A few days ago (Dec. 29) the New York Times ran a review of a book--Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It, by Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist. (Link to NYT review.) As the review indicates (I've not yet read the book), Seidenberg believes in ... phonics as the key.
I don't remember if I could read when I began kindergarten in the fall of 1948. I have an older brother who, of course, could (he was in second grade that same year), and I do remember all sorts of Little Golden Books lying around our house--and my maternal grandparents, never more than a few blocks away for much of my boyhood, had a set of the McGuffey Readers, which, as you may know, are nigh on impossible for kids to read!
I just checked Google to discover that Little Golden Books are still with us. The first dozen, published in 1942, were these:
- The Poky Little Puppy
- Three Little Kittens
- Bedtime Stories
- The Alphabet from A to Z
- Mother Goose
- Prayers for Children
- The Little Red Hen
- Nursery Songs
- The Golden Book of Fairy Tales
- Baby’s Book
- The Animals of Farmer Jones
- This Little Piggy
I don't remember all of those, but some of them--numbers 2, 5, 7, 8, and 12--leap up at me and cry, Remember me?!!? And I think I do. But did I read them--or page through, looking at pictures? (Can't remember.)
I also well remember phonics in the early grades. I can see those little charts/cards lined up above the blackboard (in our day the blackboards were black (thus the name), not wussy green, not wussy "chalkboards"). There was phonics, in my face, every day.
Anyway, the author of the book rails about the preparation of teachers of reading, about the faddish (and, in his view, nonsensical) approaches that have come and gone. But what I don't see in the review is any discussion about how we get kids to want to read--and (shock! shock!), about how reading is fun. (Perhaps he does deal with these issues; I'll find out when my copy arrives!)
Okay, here's a thought that's not all that original or window-shattering: Learning is fun. With some notable exceptions. It's not fun if you're not able to learn it. It's not fun if you don't want to learn it.
I was interested in learning to play the piano--until I learned I sucked. Same with chemistry. And there are encyclopedias of things I never really wanted to learn--like opera.
Of course, interests change, evolve. Had you told me in, oh, 1950 that one of the most enjoyable things I would ever do is bake bread, I would have laughed in your stupid face and (if you were of an appropriate size--i.e., smaller) punched your presumptuous mouth. And if you had told me I would one day quit watching and following football, basketball, and baseball games, some other blows would have landed on that same presumptuous (and, presumably, swollen) mouth.
I get weary these days of reading screeds against the young and their smart-phones and dancing thumbs thereon and computer games and lassitude and whatever. Why do we blame them when it is we who have created these devices? Bought them for our children? Used them as babysitters? (I'm reminded here of how pundits were blasting my generation for the Ruin of America because we liked comic books and television and rock-n-roll--none of which we invented!)
But in this digital/electronic New World, I believe, the question is not so much about how we teach reading but why. If our aim is merely to break the code for kids--and then to test them over and over and over again, attempting to measure their "reading skill" and "reading level," then we are doing little more than increasing the numbers of kids who can read (sort of) but who don't want to--kids who will move through school with a rapidly diminishing willingness even to read the literary junk food we routinely feed them these day.
To be continued--Next time: Some thoughts about how to encourage young readers, how to make them realize that reading is fun--not to mention profoundly useful in all sorts of senses.