I have so many thoughts on this that I could probably ramble pointlessly for thousands of words, so I’m going to try hard to keep it short. Some of the homeschooling folks I know have recently pointed me to the Diane McGuinness book Why Our Children Can’t Read, which I (ahem) skimmed a bit of then read this helpful summary written by McGuinness herself. Her basic concept, that our writing system sucks, isn’t anything new. The way she really takes down the lack of serious studies about learning to read was what interested me. Apparently, researchers in the 60’s and early 70’s decided that how you taught kids to read didn’t really matter because the teacher was the most important aspect. How very John Dewey progressive of them and how very unscientific and annoying for us all now. McGuinness believes that what the scattering of scientifically sound studies do show is that learning phonemes, not just phonics, is what makes the difference for kids in learning to read.
While this is sort of a tangent, the first thing that struck me was how she takes apart the world’s writing systems. She says that, “No writing system, living or dead, was ever based on the whole word.” Knowing a little Chinese and having lived and taught in China, and seen Chinese children learning both Chinese and English, I’m curious what her take on Chinese and how Chinese children learn to read would be. She’s right that Chinese is syllabic, not pictographic as some westerners think. However, there’s no way to become literate other than memorizing the whole character, which makes it very close to violating her rule from a practical standpoint. McGuinness (rightly, I think) dismisses the idea of memorizing loads of “sight words” the way kids are encouraged to do in many schools today. She praises systems like Spanish and German because their alphabets are clear and their spelling systems standardized. However, Chinese kids must learn the sight words. When I tried to convince Chinese educators to introduce some phonics work for English students, they were appalled and insisted that all words must be taught as sight words, the same way that the students learned Chinese. I wonder how this also changes the basic outlook of Chinese students. If the way English is taught (and written) can cause dyslexia, then how does learning Chinese wire your brain differently?
Moving on from that tangent, I have two personal experiences to share. First, I learned to read in the exact way that McGuinness suggests is all wrong. In other words, the most whole language, haphazard way possible. I don’t know exactly how I learned to read, since I learned before kindergarten, I do know that no one ever taught me phonics as a system in school and my mother didn’t teach it to me either. On the other hand, my brother learned to read through one of the short lived programs that McGuinness mentions that tried to standardize spelling in order to accelerate reading (then discarding it slowly so children could learn common spelling). I remember his workbook that taught him to spell “elephant” as “elefant.” I love to read. My brother, not so much. How much is that just because I was made to be a reader and my brother was made to learn in different ways? How much is the way we learned? How much is the teachers we had? How much is experiences in learning to read that came after that initial learning to decode?
It is so difficult, when faced with statistical evidence that counters one’s anecdotal experiences, to go against those experiences. I don’t think statistics always rule the day, but I do think intelligent decisions should be informed by data. Still, I wonder what pieces of the puzzle are missing. Did my love of reading develop in part because I was surrounded by people who encouraged me to love words, without any judgement of how I wrote them? If I didn’t have the lucky skill of working them out the rules mostly on my own, then that would have been one thing, but since I did, was it better that I was allowed to freely discover whatever I wanted? This is part of the individual teacher personality that all educational studies struggle with. The teacher can’t help but bring personality into it.
My own experience teaching young children to read begins (unless you count a few Chinese elementary schoolers) with my own kids. Before that, the reading problems I helped kids through belonged to older kids. Like other things, teaching middle schoolers in my previous life has generally helped me keep the long game in mind with my own kids. However, some of the most common problems I saw middle schoolers with led me to teach strategies that seem contrary to some of the things that reading experts tell us now. For example, looking for context and anticipating what comes next were things I worked with middle schoolers on in reading. It’s hard for me not to recoil a little when early reading experts suggest you try to rob kids of the context by covering up the pictures or not allowing any actual books to be read until some relatively high level of reading achievement has been passed. This seems so counter to my experiences. Again, I’m faced with the problem of data countering my own experience.
No conclusions. And I’m hardly an expert. Up tomorrow: how my duo are learning to read.