Learning to Readby Wayne Jennings
How does a child learn to read? In spite of millions of dollars for reading research and the dedication and hard work of primary teachers, a fair number of children at every grade level are poor readers and , worse still, don"t like to read. I"ve wondered about this as various reading programs have come and gone through the years.
The federal government refers to "research-based" and "scientifically validated" approaches. Most recently, they recommended strong phonics programs as having met the criteria of research-based. Others strenuously disagree. This decades-old debate rages on.
I remember visiting PS 192 in East Harlem, New York City a number of years ago. This elementary school, in a high need area of the city, had the lowest reading scores of the 900 New York City schools. I was there because I had asked about outstanding reading programs. Rita Champion, the reading consultant for the school, said, "Wrong question" to my "How do you teach reading?"
She said they didn"t teach reading as an isolated and separate subject. Rather, the children lived reading and writing throughout the day. She said kids love words, especially big words. Kids like their sounds. She described their whole language program showed that reading percentile scores rocketed from 15 to 55 in a year. I was astonished as first grade children proudly showed and recited their loose-leaf bound cards of 50-100 words each had chosen %14words like hippopotamus and rhinoceros %14 these examples because they had visited the zoo and drew pictures and "wrote" stories on return.
As a former principal, I puzzled about the weak results from remedial reading classes and pullout programs. I didn"t doubt the commitment of the teachers. I could see that they worked intensively with children and youth. It seemed that their genuine effort should have produced better results. I"ve pondered the debates over phonics versus other approaches. And I"ve wondered about children who entered school already reading without formal instruction.
I better understand today some answers to these questions as I came to comprehend brain-compatible learning. That extraordinary, yet simple, theory (by Leslie Hart in Human Brain and Human Learning, 1998) explains how learning occurs and makes understandable the enormous amount of children"s learning before regular schooling begins. For instance, a child growing up in a bilingual or trilingual home speaks those languages fluently by age four. That occurs without teachers, curricula, worksheets, homework, standardized tests, or pain.
It appears that the brain is an enormously powerful pattern detecting device if given lots of input and opportunities to apply that input. I wondered how children can read subtle facial looks and tell instantly if a person is perplexed, sad, happy or disapproving. Clearly, they are "reading" the whole face at a glance, not analyzing bit by bit the position of the mouth, eyes and forehead. If they can do that, why can"t they look at letters at a glance and recognize words? Obviously, adults do.
Now comes a brief, readable book by Frank Smith that makes that very point: Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices: Flaws and Fallacies in "Scientific" Reading Instruction (2003). Smith has been writing about reading and learning for over 30 years. He describes reading as a natural act and the current emphasis on phonics decoding as unnatural. I highly recommend the book.
Consider the following passage: "Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn"t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in awrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig, huh?"
I remember Jim Doran writing "fa" and asking me what does that say? I pronounced "fa." He then added a "t" and I pronounced "fat." He then added an "h" and I pronounced "fath." He then asked me how I thought it would finish and I answered "father." Instead he added "ead" and to my surprise it turned out to be "fathead."
His point was that we do not move systematically from left to right across a word letter by letter carefully sounding it out but rather see the word as a whole unless we are stumped. In that case, word attack skills are useful when we are already accomplished readers.
What has baffled me, is how did kids learn to read before entering school? How come so many students learn to read with phonics and others learn without it? Why don"t some kids learn to read until third or fifth grade despite the efforts of their teachers? I side with Frank Smith who says that reading is a natural act and that human variability means some children learn to read without any instruction, many learn with instruction, some have great difficulty meeting the expected time line, and some never really learn. Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York and vice president of the United States was one of the latter. Clearly, he was intelligent and possessed leadership skills. Still, reading eluded him. One can imagine the effort his well-heeled parents made to overcome that deficit during his school years.
Why the whole language approach works so well made sense once I understood the general principles of brain-based learning. I believe all children can be successful at academic skills if we apply this knowledge. It certainly explains why whole language approaches work and why it works better for some teachers than others. From brain based learning theory, the keys to learning %14all types of learning %14are 1) vast amounts of input, 2) lots of opportunities to practice and apply learnings, 3) a safe and secure environment, and 4) coaching or feedback to help learners understand their progress.
Each of these can be done in many ways. It means a great variety of materials, teaching methods, projects, trips, speakers, new experiences, and events. Whole language instruction, correctly managed, is one of the best brain based approaches to learning. That"s why it is successful with learners!
All Contents Copyright © 2004 Wayne Jennings.