A CHILD'S MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE
By Joel Turtel
January 27, 2007
About two years ago, I became a volunteer reading instructor in a local public school. I wanted to teach kids to read for a few reasons. First, I think reading is a magic door that opens children’s eyes to the world. Second, I was completing my second book, “Public Schools, Public Menace: How Public Schools Lie To Parents and Betray Our Children.” I thought I needed some hands-on experience in the trenches.
My first shock came at the public school’s two-day training “seminar.” Two teachers who ran the crash course gave us reading volunteers some “tips.” One of their tips was, “don’t waste time sounding out a word for your student—just read the word out loud to the child.”
When I went to public school in the 1950’s, they taught us to read with intensive phonics. Yet, here was this “reading instructor” telling us NOT to sound out the letters in the words to help our students read. I thought, “what is going on here?” I was soon to find out.
When I greeted Christopher’s teacher the first day, I knew I was going to have an uphill battle on my hands. That’s because the first thing she said to me was, “Christopher’s not much of a reader.” It seemed as if his teacher had already given up on Chris, yet this was only the first grade!
It turned out that Chris was one of the sharpest, most delightful children I ever met. He looked like a young Harry Potter. He wore round, black-rimmed glasses. He was an infectious talker and bright as a whip.
I asked Chris to read to me from one of his baby books so I could see what stage he was at. He quickly read some of the words out loud, but I noticed he wasn’t sounding out the letters of the words. So I asked Chris to get me another book that he hadn’t read yet, and then he got a nervous look in his eyes. When I pointed to simple words in the new book, he couldn’t read them at all. He couldn’t read new words because he couldn’t sound out the letters of the words with phonics. So the clever little devil only wanted to “read” to me from books with words he had already “memorized.”
In doing research for my book, I was shocked to discover that many public schools teach kids to read with a variation of the “whole-language” method (now called “balanced literacy,” or some other name they dream up). This reading-instruction method teaches children to “read” by asking them to memorize words as if they were pictures, like Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is a reading-instruction method that can cripple a child’s ability to read, and potentially condemn that child to a lifetime of failure.
In the first grade, a lot of bright kids can “memorize” a few hundred simple words from their picture books. When a child has trouble with a word he never saw before, one “strategy” whole-language teachers use is to tell the child to “guess” what the word is from pictures in the book or other “clues.” To understand just how frustrating this can be for a child, imagine if you had to guess every other word in a simple newspaper article you were reading.
From my research for my book, I knew that many kids start running into trouble in the second grade when they have to read bigger, multi-syllable words in books with less pictures, words the child never saw before. When a whole-language instructed child encounters a word he never “memorized” before, he is lost. That’s why so many kids’ reading abilities go downhill after second grade—whole-language instruction, or any variation of it, is the culprit.
I wanted to help Chris to read, so I realized I would have to use phonics. I noticed that there was a computer sitting in a corner of the classroom, gathering dust. I thought that if I could teach Chris to read using some of the fun, clever, phonics software they’ve developed, maybe that would help. Chris, like most boys, loved to play video games, so learning on the computer might be a good idea.
I asked the teacher if I could work with Chris on the computer, as an experiment, and she agreed. As soon as Chris started playing with the phonics program, it was like a light went on in his head. He loved it, and he got so excited.
I then asked his teacher if I could spend all morning with Chris on the computer whenever I came to volunteer. She said “no” because she had to follow the daily curriculum set down by her school. The kids had to spend most of their day on other subjects far more valuable than learning to read with phonics.
For example, the kids had arithmetic class (“fuzzy” math), cooperative reading time (kids sitting on the floor in little groups having “socializing” conversations), art projects (building little houses out of popsicle sticks), and sometimes assembly programs (probably to please parents when the kids dressed up in costumes for school plays).
The teacher, while sympathetic to my request, told me I couldn’t give Chris intensive phonics instruction on the computer, which he loved, because her hands were tied by the school’s required “curriculum.”
This made me angry because I realized that Chris might never learn to read if he stayed in public school. So I contacted Chris’s parents and suggested that they think about homeschooling or low-cost Internet private schools as an alternative. At home, Chris could learn phonics on the computer all day to his heart’s delight, learn at his own pace, and get individualized instruction.
Somehow my advice to Chris’s parents got back to the principal. The next day I was called into the principal’s office, and that was one angry woman. She asked if I had made this “outrageous” homeschooling suggestion to Chris’s parents, and I told her that I did. She said that I had violated their school’s “protocol.” I told her that I was more concerned with Chris’s life than her school’s protocol. I also told her that if their school wasn’t teaching Chris to read, why shouldn’t his parents take Chris out of public school and try a better alternative? After getting a little red in the face, she ended that brief meeting by telling me to, “get out of my building!”
That ended my career as a volunteer reading instructor in public schools. I just hope that Chris’s parents took my suggestion, for Chris’s sake.
By the way, for those parents reading this article, have you investigated YOUR public school to see if and how they are teaching your child to read? Have you had your child’s reading abilities tested by an outside independent testing agency? That might be a good idea.
© 2007 Joel Turtel - All Rights
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Joel Turtel, author of Public Schools, Public Menace: How Public Schools Lie To Parents and Betray Our Children, holds a degree in Psychology. For the last ten years he has served as an Education Policy Analyst, studying the climate of today's public schools and its effect on children and parents.
Mr. Turtel has written two books, published over fifty articles, and has been interviewed in both print and broadcast media on the subject. His latest book, Public Schools, Public Menace has garnered national media attention – recently, for example, Dr. Laura Schlessinger featured the book on her nationally syndicated radio show.
Joel Turtel is available to discuss his book Public Schools, Public Menace in the media, at conferences, or with individual groups. Be warned though, you may be shocked by the revelations he has uncovered in America's public-school system.