Teaching Children To Read – The First Steps

Nov 1, 2017 by

There are two ways to teach children to read.
THE WRONG WAYWhole Word advocates say children should memorize the shapes of words just as the Chinese memorize their ideograms. English has FAR too many words for this approach to even be considered. Furthermore, every English letter and word appears in many variations. Even if a child memorizes “bright,” it’s not likely that the child would recognize “BRIGHT” or even “Bright.
In practice, Whole Word ends up being a Ponzi scheme. Initially, there appears to be success. By memorizing several dozen sight-words, a child can seem to be reading little books. The bitter reality, however, is that things never get faster or easier. There’s no breakthrough. Even if an industrious child could master 1000 words, that child would still be functionally illiterate. The vast majority of the English language remains terra incognita. Just as troublesome, the words the child supposedly knows are rarely known with genuine automaticity. Sight-word readers typically stumble, hesitate, and sweat as they try to remember the meanings. (For more on why sight-words are a dead-end, see “42: Reading Resources.”)


THE RIGHT WAYConversely, phonics appears most difficult at the beginning. There seem to be many little details and rules to deal with. (Ironically, the slower kids seem to be the ones that most need these details; more about this in a moment.) But parents are perhaps more confused than the children. How best to proceed?


Here’s a reassuring thought: every highly regarded phonics program makes the same claim, a short lesson each day for four months will teach a child to read. It’s much like learning to play the piano. You take little baby steps, and you practice, and the weeks and months go by and suddenly you’re doing it. So relax. Any good program with patience, poetry, and the passage of time equals success.


The astonishing thing for me when I look at videos on YouTube and the internet generally, there is a vast amount of material still pushing sight-words  and in a very smug way. All this despite the fact that we have 50,000,000 functional illiterates, obvious proof that the “experts” pushing sight-words don’t know what they’re doing.
To make people think twice about sight-words, I created an article and video with essentially the same title “Preemptive Reading — Teach Your Child Early.” They serve the same purpose, a quick intro to reading. Both the article and video are addressed to parents with young children not yet in school.
The basic idea is to do everything possible to familiarize a child with language and sounds. If the child later attends a school with phonics instruction, it will be very easy. If the child attends a school using sight-words, the child has been inoculated to a large degree. Once the child understands that letters on the page stand for sounds, that child is safe from the worst ravages of sight-words.


Article and video discuss the same seven steps:
(Also, please note that if a teenager or adult has been rendered unable to read by sight-words, the road to recovery is THESE SAME SEVEN STEPS. Start over, do it right, and never guess again.)


I want to revisit a point I find totally fascinating: the slower kids seem to be the ones who most need the formal, systematic structure of a phonics program. Remember that the main initial argument for sight-words was that learning phonics was boring and hard work, especially for the slower kids. So what was the preposterous answer? Make them memorize the English language one word at a time! Talk about boring, hard work that will never end.


 Here is a quote from a book written in 1955 by a school teacher named Joan Dunn  She is speaking about all subjects, but her insight falls with particular force on reading:


“Further, the children suffer academically because learning is neglected, and the time that should have been devoted to school work in reading, writing, thinking, and speaking is given over to chatter. Nobody knows this better than the children. They want to be taught step by step, so that they can see their progress. The duller they are, the more important and immediate is this need.


I think about this quote a great deal. The easiest way to understand the depth of this insight is to think back to a subject in high school or college that was really difficult for you. For me that subject is calculus. I never knew what was going on. I now understand that for slower kids ALL of their education is like that. And if you want to save them and keep them in the educational process, you have to go slowly and patiently. Make sure they see progress!


Many of the smarter or more verbal children can learn to read on their own, almost spontaneously. When a child like this goes to a sight-word school, they seem to be learning with sight-words; many years later they may say that that is what happened. In fact, they seem to pass through the sight-words, grasp phonics, and learn to read despite the sight-words. There is a dreadful consequence of this, as the years go by. The smarter, more successful people (the ones making the decisions for schools, etc.) often look back and say, “I learned to read with sight-words; they must be okay,” thus the problem is perpetuated.
Meanwhile, the less facile, less verbal kids do not learn to read. They cannot evolve past sight-words; and they are not able to explain to anyone what has happened to them. They spend their lives in an unnecessary twilight. So who will speak for them? I am trying to. We should all try to.
Bruce Deitrick Price deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org. His new book is Saving K-12 – What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?
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