Barbara Brann

M.Ed, BA, BEd, Dip Ed, Grad Dip Special Ed. TTC (NZ)

An educator, researcher and speaker changing paradigms and practice in early childhood literacy learning

Early childhood – “A naughty, cheeky little girl!”

Always a questioner, even as a child Barbara never just accepted things without asking why. Although I found myself frequently in trouble – I was described as a “naughty, cheeky, little girl” (in one of my reports) – I now realise I had a learning difficulty with anything I couldn’t make sense of! Seeing things from the perspective of others made me a candidate for working with children who experienced learning challenges and who often didn’t have a voice.

Early studies and career

I graduated from University of Queensland with a Bachelor Arts (Dip Ed) and set out to change teaching! Commenced teaching as a secondary teacher of year 12 English and History through to year 8 English and Geography. I had an affinity with the students who were having difficulties because I had been there myself.

My career goes bush + a lightbulb moment

After several years, I moved to the Northern Territory of Australia to a little town called Katherine. With fewer than 2000 residents and only one school, I found myself teaching English through the entire secondary school. The school’s population was predominantly indigenous and the town was beset with problems. I very quickly realised my students had very poor reading ability, if any. I wondered naively, “What have they not been doing in the primary school that they’re unable to read in secondary school?”. I took the standard approach of the time – worksheets (now shown to be unproductive) – giving them to my year 8 students. I didn’t realise what an insult this was. I learned I had “shamed” these older students by giving them the same worksheets given to their younger siblings. This was a huge lesson for me! Never insult older students by giving them reading material designed for younger children.

A move to Victoria + more studies

Following my stint in Katherine, I moved to Victoria where I taught part time in a secondary school with a large population of ESL students. My work here was considered largely “remedial”. During this time, I completed my Bachelor of Education, with a focus on my growing interest in learning and catering for individual differences.

Back to the bush + a cyclone + more study

In 1975, I moved back to the Northern Territory, this time to Alice Springs. During this period, my family and I experienced the devastating effects of Cyclone Tracy in Darwin, when all our furniture and house we were to live in were blown away. I worked as a primary teacher and remedial specialist of children with learning problems. During this time I became increasingly interested in learning as opposed to teaching. I commenced more study, this time a Special Education Diploma with emphasis on brain function and memory; auditory and visual processing; and the effect of these on learning and behaviour. I was now totally hooked into study and research into “why” and how we could assist students to learn within their problems rather than have the “behaviour modified” to make them fit the system! I developed a reputation for not conforming to traditional teaching methods if I saw it as being detrimental to the students’ learning.

A move to advisory

A shift in gears came when I moved from the classroom into advisory work using Alice Springs as the base and taking in the vast area covering the territory south to the South Australian border, north to Elliott and across to the borders to the east and west. I visited many remote indigenous schools and gained deeper understanding of the particular problems when they were expected to perform educationally in a foreign environment, in a foreign language and surrounded by foreign expectations of behaviour. Again, my sense of justice rose to the forefront. Fortunately, at that time, there were a number of like-minded educators in the Northern Territory, however like so much of education, the fads just came and went without any real change.

Back to the classroom + my experiment

After four years in advisory work, I moved into a classroom to teach year one. I had been looking at, and researching, why children failed to learn to read and write. I had all the academic knowledge behind my beliefs about “getting it right from the start”, but I had never put it into practice. Here was my chance!

Using my knowledge about learning – as distinct from teaching method – about which I knew very little at that point – and about what affects learning (as distinct from teaching practice), I set about ensuring the students learned what I wanted them to learn.

I worked with very clear learning outcomes and combined explicit teaching with experiential and what is now called “play-based” learning. Again, I came under fire because I refused to give the students commercially produced worksheets or to follow a “one-size-fits-all” teaching program which could be easily evaluated with scores, levels and reading ages. However, I showed that what I was doing worked and all but a couple of children (out of a group of around 42) left as proficient readers and writers. I still use samples of writing from those years in my presentations to show this is not new pedagogy. It is simply a different way of thinking about learning, taking the emphasis away from the teacher and teaching – and putting it on the the learner and learning.

Off to Western Australia + teaching adults

I then moved to Western Australia with my family and found work with the Perth External Studies School where I commenced teaching adult literacy by correspondence. What a contrast! At this point, I was teaching adults the same skills as my five year olds, but basing my teaching on their needs as an adult. What I discovered was fascinating – the writing and reading skills displayed by many of these adults, indicated the same developmental learning markers my normally developing children have at five years. Now I had a new “why” to be researched. It appeared these adults had become confused at around the age of 7 when they moved from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. Because they were still confused and unable to conceptualise and understand the connections and interconnections of all aspects of literacy, each literacy “subject” remained in its own compartment – exactly what I had also seen when working with students with learning difficulties. They had become “stuck” in that stage of development and despite years of “remediation” these people had been unable to unravel the confusions and move forward. By showing them the connections, their literacy improved dramatically – not because of any specific method or pedagogy, but simply by delving into the “why” of the problem.

During my time in Western Australia, I began my Masters degree, specialising in reading and writing problems, the development of phonemic awareness and culminated with my research into the acquisition of spelling knowledge.

A New Zealand adventure

With my family in tow, I moved to New Zealand where I continued my masters degree under the eye of John Hattie. I worked as an itinerant teacher of learning and behaviour and again puzzled over why so many students fail to grasp the basics in their first year of school and needed intervention, recovery and remedial work – sometimes for the rest of their school lives. During this time I worked as a tutor in the Department of Education at Auckland University.

Later in my sojourn in New Zealand, I took up as Head of the Department of Bridging Education, offering bridging education courses to students wanting to return to university and tertiary studies. Under my wing I had two adult literacy centres. Again, I was back working with adults with learning problems. It was during this time that I developed a course for teacher aides and also developed and taught Level 7 teaching courses for the Maori Education Department.

Going out on my own across the Tasman

In 1996 I started my own business providing professional development throughout New Zealand. By this stage I had published The Brann Analysis Grid for Spelling, The Brann Analysis Grid for Reading, the Teacher Aide Handbook and The Magic Caterpillar Handwriting Process. I had also published numerous papers and written articles for various educational publications including NZCER. I was also being asked to present at conferences and to participate in training days in schools.

A return to Australia

A personal challenge in my family in the diagnosis of cystic fibrosis in my second grandchild saw me return to Australia in 1998. I took my business with me and since then – twenty plus years – I have been presenting at conferences, delivering professional development and consulting to schools all over Australia and New Zealand and overseas, including Thailand, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). My publications have grown in number and complexity with some being used as textbooks in universities.

I now travel constantly, although more recently, I’ve completed stints as principal in remote indigenous schools in the Northern Territory. Unbelievably, I have worked in almost 50 different indigenous communities throughout Australia, providing me with a unique and deep insight into the needs of students attending these schools.

While I’ve been in hundreds of schools across the globe and talked to thousands of teachers, my sincerest desire to to have positively impacted the learning of tens of thousands of children.