TO KILL A READING BIRD
“…a miracle breakthrough in overcoming reading problems…” trumpeted the T.V. current affairs host recently. Another reading breakthrough?! These have a predictable motion based on the phonics/flashcard (to simplify the ussie) pendulum swing.
When the newest word deconstruction method pals, an ‘innovative’ whole-word-recognition breakthrough is discovered. After a couple of years of diminishing success, the pendulum swings back again.
In a gush of educational sensationalism, the creator of the latest reading apotheosis asserted the 30% of Australian primary age children have serious reading difficulties. When queried how he knew this, the reading master, after a flustered stall, said that everyone knows that 5 or 6 children in any given class of 30 have reading problems. Thank St. Dominique, Patron Saint of Learning, that he doesn’t teach remedial maths!
A misplaced emphasis in addressing the reading problems of children is to introduce them to this highly conceptual process at a younger and younger age. Academics have been hard pressed to justify that teaching infants, of say 4 or 5, to read enhances their chances of university entrance. Indeed the opposite is often the case, where a burn-out factor has been observed, especially among children subjected to ‘accelerated learning’ programs. By the time they are in their teens, many of them don’t want to know about reading – or even, regrettable, about learning at all!
The optimum time for children – generally – to cross the threshold of reading fluency, albeit still halting, is the 8th year – preferably towards the end of the year. Many Year 2 teachers program in an intensely focused reading or ‘Library’ unit. The promise to the children is that after almost two years of language foundation-building, the class will truly be readers at the conclusion of this lesson – a real confidence booster based on tangible goal-setting. It is ideally taught in a 3-week sequential program of about 30 hours.
Imaginative teachers transform the classroom into a world of books with reading material of all kinds, from quality comics, newspapers, magazine, to junior novels. These line the walls and spill off trestles onto the cushioned reading mats below. The 8-year-olds will revel in the smell of binding and parchment; will be saturated to the point of obsession with the spirit of literacy – and libracy.
Libracy? This is not merely the ability to rad, but to be skilled in library use, to develop a heightened discrimination about what to read – to distill the treasure from the trash. To some teachers libracy is a more worthy learning goal even than literacy.
Classroom-based methods like the above help remove the need for individualized (as most of these one-to-one ‘breakthroughs’ are) pendulum-type remedial programs. The term remedial, akin to ‘medical’ as it is, sends a negative message home to the child – whether consciously or otherwise – that s/he is in some way sick.
The child removed from the class for ‘reading lesson’ carries dead weight in the self-esteem saddle bags before s/he even starts. Isolating a child from the comfort of the class is always dubious. This poor practice is made more irrelevant by the fact that the greatest helping resource is still in the classroom…no, not the toiling teacher, the other children.
Ironically children are the best teachers of children. They communicate on the same cryptic level; there is no erosion of self-worth when one child helps another (a strong likelihood exists of role reversal in another subject, say craft or sport); it costs nothing; it enhances the spirit of sharing; and most importantly, the method is perennially effective.
No matter the method employed, success in reading will be compromised unless children read, and read often. The sinister shift to electronic education – make that ‘instruction’ – is the enemy of a love of books. A return by teachers to a human-centered – unplugged -learning environment will give wings to the literacy-libracy bird once more.
Winston Churchill, a great wordsmith, mocked the rule of pedants that prepositions should never be used at the end of a sentence as – “…something up with which they will not put.”
The word ‘sanction’ is often a problem, seeming to have not just two meanings, but opposing ones. I can sanction an action by giving it validity, or I can impose a sanction which invalidates it! These internal contradictions are known as antagonyms, roughly meaning ‘against the name’. They are also known as contranyms, auto-antonyms, or the best, for the children at least, Janus (two-faced) words. Another Janus word is cleave, to adhere tightly to, or, to cut apart.