Rebel With a Cause


Irene Fagan was a true pioneer in the world of literacy. As one of our earliest teachers in the 1970s, she braved scorn within schools when the word dyslexia was unheard of. Just weeks before Irene died aged 93, she shared her story.

“SPELD was a sort of dirty word that you didn’t really mention because there was a general feeling amongst principals that if you had to employ a SPELD teacher or get someone in like that, someone, somewhere had failed. Principals didn’t like the word dyslexia at all. There was no formal diagnosis, nobody believed in it. We just said ‘reading problems’, but I knew about dyslexia. I’d trained as a teacher in England. There was actually a school in London for dyslexics and I went to a meeting and heard one of their teachers talk. After I moved to Wellington, we went to meetings in the different teachers’ homes – Reading Association meetings in the early days, then SPELD – and I read all the books by different people. I reckon I read a library.

“I was very interested in people deemed ‘unteachable’. I was absolutely convinced that they could be taught; I knew I could make a difference in their lives. At the time there was a tremendous uproar about the teaching of reading. People were discontented about the way children could not read so they – I suppose it was the Education Department – decided they would make some hours available in schools and it was up to them to find somebody.

“I began with 11-year-olds and I remember thinking I really want them when they are starting, but nothing’s ever perfect. With one boy at intermediate, I explained that ‘when’ was a W word and he said nobody had ever told him that before. He obviously had no knowledge that the letters had sounds. Here and there I worked one-on-one but on the whole I would take small groups, so often they were the boys. Mothers would come and say, ‘Goodness me, I don’t want him to be like his father who couldn’t read.’ I saw good progress always; some much quicker than others, of course.

Principals didn’t like the word dyslexia at all. There was no formal diagnosis, nobody believed in it.

“Some principals wanted you to go into the classroom and teach alongside but I wouldn’t do that because I felt children were very embarrassed if someone was there helping them along, so they would come to me. I always had a little corner somewhere to teach. One year it was a cloakroom – they had no other nook or cranny – and another time I was in the hall kitchen, which they discovered was illegal.

“I know I wasn’t very popular with the school inspectors. I remember being very careful about what I did when they were in doing a school inspection. The problem was they didn’t want you to sound words out, no phonological stuff. One inspector told the principal I was teaching phonics and he said, ‘Well, we’ve done it your way, let’s try it this way because she’s having success.’ Terrible word, phonics – you had to learn sight words. Dyslexic children were completely falling through the cracks with that method; whatever they were doing in Reading Recovery still wasn’t enough.

“I’ve sometimes bumped into ex-students. I remember someone in a post office behind a counter said, ‘Oh you taught me to read!’ I still hear from the mother of one student, always very happy. I always had results because they were teachable.”

SPELD NZ owes its existence to Irene and all the other courageous early advocates for those with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. Ehara koe i a ia (Thank heavens you were there).