TEACHING WHOLE CONTINENTS TO READ
In a small African village, a grandmother was weeping as she embraced learning-to-read supremo Wendy Pye. “Now my granddaughter won’t have to scrub floors for a living – because she can read.”
The legend of Wendy Pye goes like this – a feisty Aussie living in New Zealand, she was dramatically made redundant from children’s early reading publisher Shortland Publications in 1985, a time when it was unheard of to be escorted out of the door without time to clear your office.
She had been about to go to Frankfurt Book Fair for the company, but moving quickly she got together some proposals and went off to represent Wendy Pye instead! It is typical of both her fearlessness and grasp of the big picture.
After signing up Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley as authors for her educational publications, Wendy decided to crack the toughest nut of the time: the American education market with Sunshine Books. It took years – and an apartment in New York – to build her company in the States to a size where she was bought out by the owners of the Chicago Tribune as they entered the lucrative market.
“Americans have strict restraints of trade” says Wendy, so she had to return home and put her energies into the local and Australian and Asian markets.
Over the years, Wendy’s team have produced over 2,600 titles for reading and maths learning.
But of course that wasn’t enough for our feisty superwoman. “I saw what was happening with PlayStation.” And she was one of the first to see the possibilities of the net, videos, apps in language learning.
Some of the American proceeds were invested in setting up an animation studio in Auckland’s Mt Wellington and hiring her own team to develop the next stages.
She wasn’t about to neglect the work in developing countries either, putting “a million on the table” to develop literacy courses in South Africa, working with the ANC and NGOs in the area. After many trips there, that was when she was hugged by the grandmother of the woman who got a job as a receptionist . . . and didn’t have to scrub floors.
Imagine, Wendy enthuses, teaching girls in Pakistan and India to read, and lifting them out of poverty – these huge ideals clearly drive her.
But back to where we were, on the cusp of new ways of e-learning, already developed into animated teaching programmes and apps in the Auckland studios.
“We started with a white sheet, and re-thought everything from that point on, using the newest media.
“This has the power to make us the McDonald’s of learning,” Wendy believes. So she is taking it global, with meetings and arrangements in China, Korea (with key Korean companies), Vietnam and Turkey shortly. “It has never been done before,” Wendy believes. “It is all digital content with Step A learning and Step B the digital resource, and everything touch screen. Parents can watch their kids doing it at home – but it can be done anywhere.”
The objective is to make learning to read easy, fun and above all cheaply available with programmes that work on the everyday technologies the developing world uses. For only $3.00 for an app you can offer an entire reading programme and reach 30 million learners. The partners just have to catch the dream, Wendy believes.
The new reading programme will launch in Frankfurt next month – no visuals available until then!
Wendy is clearly unfazed by moving from print to digital, believing this evolution may be the silver bullet for language learning for the next generation.
“When you are pioneering the next strategy for reading, it is scary stuff, and I’m sort of scared . . .” A rare hesitation in the demeanour of this confident business woman, who has a knack of making people see things her way, and insists there is no negativity among her work colleagues at Wendy Pye Group.
Wendy’s achievements so far have already brought her recognition. She is the only living woman in the NZ Business Hall of Fame, an honour she received eight years ago. She has an MBE for Export in Education and was recently awarded a world honour in Washington DC for her work with education for girls around the world. Those successes have also brought her wealth and an enviable lifestyle – or it would be if she took time to enjoy it.
She is also philanthropic, putting her effort into reading programmes for developing countries, and locally, by donating thousand of books to Christchurch.
“We are on the verge of the next major learning discovery,” Wendy believes. “It is not an ego trip for me, but I hope, a worthwhile contribution.”