement and her methods were adopted beyond her native New Zealand (where her capacity to irritate even her supporters, along with her tendency to stereotype the Māori, badly dented her reputation). As with many visionary educators, her fame may have owed a lot to her own charisma, but those who were taught by her attest to the success of her approach.

One way her legacy has survived is the Language Experience Approach (LEA), a literacy program used with success in the US and based on the principle that the best way of teaching children to read is through their own words. Essentially, the teacher transcribes the telling of a shared experience (e.g. a field trip) or an individual’s narrative, recasting it into more target-like language were necessary. The class then read the story aloud, either in chorus, or individually, and any further revisions and corrections are made. These stories can then be saved as part of the class reading library and even shared with other groups of learners.

And, of course, Ashton-Warner’s organic, materials-light approach is a direct precursor of dogme ELT/teaching-unplugged. In both her teaching journal and her novel she describes the day she burnt all her classroom materials: ‘It’s impressive to see it go up in smoke. … But teaching will be much simpler now, and there’ll be more time for conversation. And whatever the past has or has not taught me, I’m satisfied that communication on any level, giving birth as it does to the new body, the new idea or the new heart, is the most that life can be’ (Spinster, p p.86 – 87).

kids at desks


Ashton-Warner, S. (1966) Teacher. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ashton-Warner, S. (1958) Spinster. London: Secker & Warburg.
Hood, L. (1990) Sylvia! The biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Auckland: Penguin.

Photos from Teacher.



20 responses

18 06 2017

Interesting to see where this approach originated. Back in 1977 as a trainee teacher in Shepherds Bush social priority Junior school, my monitor teacher was using this approach with the children ie. Using their personal experience to gain writing/reading skills. Even maths, as the children asked their parents every week which teams they’d put their Pools money on .. then created bar-charts and graphs which put up on the walls, based on the feedback. This Absolutely amazing teacher must have known Ashton-warner’s method. Thank you for tracing it back.

19 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Josephine. Your monitor teacher might have known of Sylvia, or might just have shared her instinct for tapping into innate learning dispositions. Either way, you were lucky to have had such a good model.

18 06 2017

This article is amazing! Indeed, when children start learning writing, their name is the very first thing they try to write down. This process looks amazing!

18 06 2017
Sonia Benenson

So interesting – now I’d like to read her book(s).

18 06 2017
Mariana Laxague

Thanks for this post, it’s great to see that the world is full of Montessori-like teachers who know that personalising and adapting materials to suit students’ needs is the best thing to do. Let’s hope more teachers stick to this idea, thanks once more!

20 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mariana. On the subject of Maria Montessori, this news report appeared in The Guardian a day or two ago: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/jun/15/teachers-as-guides-inside-the-uks-first-montessori-secondary-school

18 06 2017

In a dogme classroom with adults, I wonder, what would be the best way to bring about the equivalent of Ashton-Warners “infant readers”, or the additions to the class reading library in LEA – that’s to say a “final” stage where student-generated, teacher-aided texts/sentences/whatever are rubber stamped and published as valuable and exemplary? I have tried to get students to write a summary of each class on edmodo, including new language, but it never garnered enthusiasm for very long. Maybe because it required individual work outside class with a relatively heavy resonsibility (documenting the whole class’s learning process), maybe because of the facebook-like transience of the medium? Maybe a class blog with a mixture of collaborative and individual texts selected by the group…

19 06 2017

This is not mine (I wish it was) but here is a teacher in Canada who is using LEA to create lessons for low level students to learn skills. http://www.kellymorrissey.com/banking-and-money.html – I find her lessons inspirational.

18 06 2017
Andrea Vitali

Thank you for another very interesting post, Scott.
I think that inability to identify with coursebooks is probably their biggest limitation. This problem seems even more evident with adult learners. In fact, when you have a very diverse class in terms of ages, backgrounds, genders and motivations, coursebooks simply cannot address the needs and wants of the whole group. Quoting McGrath: “no one book can be perfect for a particular institution, let alone for a particular class within that institution or an individual within that class”. Furthermore, after being sanitized from any PARSNIP topic, EFL coursebooks tend to represent a monodimensional plastic world to which a lot of learners might struggle to relate. For example, working-class and LGBT people are generally denied any representation in mainstream coursebooks and this might have a negative impact on their motivation.

20 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Andrea, for that comment. You suggest that failure to identify with the content of coursebooks is more acute for adults. I wonder if children have lower expectations of coursebook content, or are simply better at ‘suspending disbelief’.

20 06 2017
Andrea Vitali

Well, I think that’s because adult classes are probably more diverse. You can have a wider (sometimes extreme) range or backgrounds, interests and ages whereas with children this issue might be less severe and therefore it might be easier to find commonalities and predict what they might be interested in. However, I have never taught children so mine is simply a perception.

18 06 2017
Heidi A. Karow

This is inspiring. I had never heard of Sylvia Ashton-Warner but I understand the wisdom of her approach. Wonderful.

18 06 2017

Beautiful story! Thank you Scott.

19 06 2017

I wonder why she felt the need not just to remove the standard textbooks from the classroom, not just to lock them away in a store cupboard to gather dust, but to actually burn them?

‘It’s impressive to see it go up in smoke … ‘

Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ was published in 1953 (just five years before ‘Spinster’ came out) and it was in 1966 – the same year ‘Teacher’ was published – that Mao’s Red Guards fell pell mell into the Cultural Revolution. As The Peking Review from June 3rd of the same year had it:

“With the tremendous and impetuous force of a raging storm, [Mao’s Red Guards] have smashed the shackles imposed on their minds by the exploiting classes for so long in the past, routing the bourgeois “specialists,” “scholars,” “authorities” and “venerable masters” and sweeping every bit of their prestige into the dust.”

Quite a lot of books were burned in the name of progress then too.

Those are obviously just coincidences – I’m not for a minute suggesting that Ashton-Warner had these things in mind at the time (or even knew about them).

But still, I’m a little wary of anyone for whom progress requires a violent act of propitiation.

20 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that comment: yes, in its early days the Dogme ELT movement was criticised for recounting, approvingly, Ashton-Warner’s moment at the incinerator. In fairness, it was not the coursebooks she was burning but all the accumulated materials she herself had produced over the years. Here is the fuller extract (from Teacher:

I burnt most of my infant room material on Friday. I say that the more material there is for a child, the less pull there is on his own resources. Other children coming to me from other schools are most annoyingly helpless. They want the teacher to do everything for them like a mother. I don’t believe in shiny polished blocks. The shine and the colour should be supplied by the child’s own imagination. … I speak of blocks as an example but only symbolically. I mean all the other contraptions. Mrs. S for example was given the job of preparing mountains of reading cards to supplement the new reading books. Pictures for every word. Pictures illustrating, believe it or not, words like “up,” “to,” “my”… over and above the nouns. It’s terribly hard to believe that modern teachers can do this and modern inspectors instigate it. Can’t a child picture his own nouns when he hears them? Do we have pictures of prepostions and conjunctions? And beyond all this, think of the time it takes to care for all this stuff. Only infant teachers know the time it takes to keep this stuff in order and in repair. Time that could be used in precious conversation with them. I burnt all the work of my youth. Dozens of cards made of three-ply, and hand-printed and illustrated. Boxes of them. There will be only the following list in my infant room:

Chalk Books
Blackboards Charts
Paper Paints
Pencils Clay
Guitar Piano

And when a child wants to read he can pick up a book with his own hands and struggle through it. The removal of effort and denying to the child of its right to call on its own resources . . . .

(I was sad, though, seeing it all go up in smoke.)

22 06 2017
Tony Penston

To suggest an update that Sylvia might agree with: “I don’t believe in shiny polished digital devices. The shine and the colour should be supplied by the child’s own imagination.”

19 06 2017

Interesting read and this has also been a huge problem with classroom instruction in Canada of indigenous children. It is still a big problem believe it or not – all over the world. But as you suggest, it isn’t just on the macro cultural level that this is a problem for teachers.

This is always the problem when curriculum is imposed from beyond and not created from within (the class). Even at the class level, there is the need to base the lesson on the individual world view of those students. Particularly with language.

With language, it isn’t hard to do and elicit student language (even in their L1) and build the lesson content from there. I’ve written a lot about this and for lack of a better term call it “Student Created Content” SCC. I designed and wrote a whole coursebook based on this methodology. Read the forward for my explanation of SCC in the free pdf book. https://goo.gl/83784k

20 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, David – for the comment and the link. Arguably, the much-touted notion of ‘student centred learning’ is fairly meaningless unless it is applied in conjunction with ‘student created content’.

21 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

Personalization in the classroom is said to produce more mental and emotional effort and hence makes language more memorable. It is also thought to be motivating if the content is about at least one person in the classroom. Community Language Learning is said to be an approach that embraces this. I am paraphrasing from Scott’s book, an A-Z of ELT.

24 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin. These are all assumptions that require – and deserve – empirical investigation. Anyone game?

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