Must I Honeymoon With Poor Readers?

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My high school students would instantly understand the underlying meaning, and the motivational purpose of the above question. They arrive in my room so damaged by the whole-language gurus with their illogical methods for teaching reading, that the only successful strategy these students have for handling new words is….to ask me!

Typically they read in this fashion: “I saw the cat — (I haven’t had that word yet) — [stalk] — oh,….stalk the rat — (I haven’t had that word yet) — [during] — yeah,…during the — (I haven’t had that word yet) — [twilight] — twilight hours.”

In response to this crippling reading strategy, I began referring to the sight word/whole language foolishness (“Foolishness?”… Actually I consider it a criminal act against the children and the culture of this nation) as the “I Haven’t Had That Word Yet” method. I encourage my students to either: work hard and become skilled at phonetically decoding the Code in which English is written (the only way to read at any level above a middle-third/early-fourth grade), or…OR… plan their honeymoon around my schedule so that I can accompany them and help them read the “…(I haven’t had that word yet)…[menu]…menu!”

Since I believe the adage that “The first step towards solving a problem is to find some humor in it,” I tease and the students soon respond to my “joke,” my challenge, with laughter and a strengthened determination to learn the phonograms; to decode with automaticity in the shortest timeframe possible. They swear that they will never let me accompany them on their honeymoon. [Whew! I haven’t had to attend even one thus far.]

Poor readers feel their limitations and live compromised lives. They are embarrassed at having to ask for words that they “haven’t had yet,” but still too many educators fall for the fallacy that if only students experience good literature and have fun in reading class, they will, by osmosis, just naturally learn to read. Too many educators believe that the brain is wired for learning to read as it is naturally wired for learning language. It is not.

Louisa Cook Moats, in Speech to Print, explains:

Alphabets, systems that use symbols for individual speech sounds, were invented little more than 3,000 years ago. It is understandable, then, that learning to read is not as natural or biologically “wired in” as are speaking and listening and that reading must be taught directly to most children over several years through formal education. Our brains are not as fully evolved for the processing of written language as they are for the processing of spoken language, and, therefore, learning to read and write are much more challenging for most of us than learning to speak. (pg 3)

Another problem is that many instructors and professors involved with teacher training accept money from parents and taxpayers (who have the right to expect that teacher-training establishments actually train teachers to teach), then purposely fail to accomplish what they have been paid to do. Such instructors feel no responsibility to drop their pet prejudices and foolish schemes; to research reading with an open mind; to send young teachers out into the schools skilled in teaching children how to read — logically, systematically, explicitly.

Instead, teachers leave college with no idea about what needs to occur in order to produce a good reader, or how to teach those skills, strategies and processes. I know, for I left college having no idea, and taught for several years lacking the knowledge and skills that I needed. Had I not done my own research, paid for my own training with Spalding, learned from every child with whom I came into contact, I would still be a caring, hardworking, highly motivated, but very ineffective reading teacher.

My mother feels the same about her teacher-training program but now skillfully teaches reading …NOW… after retiring from teaching and being trained by me at my learning clinic. My wonderful neighbor now skillfully teaches reading …NOW… long after her retirement from public schools and only after hours spent observing me teach in my classroom; hours spent with me at her kitchen table, serving as a reading coach as she learned to teach a neighborhood boy to read.

As each of us finally understood what we should have been doing during the many years that we had been in classrooms, we each grieved deeply for all the children who lost out over the course of our careers. Eventually we had to accept that we must stop mourning for opportunities missed in the past, and look to the future. We became committed to using the years left to us for teaching as many individuals as possible to read, and for teaching as many individuals as possible how to teach others to read.

All three of us are still teaching with enthusiasm. I notice that others, who finally learn — through self-study or from enlightened friends — how to really teach reading, also feel driven to make up for lost time.

It is completely unfortunate that the control of so many teacher-training programs lies in the hands of those with gimmicks and snake oil. Teaching reading is not so very difficult once one understands what needs to be done. My best friend (who is not a teacher) spent a few hours with me to learn the whys and wherefores, then read a couple books that I suggested. Following the fastest ‘teacher training’ program on record, she proceeded to skillfully teach her two homeschooled children to not only read, but to read far above grade level, and to love reading in the process.

Consider that in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear, the teachers were often individuals who had just recently completed school themselves, then passed a written examination given by the county. See Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, Little Town On the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years for an idea of the training, or lack of, that those successful teachers received.

I have been in classrooms that contain several reading series, from a variety of publishers, unused, wasting shelf space that fine literature could be filling were the children taught to be proficient, eager readers. Each series, in succession, failed in its promise to teach children to read.

However, instead of local and state boards of education withholding action until they can discover when and how American schooling went astray, they buy the newest snake oil from the most aggressive sales rep.

School shelves are burdened with the weight of new trends that come and go as quickly as decision makers can spend taxpayer monies.

School children are burdened with defects brought about by dangerous methods devised by fools who have forgotten, or have chosen to ignore, the fact that once …ONCE… Americans, as a whole, were not only literate, but were enthusiastic, skilled readers capable of reading, pondering, and arguing the points in newspaper articles such as The Federalist Papers.

It is completely unfortunate that the federal government has violated the U.S. Constitution by stealing local control from states and communities in order to establish the ineffective, illegal, and immoral public schooling system in which children are caught in a web of destruction as parents too often look on in anger but feel helpless, unable to act.

Let us seriously work towards closing the State educational system. Let us then work to replace it with small, autonomous, local schools having no obligation, and no right, to: teach State curriculum; answer to State demands; mold and warp young minds by whim or State order; destroy a culture by Federal mandate.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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