Sylvia Ashton Warner – learning to read

I read “Teacher” (1963) by Sylvia Ashton Warner, while at secondary school and found it inspirational. This was a memoir about her life as a teacher, a profession which Warner was very reluctant to enter. Her mother had been a teacher and the sole income earner for her large family. The family had to move from place to place throughout New Zealand as her mother found employment. Warner had aspirations to be an artist or a writer – or even a concert pianist and felt that teaching would prevent her from fulfilling her creative potential.

ashton warner
Photo of Sylvia Ashton Warner 1968. From the Te Ara entry https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/33256/at-her-typewriter-about-1968

Fortunately for the children she taught, Warner was able to bring her creativity to the classroom not only in her amazing illustrations created on the blackboard but also in her pedagogy. She had a firm philosophy that children only learned when they had an emotional connection with what they were learning. She particularly applied this to learning to read. Warner and her husband, Keith, taught in rural Maori Schools in Horoera (East Cape), Pipiriki (Wanganui River) and Fernhill (Hawkes Bay). Warner realised that unless the children had a connection with the vocabulary they were learning they would not remember it. Mike Pegg, the author of the Positive Encourager, has a whole page on his website devoted to Sylvia Ashton Warner and her pioneering approach to education. He describes the way she would invite children to choose a word each day, she would write it on a large card and then teach them how to write it. The next day she would put all the words from the previous day and ask the children to find their word. She would invite the children to write stories using their own words. Warner also wrote many stories for her students using the words they had chosen. Over time she replaced the traditional readers with these much-loved stories that related directly to her students’ lives and experiences. Her students became literate and engaged learners, flourishing due to her methods of teaching.

As you can imagine the school inspectors at the time (the 1940s – 1950s) were less than impressed that this teacher was not using the required materials and Warner struggled with the criticism to her approach knowing that the results were exceptional. She often felt that she was not understood or encouraged in her home nation. This essay by Emily Dobson, published in 2007 and found on the Victoria University website examines her life and her literary and educational achievements. It gives a sympathetic view of a troubled pioneer who struggled with alcoholism and isolation.

Sylvia Ashton Warner was a trailblazer who wanted the voices of children and women to be found in literature at a time when this was not the case. Her approach to teaching, start where the learner is at, was developed at a time in New Zealand when other developmental educational philosophies were taking hold globally. Despite her reputation for being ‘difficult’, she influenced many teachers and educators both in New Zealand and in North America.

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Amanda Bond is a New Zealand ex-pat currently working as Teacher Librarian in an international school in Istanbul, Turkey. Her twitter handle is @kiwionthego

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