Learning to Read

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.

11 thoughts on “Learning to Read

  1. There was a rather long discussion of teaching children to read on the Secular Homeschooler board. We all discovered that some of learned using phonics, some whole word and some a combination of both. I thinking teaching a child to read is pretty much an individual thing. Some will learn better with whole words, some with phonics. Personally though I’m going to try a combination of both with my daughter and see how that works out. Also I do think the covering up the pictures and refusing to use actual books just sounds terrible.

  2. I’m also not sure about the “No writing system, living or dead, was ever based on the whole word” part. I mean, yes, most Chinese characters have a phonetic element, but since this was based on Classical Chinese pronunciation I don’t think that one can argue that today’s Chinese speakers can readily access that phonetic information, at least not in a way that will be consistent for all words. She keeps using Japanese in her examples but conspicuously leaves out any mention of Chinese – or Mayan hieroglyphs, for that matter, but I think we can forgive that :-).

    Anyway, I’ve often thought that English is *somewhat* like Chinese in this way, since our spelling system also preserves a lot of remnants of historical pronunciation. My sense is that the mapping between pronunciation and orthography is much less robust in Chinese, which jibes pretty well with the whole word method being used in China. But I think the fact that English spelling is not as phonetic as many other languages’ orthographies are, and yet more phonetic than a language like Chinese, is what gives rises to the whole phonics vs. whole word debate when it comes to learning to read.

    1. I also struggled to reconcile that quote with my knowledge of Chinese – not to mention all the languages that borrowed from Chinese, like Japanese and Korean, where to be truly literature you also need to memorize symbols that are pretty much completely unrelated to their pronunciation. I mean, if you see 獁 and you don’t know what it means, you might still guess that it’s “ma” (which it is) if you know 馬. But (in my limited understanding) it’s really a guessing game. With English, if you know the rules really well, you can pronounce words you’ve never seen with a pretty high degree of accuracy. That’s not guessing.

      One of the arguments of the author is that the whole sight word methodology of teaching is causing higher rates of dyslexia. Children learning to write Spanish or German or Italian have an almost zero rate of dyslexia and she posits that that is why. However, what reading issues does learning written Chinese through the whole word style create? Or how might it wire the brain to think differently? At least in the summary, she never approaches that question and I’m guessing she doesn’t have an answer.

  3. All three of my kids learned to read in vastly different ways, but for the kid who had the most trouble, Explode the Code was what made the difference – a program that works with phonemes. He needed the rules broken down into little useable bites (ooh, bad joke).

    Curiously, considering how filled with words our house is, one of my kids is not a big reader, one of my kids reads constantly, and the third is in between. I don’t think I varied my approach with any of them. It often mystifies me how different their approaches to words are.

    My theory on why they tell parents to cover up the pictures is informed mostly by my own experience with my one kid who really struggled: he’d heard the stories so much from us and from his siblings that he had them memorized based on the pictures. Only when the pictures were covered up did he actually LOOK at the words (he has a phenomenal memory, lol), but I have to say I never was a fan of covering up pictures. It seems counter-intuitive with a picture book.

    1. I just ordered Explode the Code for next year… I’m hoping it will be good, especially for Mushroom. I wrote more about this for a post tomorrow, actually. Our house is full of words (we sometimes joke that we bought the house for books because they’re clearly taking over, though we’ve gotten better about our rate of acquisition) and I hope it makes a difference in raising readers. But we’ll see.

  4. After years of watching the actual children learn to read in so many ways – I have no opinions any more. I think people base their opinion on “what works for them”. My boys were both different. One son needs a systematic phonics approach, the other son just needs to know what the word is and he’s got it for life. 🙂

  5. I use a combination. First we do phonics, but we don’t beat it to death. We read books with pictures starting after just a few letters are learned. Once one of my children can sound out short vowel sounds and the consonants, we read tons of readers that practice those words. We then move on to long vowel sounds and study the phonics, moving to books with short and long vowel sounds. Etc.

    After we learn to sound out a word, we build fluency by reading tons of books. Allowing my children to see the words over and over so they own them. I do not insist that they sound out every word. We do play a game that requires them sound out some of the words, as some of them are nonsense words. http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Phonics/concentrationgam.html

    The combination with phonics first, has worked very well with all five of my chilren !

  6. This post sent me Googling to doublecheck “phonemes” vs. “phonics” and I soon was swimming in things I’ve forgotten from college Linguistics (fun, thanks!). One phonem-ical idea I’ve already been playing around with is the minimal pair. I’ve been quizzing Pie on animal sounds and seeing what he makes of the rhyming ones: Moo, Hoo-Hoo, Choo-Choo. I don’t think he quite understands the pattern yet but I think he’ll get it before 1rst grade.

    Maybe it’s because we’re at the learning-to-talk rather than learning-to-read stage, but I feel like there’s an auditory or even almost musical component to language learning that doesn’t get its full due.

  7. I think that musical quality is reflected in some of the good early readers. The fact that it’s poetic is part of what makes Seuss so enduring, right? And not just the rhymes, but the meter too. For BalletBoy, learning to read was like math. This sound plus this sound equals this word.

  8. Reading the blog and the comments makes me want to shout out, “Reading Magic, by Mem Fox!”

    I spent years teaching emergent readers (ages 4-10) through all methods possible, and context was always the most effective strategy. After all, the reason for reading is understanding, isn’t it?

    As a parent, I have watched my daughter (now 6 1/2) teach herself to read. She is a sensitive story teller and very effective at noticing patterns of all kinds, not just print. She is inadvertently teaching her little brother all she knows about language. (What does that sign say? What else has “oo” in it–poop! The first and last letter in my friend’s name are _ and _.) I dare not interrupt any formal learning activities until she asks for more than what she can give herself.

    As a parent, I am a practitioner of “trust the child”. During our journey I also trust myself for the foundations that I lay for my children’s journeys, and that I will be able to respond to their needs as needed.

    I believe that no parent (teacher) should expect that a method will advance a very natural process. Remember that some of the “smartest” people in history didn’t learn to read until age 9 or 10. Just like waiting for the baby to walk, sometimes we have to wait while he/she works on other things that may be more “important”.

    Of course, it is always helpful to have past experiences to compare with our current experiences. This is why blogs like this, and other resources, allow us to thoughtfully compare our stories and inform our parenting choices. Thank you for providing a forum.

  9. Sorry, in my comment submitted moments ago, please insert the word “with” in the sentence “I dare not interrupt WITH any formal learning activities until she asks for more than what she can give herself.” (yikes, how could I leave that out!)

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