Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Surprises in Reading

[Educators] have devised thousands of ingenious exercises to train children in this insane method of reading. They make them complete such sentences as "There are fish in the l_____", "The package was tied up with str____", or "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo j_____". The child is praised if he obligingly reads, "There are fish in the lake", "The package was tied up with string", and "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo jump."

Unfortunately — or fortunately — life is not as simple and dull as all that. Real-life sentences are apt to read "There are fish in the lagoon", "The package was tied up with straps", and "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo just as tall as you are."

A child taught by look-and-say will go through life and miss all the interesting and unexpected stuff in print. He's been trained to assume that what comes next is always the expected word and therefore never discovers the fact that, as often as not, printed matter takes surprising turns. — Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools

The previous principal of our Upper Tax Bracket elementary school once told an assembly of parents that she always reads the ending of a book first, "so I know where it's going." This was my first clue that we would not see eye to eye. Why would anyone do such a crazy thing? Authors go to a great deal of trouble to make their stories unfold at a particular pace and in a particular sequence. Why would you wreck that? If the principal goes to see a movie, does she first catch the end of the previous showing?

I used to be utterly baffled that teachers are always telling kids to try to predict what happens next in the story, or to guess the story after looking at the jacket cover, but now that I've been researching the pedagogy of reading, I get it. Whole-language types actually believe that reading "comprehension" PRECEDES the reading of the words on the page! As Alfie Kohn says, it’s easier to decode a word when you already know what it means. This is the exact opposite of the way anyone who actually cares about reading would approach it, but why should that slow them down?

I even resent the very widespread practice of describing the opening of a book on the jacket blurb. This is especially bad news with mystery stories. "When the body of Mr. Allington is discovered in the garden shed, impaled on his own swordfish ..." Yeah, thanks for that. Now the first 20 pages of the book, which were a subtle lead-in to the discovery of Mr. Allington's body in the garden shed, have been ruined for me.


  1. I'm speechless. Reading the end of a book first?? I'm with you -- I try not to read even those front-cover blurbs. I've even joked that they they should put a random number of blank pages at the end of every novel, so you wouldn't know in advance when the ending was coming . . .

    The question remains whether this is Whole Language Nonsense, or just Nonsense. In other words, I wonder if you could find equally (but differently) discouraging videos of teachers working in a phonics-based program. There just seems to be a need to take reasonable basic principles (kids should know the sounds letters usually make; reading is more than just decoding sounds; kids should read for meaning, too) and build crazy instructional "strategies" on top of them.

    Again, I'm reluctant to get into defending any of this stuff, and am generally inclined to second your poxes. But as for the Alfie Kohn quote, on some level it is true, isn't it? In other words, a kid with a bigger vocabulary is going to have an easier time learning to read, because the words themselves will already be familiar to him or her. The vocabulary might not come from reading, it might come from being read to or just from being exposed to conversation. If that's all he means, it doesn't sound so controversial. It doesn't necessarily mean that he wants to kids to know the meaning of a given passage before reading it; just that it helps if they're already familiar with the vocabulary in the passage.

    What it implies for instruction is another matter. Kids won't always know the words in advance. If they don't, are they better off sounding it out, or guessing from the context? Their guesses might be way off. On the other hand, sounding it out won't necessarily help them understand what the word means. It just seems like reading has to involve some interaction between puzzling out the sounds (from the letters) and figuring out the meaning (from pre-existing understandings or from context, if it's possible at all without a dictionary). So I'm hesitant to write off Whole Language, if it's basically trying to incorporate that latter element into understanding how kids learn to read. But I'm perfectly ready to believe that it can be botched in practice.

    Sorry, that was a long comment to write after saying that I'm speechless!

  2. Chris says:

    It doesn't necessarily mean that he wants to kids to know the meaning of a given passage before reading it;

    Au contraire, I think that's exactly what Kohn means.

    Chris, while you're speechless, watch the video I just posted about "My Cat". You'll see whole-language teaching in action.

    If you're lucky enough to have very verbal kids who figure out phonics for themselves, you never have to confront this nonsense.