The Conversation

Whole Word Reading, Like Hell, Is for Children

I'm a litte unsure of the etiquette of self-linking but I think this is an important topic.

Our schools are failing our children, and they're doing it by design, relying on a misconceived theory of the pedagogy of reading -- "Whole word" reading, in which kids are just shown a word and invited to guess at it, until they guess right, or the teacher tells them the answer.

This Goof Troop method of "teaching" learning has supplanted the tried-and-true (and effective) technique of phonics, which teaches kids the basic sounds letters and letter combinations make, such that they can then apply these rules to read any word (except the handful of "irregular" words-- hey, every language has them.)

And I would argue this pedagogy, which results in poor results, is favored over phonics, which produces sold results, primarily because it's easier for (wait for it...) teachers.

I can do algebra, but I don't know if I could teach it. I forget a lot of the reasons why I can do things. I forget the rigorous procedure of doing it, first do Step One, then do Step Two. I tend to just do it intuitively.

 So, the hard part of teaching kids to read is not being able to read yourself. For God's sakes, I hope most of our teachers can read. I sincerely hope that -- but I have doubts.

The hard part of teaching kids to read is learning how to do it step by step -- that is, relearning "the rules" which most adults have forgotten because they've internalized the rules so deeply. That's the hard part-- but we're not asking teachers to do that anymore.

Instead, we're just asking them to read words themselves, and know that "orange" spells orange, and have kids guess at the word until they get it right.

That's very easy for an adult to do. Throw any word at this adult, and I Can Read It For You. I don't even need my Education Degree to do so.

But that's not what teachers are supposed to be doing. They're supposed to be teaching kids the step-by-step method of reading words so that they, too, can one day forget about the rules of phonics and just read.

Not just the easy stuff of saying "This word is 'orange.'" No sh!t, really? Well thank God our education system is full of people who know the letters O R A N G E spell orange.

The more important question is, as Jamie Escalante said in Stand & Deliver: Why?  Why do the letters O R A N G E spell orange?

You really only understand something when you understand the Why? Until you understand the why, all you're doing is taking Received Wisdom from a purported expert and calling it your own Wisdom. But it's not your Wisdom. It's Borrowed Wisdom. It's just memorization plus an admirable (???) deference to Experts.

When you yourself know the Why you become the Expert yourself. And that is where real Wisdom -- your own personal, Earned Wisdom -- begins.


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