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READING THEORY

There are four other articles about reading on this site (21, 30, 33, 37). Here's why: 
The literacy crisis continues. Our reading professionals seem to embrace
every bad idea in sight.
 
 
The U.S. Department of Education issued its Reading Report Card: 68% of our nation's fourth graders were not able to read at a fourth grade level.
Schools claim to favor Balanced Literacy but sneak in as much Sight Words, Dolch Words, etc. as possible.
 
I've made some videos for YouTube that try to explain the dark side, most recently a graphic video titled "How Dolch Words Cause Illiteracy and Dyslexia."
 
 

 

READING THEORY

(continues from 30: The War Against Reading)


EPILOGUE: MY SENSE OF HOW TO TEACH READNG

It’s grimly funny to see all the so-called experts doing such a pathetic job. A drunk man making notes in the dark of night would probably do better. In that spirit I want to offer my sense of how reading should be taught.

Here are my premises, my prejudices, my best guesses so far, call them what you like:

1) We want quick results; we want momentum. Each month, each week, should produce measurable improvement. If program A is faster than program B, let’s use A. Something that can be accomplished or explained in an hour should not be explained in a day. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But our educators have for decades used a program that produces virtually no results. We have to adjust our expectations upward. A lot more can be accomplished if we are clever and keep things moving.

2) I really don’t like pedantry and complexity, for myself or everyone else. Perhaps I should say I don’t trust it. I see reading programs for sale--and I’m sure some of them work--that are elaborate and cumbersome. With all kinds of cards and gimmicks. Even Rudolph Flesch--and you know I admire him--created what seems to me an unnecessarily complex program. The reason that phonics/phonetics got into trouble was that it was tedious for children. We don’t want to give the Whole Word gang an opening. We’re talking about little kids here. We’ll move a lot further and faster if we generate as much fun and entertainment as we can. Simple. Fun. Those seem to me fundamental requirements.

3) Pedantry intrudes in another way: jargon, sophistry, technical terms, grad school gobbledygook. So many lies were told during the Reading Wars. Most of those lies hid behind elaborate language. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is better.

4) First step in the classroom: to say the alphabet, to say it in the morning and again in the afternoon. Every day for weeks. To sing the Alphabet Song over and over, as a teacher points at the letters.

5) Go with the best, time-tested material: Mother Goose, classics like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Say them, chant them, sing them, act them out. The best first step, I believe, is to encourage children to commit words to memory (but without making a big deal of it) so that the first language these children encounter is stuff they more or less know. Thus they experience the miracle for themselves: words are things that can be said and thought and read, all at once, sounds and shapes shifting effortlessly from one to the other.

6) I’m not prone to visions or epiphanies, but I had one recently: the single best technique for teaching children to read would be the Follow The Bouncing Ball technology. (In case you never saw it--a little red ball bounces above the words, from syllable to syllable, in time with the music. An early version of karaoke, one might say.) First step: the Alphabet Song. Next, some funny poems the children have more or less memorized. The child quickly learns several key elements: that English sentences and words read left to right, that some words can be broken into smaller parts. I don’t know that the Bouncing Ball (used extensively on a TV music program in the 1960’s) has ever been used in schools. It would have destroyed Whole Word in a week, perhaps that’s the reason. An adult takes a lot of things for granted, but there is nothing intuitively obvious about left-to-right, or anything else. Whole Word hides the fact that words often break into syllables. The bouncing ball dramatizes this. The next best technique, and quite similar, is that an adult reads to the children, touching the words and syllables as they are read.

7) The only intelligent thing that Whole Language people advocated was that children should learn to read by reading. But these crazies actually seem to mean that the child should pick up a book by Shel Silverstein or Dickens--and just read it. No, what kids start with has to be the easiest and most essential stuff in the universe--nursery rhymes, nonsense rhymes, jokes, their own names, common products that they use, and all the signage and such they see in their daily surroundings (e.g. Parkview Elementary, EXIT, Library, fire extinguisher, etc. (Suppose you’re in a foreign country--wouldn’t you want to learn first what all the words in the hotel room mean, the signs in the lobby, the words for taxi, restroom, and restaurant?) (Imagining yourself learning a foreign language in a foreign country is probably a good way to critique a reading program. What's the last thing you'd want? Here's my guess: somebody doing a "miscue analysis," telling you that your mistakes were clever, close or "appropriate." That's how one talks to a child. You'd say, "Please. Just tell me what I did wrong, and how to do it right. I don't want to make that mistake again!")

8) There are only two reasons an adult reads: for information or pleasure. Why should it be different for a child? So children shouldn’t be asked to read anything that’s not relevant and interesting. I knew a boy who loved to read the Guinness Book of Records. His mother didn’t like this. But I thought it was great. He had found something he really liked. And anybody who can read that book can read almost anything.

9) Probably the most formative thing, when it comes to my prejudices in this arena, is that I got through Princeton and became an author without ever knowing one phonics rule, not one. I was in a Whole Word school (which succeeded in making my older brother illiterate through fourth grade). Nobody ever told me any rules; and I didn’t go looking for trouble. I somehow figured out how to read, and was reading several books a week in fourth grade. Perhaps my mother read to me a lot. The point is that you don’t need phonics rules to read. The child comes to school knowing as many as 25,000 words and names, maybe 30,000. The pronunciations are already in the child’s head. What we need to do is to help the child read the most immediately relevant words, then the less relevant words, in a widening spiral. As this happens, the child grasps--operationally--the main rules. As the next several years go by, there’s ample time to learn those rules in a formal way. Phonics rules are for me like irregular French verbs (or irregular English verbs, for that matter). Okay, you have to learn them at some point but why ruin the first year or two with heavy lifting? (Or let us suppose that you are devoted to phonics as rules that a child learns. Could these rules not be taught on a parallel track, as complementary or additional or reinforcing information? In a different part of the day, for example. The child will bring the different perspectives together as helpful. The aspect that troubles me is when phonics rules are a bridge, a gate, and children are prevented from crossing over into reading until they have mastered these rules. Reading, actually reading, seems to me the main thing.)

10) Montessori recommended cutting out letters. It sounds intuitively correct to me. The more senses we can engage, the better. The more often we can use music, the better. I think some misdirection might be good. Don’t talk about reading. Talk about singing. Okay, children, here’s a funny song, we’ll follow the bouncing ball (on a computer monitor or movie screen) and we’ll sing together. Ideally, kids would be reading wildly and widely but not even know they are learning to read.

11) I have a sense that all of these steps would be done over and over, concurrently, intermixed, whatever. There’s a really idiotic idea in modern pedagogy that wants to dwell on a point until every last child understands it. Please don’t. Keep moving. Momentum. Fun. If one technique isn’t working that day, try another. Then do some math, some science, and come back to another reading technique. The path of least resistance--that seems to me the essential concept. And the science, the math, the geography--all of it should also be reading lessons in disguise. Just as reading lessons ought to be science, history and geography lessons. (Which reminds us once again of the evil genius of Whole Word--for the first several grades, children were kept busy reading nothing.)

12) And what about memory words? The so-called Dolch list? All over America there are thousands of teachers who will swear: “Children need both,” meaning phonics and sight-words. First of all, this refrain is Whole Word’s dying gasp, the last bit of kudzu not yet cleared away. Consider the provenance and you know what to do with this weed. Here’s the bottom line: children need to learn to see sounds in words. They do not need to see pictures or graphic design. It’s confusing! Memorizing sight words is a good way to slow a kid down with useless mental baggage. And suppose you make the child memorize “cat.” What happens when the child sees CAT or "cat" in script? Sure, you know they are the same. The child does not. There’s hesitation, there’s uncertainty. (I suspect Balanced Literacy is an attempt at an orderly retreat. If educators admitted, “Sure, Whole Word is nonsense,” people would start second-guessing these purveyors of false pedagogies.) Furthermore, we won’t know the truth about dyslexia until we get sight-words entirely out of the system. Flesch and Samuel Blumenfeld, two really smart guys who have investigated in this area, concluded that almost all so-called dyslexia is a result of imposing ideographic learning techniques on a phonetic language. I’d advise teachers: don’t bet against Flesch and Blumenfeld. They’re right most of the time, whereas the people peddling Balanced Literacy are wrong most of the time. Are you going to bet the future of your students on those people? I think not.

13) The important thing is--by using every trick in the book--to charm and seduce children into reading. Reading, reading, and more reading. Let them read everything and anything they can handle and that might interest them. Menus. Ads. Newspaper headlines. Silly poems. Knock knock jokes. Sports news. Weather maps. Stories that children are known to like (please, no literary pretensions). It’s like riding a bike--the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel. Then it’s a matter of opening up vistas that the children can now explore, whether with a bike or reading. Vistas draw us onward. The goal is always to move each child to whatever is the next step for that child. All the next steps may be different on any given day. Irrelevant. You don’t expect all the kids in a swimming pool to be equally skilled and at ease in the water. All that matters is that each child, a week later, be more skilled and more at ease.


HOW DO WE READ?

In studying the Reading Wars, I often ran across statements about how we read. Supposed scientific studies, often claiming that the eye and brain behave in a certain way. A lot of this stuff is contradictory and confusing. Often the researchers seemed to have a political agenda, i. e. proving that Whole Word is actually effective. But there was a good side: I started paying more attention to how I was actually reading. This is my main conclusion: I don’t think the eye and brain do any one particular thing all the time.

Here's my theory: the brain is an absolute miracle of lazy efficiency and opportunism. It does the least work it can do to get by, and keep going. In reading, that means the eyes will dip into a word as few or as many times as is required for the brain to be satisfied that meaning is established. Maybe a fleeting glance does the trick for one word; but the next word requires three or four dips or fixes, making sure that middle letter is an n, not an m, and off the brain goes. If the words before and after the word can establish the meaning, why look at the word even once? Ditto, groups of words or a sentence.

Let’s say a man is in the jewelry business. He sees d------. the brain figures diamonds and keeps going. It’s a word he sees every day. But I don’t think it’s correct to say that diamonds is a sight-word or a memory word. It simply wouldn’t be efficient to memorize the word. That’s why Whole Word is so idiotic from top to bottom. The genius of a phonetic alphabet is that it frees up the brain from having to bother with this sort of grunt work. Letters are there to give us clues, reminders, little hints, to the degree we need them. I suspect that each brain uses a slightly different strategy for every word--whatever uses the least energy in any particular circumstance. The jeweler doesn’t even see the whole word; he sees a d and a certain length, that’s what he needs in this case. Suppose he sees d---. Now, that might make him look twice. A short word starting with d? Not diamonds, that’s for sure. Oh, dive...

The Greeks invented a helpful word: synedoche. That’s when you recognize an object by seeing only a small part of it. For example, we see a torch and know it’s the Statue of Liberty. We see a few stripes and know it’s the American flag. We see a nose and know who the person is. Our brains are clearly geniuses at this trick. I think that synedoche is a common feature in reading. We see parts and infer wholes. At this point, even the fastest computers cannot compete with us. Clearly, what we are doing cannot be mathematically described. This reaffirms for me my sense that the brain uses every trick in the book, and that the brain's protocols are simply too complex to be reduced to a few generalizations. From all of this I conclude that the goal of any reading program must be to liberate the full genius of the human mind to use all of its skills and tricks. Conversely, this analysis indicates that a reading program such as Whole Word that deliberately shuts down more than half the brain's ability is perhaps best described as torture, as the New York Times uses that word.

As I said, the brain is lazy, but very shrewd. It never does anything the hard way. It wants easy and it wants fast. This brain evolved to survive in the jungle--to see opportunities and threats in an instant. Nothing is quite the same in the jungle, from day to day. So the crucial ability is to see tiny differences, to see important details. To take a read, so to speak, and know all the things that can save your life for another hour. I suspect the brain reads the same way a hunter hunts.

I’ve also been paying more attention when I proofread. Here, the reading process is slowed down and writ large. Sorry I can’t say that better. What I notice is that I dip into a word many times, syllable to syllable, more laboriously than when I read, because typos are so sneaky and elusive. When we read, we read the words to ourselves. But in proofreading, I notice that I read the words back to themselves. I have a recording in my head, and I play it back to the word, to see if the word conforms to the recording. I go back and forth. Suppose you are proofreading...independance. Dance? Dence? You read each syllable, checking it against how you normally say it. What this shows me very dramatically is the interplay, the dance, between letters and sounds. They need each other, like Gemini twins. The idea that somebody could memorize spellings without sounds, as in Whole Word, is so preposterous, only an insane person could suggest it. Then, in proofreading independence, you would be winging it solo, all alone with your visual memory of that word. A word you’ve seen many times. But are you sure about each syllable? I know I wouldn’t be. If we exclude people with photographic memories, I doubt anyone could become a good speller using just the appearance or design of words. The genius of the phonetic alphabet is that it opened up reading and writing to people with ordinary memories. (American history, in the beginning, showed what was possible, as we soared to almost 98% literacy, around 1900, until our educators put a stop to such exuberance.)

So, in reading, and in proofreading, we observe the love equally for syllables and sounds. We see them; we say them. We wrap our eyes and ears around them. Every syllable is a pair, a dancing couple, with its particular set of letters, and its particular sound or pronunciation. Syllable and sound were born together. You can’t have one without the other...All these ruminations reinforced for me, on a personal level, that Flesch was not just partly, maybe, almost correct. He was entirely correct. Similarly, with these ruminations in mind, go back and read Frank Smith’s druidical remarks, e.g., “In other words, when we read a word, we do not read letters at all.” He was as wrong as wrong gets.

ALPHABETIC/PHONETIC/THE EARTH IS FLAT

Dr. Paul Witty said, “English is essentially an unphonetic language,” probably before 1950. This sophistry is a staple of the Whole Word movement. What can it possibly mean? Alphabetic and phonetic are pretty much interchangeable. When you have an alphabet, you have a phonetic language, by definition.

Witty’s sophistry alludes to the fact that English pronunciation exhibits inconsistencies. Partly because vowels, especially, drift from century to century.

And as noted, English has a huge vocabulary, almost a million words. These words come flowing in from dozens of other languages. Some of these words contain sounds that aren’t native to English. We somehow accommodate these foreign sounds. The downside is that an English letter might be stretched, so to speak, to represent the sound of this word. Result: an inconsistency.

In the broader picture, all of these inconsistencies are a nuisance but hardly a pretext for Witty’s absurd statement.

Consider rove/cove. A standard oh sound. Now consider love/dove. A slightly different sound represented by the very same “o.” Inconsistent? Yes. Still phonetic? Of course. The “o” is doing double duty, that’s all. It’s an “oh” or more of an “u.”

If you were trying to pronounce a mystery word such as ??X?, wouldn’t it be handy to know that the X falls in a very narrow range of possibilities? Of course, but Whole Word doesn’t want you to know that.

Meanwhile, consider the other letters in rove/cove/love/dove. All steady, consistent and, of course, phonetic. Whole Word wants to hide that, too. Whole Word wants to force you to do things the hardest way of all--to memorize all those words as shapes. So Witty uttered a non-sequitur that was hailed as self-evident truth in American ed schools.


Bruce Deitrick Price 2008

Please note: "37: Whole Word versus Phonics"
where I try to boil the reading wars down to a comparison chart
(which is printable).  

here