Ready to Read and the PM Books: A Memoir
Gondwanaland Press, $5.00,
This memoir follows on from Price’s earlier publication o! I am on an ox: Teaching reading in New Zealand 1877 to 2000 (2000). Ready to Read and the PM Books moves into the period when Price himself becomes part of the publishing story. His personal recollections, observations and anecdotes make for a fascinating read. Price’s motivation for this booklet isn’t just the wish to provide a historical record. Price is the “P” in PM (Price Milburn) publishing company, which has achieved huge success both within New Zealand and internationally.
Price and his wife, prolific author Beverley Randell, have played a huge part in educational publishing in New Zealand. For many years there was a close association between the PM books and Ready to Read, the national reading series funded by the Department of Education. However, this relationship didn’t survive the 1982 revision of the Ready to Read series, and Price clearly has strong opinions about this.
Price uses the front and back covers of this slim red booklet to indicate that he hopes it will “draw researchers to the important but neglected study of familiar language structures and cumulative controlled vocabulary, and to the texts that are written within it and the texts that are not.” Between 1963 and 1982, both Ready to Read and PM books used the same tightly controlled vocabulary. The 1982 revision of the Ready to Read series resulted in the decision to move away from such tight control of vocabulary and to publish a broader range of texts, some of which were very different from those published by PM.
Clearly Price feels that the major revision of the Ready to Read series was misguided and that it should have followed PM’s example and “stayed with natural language, controlled vocabulary and careful grading”. His description of the 1982 revision varies somewhat from the official account in the 1983 UNESCO publication Textbooks and Reading Materials, Volume One: The Ready to Read Project – The New Zealand Experience, and the final section of his book is in fact an argument for the rationale behind PM publishing. He writes about the “revival” of PM books from 1992 but doesn’t balance this with updated information about Ready to Read. There have been significant changes in the Ready to Read series since 1982. New books are published annually and there has been a move back to tighter control over high-frequency vocabulary in the books for beginning readers.
Despite Price’s lack of objectivity, there’s a friendly, chatty tone to much of this book. I particularly like his description of how the seeds of the Ready to Read series were sown. He tells how, in 1958, during discussions about ordering new stocks of the Janet and John series, Prime Minister Walter Nash called John Ewing, Chief Inspector of Primary Schools at the time, to ask whether he thought the Department of Education might be able to publish a New Zealand reading series. Ewing thought that they probably could. Price says of Ewing, “Years later he told me that, as he put down the telephone receiver, he reflected that that fleeting conversation would no doubt have considerable consequences in the coming years.”
Along with the development of the Ready to Read series, the Department of Education provided a vocabulary chart to other publishers to encourage the publication of supplementary reading books. Hugh Price, then an art editor at School Publications, had recently started a small publishing company with Jim Milburn and was looking for titles to publish. Price’s wife, Beverley Randell, an ex-teacher, took up the challenge, and Price describes her as setting to work “combining the skills of a storyteller with those of a crossword-puzzle expert, struggling to get real stories from the tiny (but expanding, as the books advanced) pool of high-frequency words that were listed.” The resulting PM books were selected as the most appropriate books to support the Ready to Read series and this close partnership endured for almost 20 years.
Price is great on the anecdotes and personalities involved, and his indignation is palpable when he relates the actions of the new owners of PM deciding to focus on big books and pulp the stocks of the readers. However, he’s a little shaky with some of his facts. His second paragraph (printed on the front cover of his memoir) is gripping but riddled with inaccuracies. He states:
In 1982, everything changed. Ready to Read, now published by Learning Media, dropped their original operating system (controlled vocabulary) and set out with new books (with strong sentence patterning) on a path labelled shared reading, a method often summed up by the phrase “reading to, reading with and reading by”, or “whole language”.
There’s quite a lot here that requires clarification. In fact, many things did not change. The Ready to Read revision did involve a move away from the tightly controlled vocabulary of the earlier series but continued its commitment to publishing texts that reflected the natural language of children. Some of the new texts published from 1982 certainly did include “strong sentence patterning”, but many didn’t. The second sentence is ambiguous. Learning Media is now the publisher of the Ready to Read series but until 1990 the series was still being published by School Publications, part of the Department of Education.
Price’s use of terminology is also a little confusing. He appears to equate “shared reading”, “reading to, with and by” and “whole language” but these terms are not synonymous. “Shared reading” involves the teacher leading the reading of a text with children, modelling strategies to decode the text and unlock meaning. The main purpose of Ready to Read books has always been for them to be used as guided reading texts. Guided reading is where the teacher works with a small group, supporting them in reading the text themselves. Price appears to believe that the 1982 revision meant that guided reading was to be replaced by shared reading, but this was far from the case.
The phrase “reading to, with and by” is often used to summarise the key aspects of a “balanced” reading programme. In order to develop fluent, confident readers with good comprehension, a teacher will read to them and teach them explicit reading strategies through reading with them (in shared and guided reading lessons). Reading with children includes a very definite focus on the development of word-level strategies, building recognition of high-frequency vocabulary, and the application of phonics knowledge. “Reading by” means independent reading by the child (putting into practice the strategies they’ve learnt in shared and guided reading).
The term “whole language” has come over time to mean different things to different groups of people. It is not a term that New Zealand teachers tend to use. It’s sometimes used to describe reading programmes with heavy use of trade books, little explicit teaching of reading strategies, and little or no use of graded readers. It can also be used more loosely to describe a classroom programme that endorses the importance of using rich literature with children, along with the other aspects of a balanced reading programme. Because of the differing and often misleading interpretations of the term, it’s best avoided altogether.
Despite Price’s at-times confused terminology and his lapse into advertorial-speak in the final section, this is an enlightening and entertaining account of a dynamic period in New Zealand publishing history. Although there is no formal relationship between the publishers of the Ready to Read series and Price Milburn, books from both series continue to complement each other and bring delight to New Zealand children.
Kay Hancock is a former primary school teacher and the current Ready to Read series editor at Learning Media.