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Article of Interest - Education

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Reading Today is Best Taught by Old Ways

Educators' efforts to ease conflict hurt neediest kids.
by Norman Lockman, Delaware Online News Journal, August 27, 2003
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Schools are cranking up again all over America under new federal mandates for measuring the quality of education and the argument is still raging over whether it is better to try to drill reading into kids or to ease them into it with methods that may leave some children behind but leaves no child resentful.

It's a philosophical tempest that has more to do with adult conceits than with than with rock bottom fundamentals. Basically progressive educators believe in teaching "ways to knowledge" rather than knowledge itself. If their philosophy was reduced to a cliché it would be, "Don't hand a hungry man a fish, teach him how to fish."

I side with the traditionalists who argue that it is wiser to feed the hungry man, by hand if necessary, that to send him up the river with hook, line and sinker in the hopes of catching dinner.

Progressive educators lean toward the theory that it is better to encourage children to want to read by engaging them in exercises that draws on their personal experiences. Rather than teaching phonetics, vocabulary, sentence structure and reading comprehension through drills, children are urged to create their own personal stories as an introduction to written language. It is child-centered rather than teacher-centered learning. No arm-twisting, no complaints.

This apparently works fine when children arrive at school with some home-developed basic language skills. What happens, though, if the child arrives speaking non-traditional English with little or no exposure to the written word? Not much. This is the child who needs a direct injection of basic knowledge, not a nurturing process designed to make learning less painful - and less subjectively quantifiable.

The problem, of course, is that the progressive reading teaching methods, while they may make kids "smarter" by empowering them to learn to teach themselves to read and enjoy it more (with the teacher acting as "coach,") it leaves them weak on fundamentals. They get good at expressing themselves imperfectly through written language before they get good at comprehending perfectly written language of others. It does not teach reading well.

Teach poor, educationally deprived kids by this method, put them up against mandatory reading standards in competition with kids who were already literate by the time they get to school, and you have the roots of the "achievement gap" that then infects all other educational endeavors.

I've always thought reading meant being able to pick up a piece of unfamiliar written material and decipher its contents in order to understand the thoughts (or instructions) of someone other than myself. It's the key to learning everything else.

So what is the point of teaching a child to understand his own scribblings as a means of learning to read? The educational progressives say it avoids "drill and kill," by which they mean avoiding the drudgery of learning the basics of written language by boring repetition.

I think it comes down to hedging bets by teachers who do not want to be held responsible for the absolutes of achieving full literacy among children with no personal or parental understanding of its value and no motivation to acquire it. It's a pedagogical dodge.

Learning to read is not easy. I've always been baffled by those who want to make it a breeze. I can still remember struggling with reading material that was frustrating to comprehend and resenting the teachers who insisted that I do so. But I also remember feeling triumphant when it began to make sense. It was like summiting a mountain.

I'll trade complaining literate kids for uncomplaining semi-literate kids any day. So will most parents. So should all teachers.  

   

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