The Reading Railroad
Some how, some way, I’ve managed to teach 5 children to read.
I don’t even remember a time when I didn’t know how to read. One day when I was 3 years old, I shocked my parents by reeling off the slogan on a shopping bag I had never seen before. When they started testing me they found out I could read most everything. Apparently I had picked it up somehow along the way.
2 of my children, my youngest two, did exactly that. They could just read. I have no explanation for it, I take no credit. It was something they just picked up naturally. They played phonics games on the tablet occasionally, I read to them, and then it seemed like one day they just KNEW. My youngest son went from barely speaking – at age 3 he used only a few words and did not speak in sentences at all – to being able to read fluently in a year’s time, all on his own. It was truly magical. My oldest son, an avid reader, would have done the same thing if only I’d have left him alone long enough to let him do it. New moms.
With apologies to Mr. Tolstoy, I’ve come to believe that natural readers are all alike, but poor readers are each of them different in their own way. This seems to be the case with my children, anyway. Three of them were naturals like I was, two weren’t. My second son seemed to understand the general idea of reading just fine, but it took him a while to attain mastery. As he’s grown up, I’ve found he has the weakest memory of all my kids – while the others are quick studies, it takes him a little longer to file facts away for future use. It probably just took him some extra practice to really cement it in his brain. He also cannot hear and understand lyrics in songs. He says they sound like gibberish to him, and I’ve long wondered if there is a connection between the two, between him having a hard time straightening out the sounds that letters make in his mind, and having a hard time comprehending lyrics in music.
Then, there’s my 3rd son. His name is Tate, and he’s a dynamo. He crawled, stood up, and walked all in the same week, and has never stopped since. He was 7 months old when this happened. I know, sounds crazy, but he did. (Interestingly, my other slow reader also stood and walked freakishly early). Despite his rush to achieve every physical milestone on the doctor’s chart, for quite some time I did not think Tate would be able to learn to read, and I feared that I would not be able to teach him. He reversed his letters and numbers very badly. All kids do this, but with Tate, it went beyond normal reversal. It was constant, consistent. He read entire words backwards. Yet it didn’t seem to be dyslexia. He had none of the other markers. He understood rhyming patterns and recognized letters and the sounds they made with no trouble. He could tell the difference between d and b. He just couldn’t seem to put sounds together into words. While he knew the rules of phonics perfectly, he seemed unable to apply them. He could see the same word again and again and again and never remember what it was. It was as if he encountered every word anew each time he read it. Reading was an exercise in slow torture for both of us.
The thing that was so puzzling about it all was that he didn’t seem to be a dumb kid. He’s very bright and has an excellent memory. He could memorize songs and poems with incredible ease. He learned to tell time and to read Roman numerals – skills that my natural readers had struggled to master – in a matter of minutes. But reading was a no-go. No matter how hard I tried, how many methods and techniques and tricks of the trade that I used, it just did not seem to be something that he was made to do. We tried and failed and tried again and failed again. After each failure I’d back off and do more research and try some different approach, and this cycle went on for 2 years. He remained perfectly able to sound out all the individual letters, he just couldn’t put them together without a huge struggle. He couldn’t recognize words he’d seen a thousand times.
Eventually I discovered that he learned best by learning rules. He couldn’t recognize the shapes of words, that seemed to be beyond his capability, but he did understand the rules of phonics. So I focused on the rules, reminding him about them over and over again, until he internalized them to such an extent that he was doing it automatically without thinking about it any more. Over the course of time, after hours of practice (so many hours) he began to get smoother and faster and gradually he stopped stumbling over words he’d seen a million times before. He did still make mistakes. For example, he would mix up the words “and” and “said” for nearly a year after he began reading. But as trouble spots like this arose, I would devise a new rule to govern them. For “and” and “said” I told him to look for quotation marks and if there weren’t any, the word was probably “and”. He caught on. I then went on to use the same method to teach him addition and subtraction as well, making a set of rules that he could understand, making additional rules as trouble spots popped up, and then using the rules and many hours (so very many hours) of practice until he finally mastered the facts.
I didn’t come across this method in any of my research. The Great Reading Debate rages on, Look-Say vs. Phonics vs. Whole Language vs. whatever trendy new method is the flavor of the moment, but none of them really helped me in the end. It took hours of observation, hours of one-on-one interaction, hours of trial and error. Researchers hunt for that Holy Grail, the one method that will teach all children to learn to read…but if poor readers are each of them different in their own way, maybe that one method doesn’t even exist.
I don’t think Tate would have learned to read well with any one of these “official” approaches alone. He seemed like the kind of kid who should learn well with phonics, but phonics readers didn’t have enough repetition. He couldn’t recognize words even after seeing them dozens of times. He needed more practice time per individual word than phonics readers provided. They were too focused on forcing kids to sound new words out constantly – practicing the rules, not the words. Tate knew the rules, he needed to practice reading the words.
It was only when I combined phonics with the repetition of the Look-Say method’s sight word readers (the old-fashioned Dick and Jane type) that he finally began to catch on. But he still hated to read. At that point I used the Whole Language approach’s emphasis on child-centered reading to make the experience more fun and less torture, ditching the readers and allowing him to select most of his reading material based on interest. The I Can Read books like Frog and Toad were great favorites. Once he caught on, Tate continued to progress at his own pace. This past school year he went from working at a first grade level to working at his true grade level, 3rd. He even reads for enjoyment sometimes, something I thought would never happen.
Every year or two, there’s a fanfare in the media about some revolutionary new teaching method that is finally going to be best for ALL kids. But when did they ever prove that any one method of teaching anything would be best for all kids? Not only do children all have their own unique brains, not only do schools throw together children 9-12 months apart in age and claim they’re all in the same “grade”, but they all have different life experience coming into school. Even if science had definitively proven that everyone’s brain acquires reading in roughly the same way (it hasn’t), surely a child who’s never been exposed to much written language would have different needs than a child who grew up in a print-rich home. A child who comes from a family that values learning highly would have different needs than a child who doesn’t. A child who grows up speaking Ukrainian would have different needs than a child who grows up speaking Spanish or Korean. All children cannot possibly have the same needs.
My mother taught second grade – kids about my son’s age, learning to read and write and do basic addition and subtraction – for the better part of 40 years. Second grade is arguably the most important year of school because the groundwork is laid for future achievement in both reading and mathematics, and of course achievement in other subjects depends upon reading and math abilities. She was as expert a 2nd grade teacher as ever there was, but instead of trusting her judgement and giving her a relatively free hand to do what she was good at, the school district continually was adopting revolutionary new programs that she would then have to implement in her classes. The previous method(s) would have to be scrapped entirely; the two could not exist side by side. Instead of relying on her considerable experience honed by teaching 2nd graders for decades, she’d have to attend seminars and study the new methods and tailor her lesson plans accordingly. Years of work, of experience, of insight, totally disregarded in favor of something she’d never even seen before.
While the official timeline for textbook replacement is an average of 5-7 years, to spread out the costs most school districts follow a schedule where they replace the textbooks for one subject per year. So this is a constant process that requires teachers to be continually altering their teaching methods to accommodate whatever revolutionary new teaching method or program is coming down the pike. Districts will also replace books sooner than 5-7 years if there is a change in educational policy coming down from above, such as No Child Left Behind or Common Core, or if a trendy new method arrives to great fanfare.
Of course, no one would want children languishing with an inferior textbook based on bad or outdated research. But what if a teacher had found things to like about the old textbook? Is it sensible to assume that one method, even if it truly did work for every student, would work for every teacher? After all, teachers have teaching styles and preferred methods that may work better for them, just like students develop learning techniques that may work better for them. Experience matters. Teachers figure out what works for them and what works best for their individual students through trial and error, not unlike what I did when I was teaching my son to read.
If a textbook was good enough to be adopted to begin with, surely it isn’t unusably terrible? Textbooks are tools, not magical recipes that create intelligence through perfectly recited incantations. Yet the old books are tossed. A teacher cannot continue using them even if they find that they work better. That’s against the rules. What a waste of years of a teacher’s wisdom and experience to have them start over again from square one, throwing away the tools they’re familiar with. Aren’t teachers capable of picking and choosing what works from a textbook and ignoring the stuff that doesn’t?
Is it reasonable to assume that any additional benefits of this Holy Grail of educational research, even if measurably better than other strategies, would offset the harm it causes – the harm of an experienced teacher having to discard everything they’re familiar with, comfortable with, in favor of something that may be only slightly better in the long run?? In the long run, another 5-7 years would have passed and/or a new educational trend would have come along and then THAT textbook series would have been abandoned. The focus on the search for revolutionary new teaching methods appears to me to simply be a recipe for creating teachers who never quite feel comfortable with what they’re doing. Teachers waste endless hours deciphering pseudoscientific jargon and attending seminars about how to implement these revolutionary methods. They’d probably be better off mastering the material they’re familiar with, that they find the most effective, and figuring out the strategies that work best for them and their students.
For students as well, this approach creates a problem. I recall as a child growing up, bouncing from program to program. We moved around a lot, and the schools I attended were constantly trying out new teaching methods. But the creators of textbook series design them to build upon themselves incrementally. What good are they to a child if you never get to experience them that way? Both reading and math skills build upon themselves sequentially, not unlike a pyramid. Miss a few pieces at the base and you can’t keep going up. How could switching approaches constantly not undermine a child’s ability to learn? It simply has to have a greater negative effect than any measurable difference between one educational philosophy and another.
When I was my son’s age, I went from attending second grade in school district that used what is now derisively called new math, and did not teach multiplication to 2nd graders, to a more old-fashioned one where multiplication facts had already been taught by rote. I showed up for the 3rd grade at a profound disadvantage. I knew all about sets and the difference between whole numbers and counting numbers and how to build magnificent castles from Cuisenaire rods, but I didn’t know that 3×6 = 18. Despite being a good student, I could barely keep up.
Then for the 4th grade, we moved again, back to the new math school district. I was even more lost. Now all the other kids knew multiplying and dividing, but they’d learned it an entirely different way than I had. Suddenly I was expected to do long division when I barely knew how to multiply. I had a great teacher that year, but ended up having to attend tutoring for the whole year. Tutoring was something my school district provided for free and my parents could have afforded had it not. Imagine what this would do to a child in a lousy school district without tutors, with teachers who didn’t care, whose parents had no ability to facilitate their child’s learning. The consistency between texts and approaches mattered hugely and it wasn’t something the average child from the average family could have overcome.
That’s what happens when education is imposed on schools from the top down. It may not always be quite as profound a difference as my experience moving into a new school district and back would suggest, but it certainly doesn’t allow a child to benefit from the consistency and gradualism that is designed into textbook series. Since most are meant to build on themselves – many series go from K-12, with the end goal of fully preparing kids for college or careers – switching from one series to another repeatedly simply means that little to none of these intended effects occur. Students work towards a series of perceived goals that vanish, to be replaced by a new series of goals for which no groundwork exists. And teachers have no freedom to make up the difference, no ability to hang onto the old ways for a year or two or even indefinitely to fill in any gaps.
This is one of the main complaints teachers have with Common Core reading in the upper grades. The expectation in Common Core is for students to be able to read highly complex non-fiction, which sounds great…but that wasn’t what kids were doing before. Most of those students came of age in a Whole Language environment where they read a lot of fiction – primarily fiction that they were particularly interested in, that they picked out themselves, since that is one of the main tenets of Whole Language education. Tossing older kids into the deep end of a shark pool full of very difficult non-fiction with no previous experience reading that kind of stuff does them little good. Even if the Common Core approach is vastly better in the long run, it could be harmful for those students who had been taught most of their lives using a different method. But because education is one-size-fits-all, imposed from the top down, subject to whatever revolutionary new teaching method that the powers that be decide is better, teachers don’t even have any flexibility to back off the new standards and keep doing what’s been working for their students in the past. They HAVE to make the switch even if they know that it’s not right for their students.
Just from a purely financial angle, it seems incredibly wasteful to throw perfectly good books away for something that may be only marginally better. My husband works at the county dump and although he’s only been employed there for about 6 months, already 2 school districts in our small rural county have brought in textbooks for disposal. They were practically new and probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase – according to Scholastic, textbooks cost over $100 per book. But they were simply carted off to an incinerator to be burned, replaced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in new textbooks that will be burned probably within this next decade. The states spend an average of just over $10,000 per student, per year on education. Couldn’t at least some of that money have been better spent elsewhere?
This kind of spending and wastefulness makes no economic sense. Even if a revolutionary new teaching method really is better than the old way, $10K per student, per year, could go a loooong way towards making up any deficits. Teachers have always filled in the blanks with extras whenever textbooks and methodology have been lacking. One of the things that my mother was (in)famous for is that she refused to give up phonics even when all the other teachers had switched over to exclusively Whole Language. Good teachers know what works and they should have not only the freedom, but the financial resources to pursue things that work for their students. I mentioned the I Can Read books that were so helpful for Tate when he was learning to read; a 1st or 2nd grade teacher could buy a LOT of I Can Read books and use them in perpetuity (at least until they wear out) instead of tossing that money away buying basal readers that most kids hate and that will be replaced in 5-7 years’ time, if that.
Fixes for education generally center around the following triumvirate: more money, more teacher accountability, and this perpetual hunt for the one true revolutionary new teaching method that will somehow fix everything. I think all three of those fixes are nonsense. More money just encourages this hamster wheel mentality, switching from one program to the next in the search for a unicorn that doesn’t exist. There will never be ONE learning method that is right for all children. The idea defies common sense. What we need to do is back off of teachers and allow them to teach. If you want to hold them accountable, ok, but don’t hold them accountable when they’re held prisoner by a system that allows them no freedom whatsoever. Quit kneecapping teachers with proclamations handed down from on high, and then blaming them when they can’t be as effective as they would be otherwise. It’s not their fault, they’re teaching with a millstone around their necks.
It’s counterintuitive, I know. But stepping away from the “more money, more teacher accountability, let’s find an educational Holy Grail” approach is going to free up more time, energy, and money to allow talented teachers to help more kids. Children are programmed to learn, they want to learn, and it’s a teacher’s job to find out how to facilitate that. It shouldn’t be Betsy DeVos’ job or Arne Duncan’s job or some bureaucrat in an office at McGraw-Hill’s job to find the One True Way.
There is no way any of those people could have told me specifically how my son was going to learn to read. It took hours of give and take between him and me for that to happen. That is what teachers DO. By the time they’ve gone through this process with 30 kids, 60 kids, 120 kids they know more about teaching on an individual level than any author of any textbook ever. Teaching is not giving a practiced speech in front of a room of people while they all hang on your every word. It’s interacting with children one on one, observing them, finding out what they need and what they don’t, and helping them meet their needs in such a way that they learn to learn themselves.
If you want a creature that simply repeats lines from a government-approved textbook, get a parrot.