Location: Virginia, USA
Position: Education activist
There are two recurring themes in reading, no matter where you look.
The first is that sight-words are still promoted heavily in the schools. Just 20 years ago the Education Establishment said the children should learn the entire English language as graphic designs. Apparently, even they now admit that this is crazy or, at the very least, wildly impractical. What they have done is to retrench to a new position called Balanced Literacy, which seems to be a remarkable retreat. In practice, however, children still begin the process of learning to read exactly the same way they did 20 years ago. Teachers show them a list of so-called Dolch words and say: “Memorize these.” The most commonly used list is 300 words. Most children cannot master these words by the second grade, if then.
I was on a site for teachers just last week; and an hysterical teacher was lamenting that her nine-year-old student could memorize the words on cards and then, later, not be able to read the same words in a story. This is common. Memorizing graphic designs is very difficult work. Keep in mind that Chinese characters appear in one immutable shape; but English words change constantly, from lower case to upper case to script, from sans serif to serif, from one bizarre typeface to another. But even if they stayed exactly the same, memorizing them would still be a grueling process. Whether you’re trying to memorize 300 buildings, 300 famous people, 300 famous paintings, or 300 sight-words, you are facing a lot of work. Most children do not have the retentive memory required to learn sight-words to the point of automaticity, which is the official goal.
My main thought now is of the parent whose boy can’t really read, but the parent has not confronted what is being done to the child at school. My impression is that most problem readers are victims of sight-word instruction. There are some very easy ways to test this, at least informally. Give a newspaper or magazine to your son and say, please read this for me at a normal speed, Ideally perhaps, you have a second copy so you can watch what he does without making him self-conscious. Really, all it will take is a few paragraphs. Here is what you want to find out. Does he leave words out that are plainly on the page? Does he add words that are plainly not on the page? Does he make startling substitutions? Does he reverse words, that is, read them backwards? A sight-word reader will typically make some or all of these mistakes. And then you know. He needs to start over with phonics.
If this whole ic is confusing and annoying to you, let me suggest an article titled “Nine Reading Experts Explain The Sad State Of Reading.” These people (all phonics experts) approach the subject from so many angles, you get quite an education very quickly. If you want more, please see “42: Reading Resources.”
What about the second theme? Even if boys learn to read properly, some schools seem determined to make sure they don’t enjoy it. Literary pretentiousness stalks the countryside like some new breed of virus. Personally I’m shocked to see that many schools require eighth-graders to read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It’s too serious, it’s too soon, and how many children actually want to read that book? Especially, how many boys? I’ll just state my opinion emphatically, for what it’s worth. Reading is the goal, and what they read makes little difference. Newspapers, magazines, joke books, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, the Guinness Book of Records, sports books, comic books, puzzle books, nature books, sci-fi, ads in the newspaper, menus at McDonald’s. Words, words, and more words, that’s what matters. This idea that somehow young boys are supposed to read sensitive serious literature is for me almost a sick joke.