School Reform That Would Benefit All Children, Not Just the Affluent

Education reformers speak of U.S. public schools as if one school were much like another. They pretend that all 15,000 U.S. school districts are the same and that all will benefit from the same set of “higher standards.”

Reality check: 

Some public schools serve affluent neighborhoods in which most of the children live with educated parents who talk to them, read to them, and have sufficient income to get them special help for whatever learning difficulties they may encounter when they get to school.

Most public schools, however, serve mixed populations of children whose parents range from wealthy medical doctors to illiterate day laborers. Some of the children in these districts arrive at school with large vocabularies and the rudiments of reading. Many more arrive at school with such minimal vocabularies that they fall behind in the first two grades and never catch up.

Teens who did not learn to read properly in the first three grades are not going to benefit much from the introduction of more challenging courses in high school.

The one area of reform that will make a difference to all children in the public schools is that of beginning reading instruction.

Step One

Get rid of the remedial reading industry. Equip every elementary school teacher with basic information about how to teach reading at the beginning level.

Step Two

Restore kindergarten to what it was originally meant to be: a non-academic environment in which children learn to interact with one another and manipulate the objects they’ll need for future learning.

Kindergarten is not supposed to be a dress rehearsal of First Grade. Let the kindergarten teachers cram in as much as possible of traditional songs and stories that children coming from non-U.S. cultures may not have encountered. Focus on enriching the vocabulary and general knowledge of the children. And, of course, teach them to form the large and small letters of the alphabet and teach them the speech sounds represented by them.

Step Three

Restructure Grades 1-3. Stop throwing all 6-year-olds into the same classes and then dumping them into separate “reading groups.” It doesn’t take a child long to realize that the Bluebirds are the “brains” and the Cardinals are the “dummies.”

Screen entering first graders and group them according to their level of learning readiness. Provide them with the security and respect of a classroom in which there is only one reading group: theirs.

Step Four

Place the acquisition of reading fluency above all other concerns in the curriculum. Teach all the subjects introduced in Grades 1-3 within the context of the acquisition of writing, reading, and standard English usage.

Contrary to what many teachers and parents seem to believe, reading is not a free-standing discipline that requires specialists to expound. It is not a “subject” which some children are “good” in and others aren’t.

Reading Comes Last

Reading is the third and final step of a thinking process that begins with speech.

First, the child learns to talk. This requires the ability to make certain speech sounds to form words. In order to understand the speech of others, the child learns to attach meaning to sounds. Every child learns to do this. It’s instinctive.

The greatest of all human inventions is that of the alphabet: the system of associating speech sounds with arbitrary written characters. Thanks to our system of writing, we are able to record spoken language in the form of written symbols. People die, but their words live on. Writing, however, is not instinctive. It must be taught and learned.

Writing comes before reading.

I’ve observed elementary classes in which the children sat on the floor before a huge tablet and dictated a “story” to the teacher. A child would offer a sentence and the teacher would write it down on the tablet. She would then read it back to the children so that they could take pride in their joint production.

What an utter waste of teaching time!

The most effective way for a child to learn to read is to learn how to transcribe speech sounds as written symbols. Reading comes when children read back what they have written.

A frequent criticism of English spelling is that many words are not spelled the way that they are pronounced. That’s true. Language changes. Pronunciation changes. The oldest, most frequently-used words tend to change the most, retaining spellings that no longer fit.

Nevertheless, the English alphabet is a sound code and there are plenty of perfectly phonetic words that can be taught to the beginning reader in order to convey the sound/symbol relationships. The child who learns to read in this way learns to observe details and make connections.

Most children who are taught to “read” words that they haven’t learned first to write become guessers. They rarely become fluent readers. A few children figure out the sound/symbol relationships for themselves.

The only school reform that might insure that all children benefit from higher standards in the upper grades is this: reform that changes the way children are introduced to reading in the early grades.

For more on how to introduce reading, explore the READING section on this site.

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M. J. Maddox, PhD 
is the American English Doctor.  
 

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