Sylvia Ashton-Warner, 1908-1984

Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s work helped me form and polish my own. I’ve done extensive research on her life and work as a teacher, and offer her books (most of them out of print) for sale. Below you’ll find an article I’ve written for an encyclopedia, trying to put the salient facts into a short form. From the forthcoming Greenwood publication “Early Childhood Education: An International Encyclopedia,” edited by Rebecca S. New and Moncrieff Cochran.

New Zealand’s Sylvia Ashton-Warner exemplifies the reflective teacher, studying the response of the children in her classroom to her work, and modifying it in turn so that their learning will be optimum.

She wrote eleven books (1959-1979). In the most important of them, Teacher [1] , Ashton-Warner tells of her struggle to teach beginning reading to very young Maori children, since she had found that the books and lessons used with white children were incomprehensible and boring for Maori children to relate to.

Her methods strongly influenced many other teachers who found themselves in cross-cultural settings, and who wished to avoid “colonizing” the children. She worked during a time when reading primers still depicted only white, middle-class children. Children of color had little to identify with in the sterile text or the European urban illustrations of the available primers, and little incentive to learn.

Ashton-Warner’s passionate writing and her ability to portray classrooms in a way that makes them come alive on the page, earned her a world-wide audience. Her books have been translated into more than seventeen languages.

Social critic Paul Goodman wrote:

“Consider … the method employed by Sylvia Ashton-Warner in teaching little Maoris. She gets them to ask for their own words, the particular gut-word of fear, lust, or despair that is obsessing the child that day; this is written for him on strong cardboard; he learns it instantaneously and never forgets it; and soon he has an exciting, if odd, vocabulary. From the beginning, writing is by demand, practical, magical; and of course it is simply an extension of speech — it is the best and strongest speech, as writing should be. What is read is what somebody is importantly trying to tell.” [2] 

Ashton-Warner was motivated by the artist’s urge to express strong feelings, and saw the same urge in the children. That observation led her to develop her reflective instructional method. She also orchestrated the school day so it would alternate between expressive activities chosen by the children and activities in which the teacher imparts new information. She called this alternation “breathing in and out.”

She wrote about the relationship of early education to world peace, believing that if children have peaceful means of expression they will not be aggressive or violent.She, herself, was unable to reconcile her artistic life with her family life. Her drawing, painting of watercolors, and playing piano couldn’t directly be reconciled with her life as a wife and a mother. She and her husband, Keith Henderson, worked out an unusual domestic arrangement. She created in her twenties, and in each place she lived afterwards, a separate writing space she called “Selah” (a place of rest). Her husband, Keith, was the main childcare provider for the family. This scandalized the neighbors, as Ashton-Warner recorded.

She was more honored in the United States, and in other countries, than in her own New Zealand. Despite her receipt of the New Zealand Book Award in 1979 for her autobiography, I Passed This Way, she had felt neglected by her country for most of her life. Many in New Zealand education still speak of her as if she was not special. In the rest of the world her influence is felt, although usually not in mainstream. Her work was implemented in early Head Start programs (notably Mississippi Child Development Program), in many of the alternative schools of the 1960s in the U.S. Teachers in scattered classrooms around the world continue to use her methods to introduce young children to reading.

This kind of thinking exists at the present time in the work of Vivian Gussin Paley, Karen Gallas, Cynthia Ballenger, and others, and the work of the centers for young children in Reggio Emilia.


Ashton-Warner, Sylvia

Bell Call, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1964 {1971}

Greenstone, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1966 {1967}.

I Passed This Way, NY, Knopf, 1979 {1979} [1979].

Incense to Idols, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1960 {1960}.

Myself, NY Simon and Schuster, 1967 {1969}.

O Children of the World …, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, The First Person Press, 1974.

Spearpoint, NY, Knopf, 1972.

Spinster, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1959 {1958} [distributed by Heinemann].

Stories from the River, Auckland, New Zealand: Hodder and Stoughton, [1986].

Teacher, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1963. Three, NY, Knopf, 1970.

Clemens, Sydney Gurewitz. 1996. Pay Attention to the Children: Lessons for Teachers and Parents from Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Order here: BOOKSTORE

Hood, Lynley. 1988. Sylvia! The Biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Auckland, NZ Viking Penguin.

Ashton-Warner, Sylvia. 1963.  Teacher. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Goodman, Paul. 1964. Compulsory Education, New York: Vantage, page 26