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.