Thursday, December 5, 2019

My Toddlers Can't Read

Here at the Curmudgucation Institute, the Board of Directors has taken a great interest in the printed word.

We have, for instance, entered the Me Do It phase for one of our most beloved tomes (Little Excavator, by Anna Dewdney). I am no longer allowed to read that book to the Board, but must hold it open while a Board member recites the text. We can do then same thing for select portions of that other best-seller, Digger, Dozer, Dumper. The Board also enjoys just sitting and holding a book and flipping through the pages, one at a time, just like the Institute's CEO and his wife, the Executive Breadwinner.

A Board member considers the deeper themes
of Hank the Cowdog
The Board is currently 2.5 years old. In my professional opinion, they cannot actually read. They do a great job of picking up visual cues and hints from the illustrations and context of the books, but I'm not sure they even fully grok the connection between the A-B-Cs all over the page and the words that go with that page.

I have two older children, so I've seen this movie. At some point the letter-sound connection will click. At some point they will start to learn that particular letters make particular sounds, and they will start connecting the marks on the page to the words and stories that they already know.

When that day comes, there's one thing I know for sure-- the damn reading wars arguments will still be going on.

How can this argument still be going on? How?

Look, maybe, somewhere, there's a whole balanced literacy language fan who would claim that my toddlers are now actually reading. Maybe. But they aren't. They need to add the decoding piece that allows them to sound out actual words and not just depend on random lucky guesses.

But by the same token, if you "sound out" a word that you don't know, what have you got? Nothing.

The current push for the "Science of Reading" insists that the science is settled. It isn't (you can read the article, but don't skip the comments). Even if the "brain science" were completely settled, so what? We know a lot of science about love and relationships, but that doesn't mean you can use it to scientifically make someone become the love of your life. There's a limit to how much you can program people like computers. Why this current crop of agenda-driven journalists and amateur reading analysts is so devoted to phonics and phonics only is a mystery (well, partly-- some folks depend on this stuff to make a living). What's also striking is how unscientifically the science argument is often made-- this article follows the usual pattern, built around a heart-tugging anecdote and vague on specifics.

I worked on the top end of this, working with lots of not-very-proficient readers nearing the end of their school careers. They came in a few types. Can sound the word out, but has no idea what it means. Can only bring themselves to read when the material is interesting. Will guess wildly based on first letter. Lacks the life experience to make sense-- literally to construct any sense--  of what they're reading. Reads words, but not sentences. I had poor readers who couldn't (or wouldn't decode). I had poor readers who could decode, but couldn't do anything with the decoded words. Humans who have trouble reading come in a million different configurations, and so remediation has to come in a million different configurations as well.

Why is this so hard? You can't have reading without decoding. You can't have reading with only decoding. Reading involves a whole complex of skills, and none of those skills can be taught or acquired outside of the business of actually reading. Every reading student brings a different web of experience, knowledge, interest and processor power, which means that teachers need a toolbox filled with many tools.

In the meantime, too much literally meaningless phonics drill kills an interest in reading. Too much practice with material that is too hard kills an interest in reading. Too much drill that suggests that everything can be read only one way and someone else knows that way and you don't and if you can't figure out what that other reader thinks then shame on you for being wrong wrong wrong-- well, that doesn't build anyone's interest in reading, either.

The reading wars, at their worst, are always the same thing. A bunch of chefs standing in a kitchen, trying to make a salad, with a couple of them insisting "It has to be all lettuce and nothing but lettuce" and another arguing, "No, it has to be all cucumber slices, and they have to be sliced exactly like this." Also, one of them will turn out to not actually be a chef at all-- just someone who read a book about vegetables.

I suppose the wars are exacerbated by the current decidedly unscientific notion that reading must be pushed to younger and younger ages. I can mock the stupidity of thinking that pedagogy can somehow overcome human development. I can understand that this emphasis on making kindergarten the new first or second grade is wrong and even harmful. But even I feel the pressure-- the Board whiled away the morning just playing with toy cars all over the living room and at the time I was impressed by their focus and touched by how they played together so well. But now it's the afternoon and I am second-guessing myself and wondering if I should have been providing them with more enrichment. In times like this, it's no wonder that so many people are reacting so strongly to the argument that we must have all phonics all the time right now or how will we ever get these tiny humans to read in time??!! The reading wars seem mostly fought between folks on the over-simplified extremes of the different camps.

It's a dumb argument, raging while the real work is done by folks who live in the complex middle between the poles. At some point, the Board of Directors will be ready to start actually reading, at which point, the EB and CEO will provide all manners of support, and hope to high heaven that their school does the same. They'll have to, if we're going to have the Board reading and writing novels by December of kindergarten.


  1. Thanks for the thinking but this is a hard one as I'm not sure this is a war just about how to teach reading.

    I also struggle with your simplistic definition with whole balanced literacy language.

    Do you worry that this recent push is more about the reformers continued control of our public schools. I mean even Petrelli is getting involved by threatening colleges of ed for not teaching phonics. (Teachers have always taught phonics!!) But now those with power (And Nancy bailey has written about the corporate reformers behind this push as it smells of "personalized" learning. Reading is easy to teach via computer with the "science of reading"

    In "Winners take All" the corporate rich people are doing a great job at their messaging in order to create their social order and power. Seems like this "Science of Reading" is more about attacking the education researchers/colleges of education in order to privatize them.
    This "Science of Reading" are just more mandates being pushed on quite frankly my children.. . Teachers can't teach in the ways I'd love for them to be able to teach.
    In Colorado they have the READ Act which has schools testing children within 90 days of being in kindergarten. If they fail this test (usually online) they are marked as deficient and put on the READ act which is very hard to get off.
    This law isn't working. So the state is spending a lot of money to hire a reformer contractor to determine what is wrong. The law is ALEC legislation. DeVos is speaking at ALEC soon, right?
    This is bigger than a battle between two different thoughts of reading.
    My own 5th grade daughter and her classmates are getting 30 minutes a day of intensive phonics each day. She maybe gets 30 minutes a week of writing and that's usually prescriptive. Data driven/standards based learning lends itself nicely to the phonics approach. My daughter HATES this and she's a reader. Sitting on the couch reading now.
    I'm very concerned about the reasons behind this and hope you will research this more to understand this is more nefarious than it seems.
    My children are NOT getting a quality reading experience (Did you know the best way to get the phonics piece is through inventive writing) and yet it's not happening. If you have read Paul Thomas' blog or Allington's work, you'll know that importance of authentic opportunities for kids to read and write. Something I used to be able to do in the 90s but reform mandates no longer allow for that.
    This is about survival of the already dying teaching profession, imo

  2. Do you worry that this is bigger than just a conflict between two ideologies? (And as I’ve shared before, I do worry about your use of language like “whole balanced literacy language fan.) It’s not what balanced literacy promotes at all and it’s frustrating to see you simplify it and give fuel to those ruthlessly attacking it.
    Also, Nancy Bailey has done a nice job of pointing to various reformers behind this current intensive phonics push. I’m reading “The Winners Take All” and can’t help but believe that this is just the rich reformers way of once again of scapegoating teachers and putting reading instruction on computers. Phonics is easy to “personalize.” Quality literacy instruction is not. It takes a very knowledgeable educator. This is also a great way to privatize colleges of education as they seem to be the newest scapegoat.
    States across the country are now forcing dyslexia screening on our very youngest. In Colorado the ALEC READ act has been around for a few years. It requires kids to be assessed within 90 days of entering kindergarten. And if they are deficient in this test (something standard and usually computerized) they are put on a READ plan. It’s very hard to get off the READ plan. A friend wanted to refuse the assessments but was told her child would then be put on the READ plan. Guess what? This READ act isn’t working so the state of Colorado has hired an organization funded by reformers to figure out what’s wrong. I bet you can guess what they will say is wrong.
    My 5th grade daughter’s whole class is now getting 30 minutes a day of intense phonics thanks to these “Science of Reading” folk who are forcing their beliefs on our schools. She HATES it. She gets maybe 30 minutes a week of writing (and it’s usually prescriptive) But she’s in a “personalized” learning district. Can you see the problem? Fortunately, she’s a reader, which makes me wonder why she has to do this class.
    Also, do you realize the people pushing this “science” aren’t teachers or educators? I mean Petrelli has even gotten into this pushing people to sue colleges of education for lack of phonics instruction. Kids have gotten instruction. My oldest, in kindergarten, got plenty of phonics instruction. I volunteered to see her classmates staring off into space. But she didn’t get a lot of play time or chances to write. (Did you know inventive writing is one of the best ways for kids to learn the letter/sound relationships?)
    I got to teach in the 90s when we were allowed to teach using best practice and I’m so sad for our children. I hope you’ll look into the underlying reasons for this updated fight. It’s personal for me as it’s impacting my children.

  3. The most signficant part in this us that your sons see themselves as readers.
    The system, through numerous standards and tests of those standards that really don't measure reading have convinced him he isn't a reader. That's the problem in all of this.

  4. Oh jeeze - I could spend hours writing on this topic - general ed elementary classroom teacher turned K-5 reading interventionist the last 9 years.

    Peter - big fan of yours for years, especially about the Corporate CORE takeover, testing - the whole works.

    BUT - PLEASE research more on dyslexia before helping to escalate this as a revival of the phonics wars or pushing down the standards, etc. Commenter above is beginning to sound hysterical that we're actually screening kinders for signs of dyslexia (which has been hoped for by *real* educators of dyslexics for the last 20-30+ years). These *Science of Reading* folk are dedicated researchers who have been around for decades, and so has their work - yet the general dyslexia-free public is just starting to learn about it and reacting with full-on deep-state hysteria. Please take a breath.

    Next, maybe chat with some of your friends who have dyslexia. (They generally don't like to advertise it, but since about 15-20% of the population is affected, chances are you know someone who is. Once I started talking about this amongst my personal friends, since I'm a teacher who helps these students - I found a PhD scientist willing to share what a nightmare his school experience was, and how he almost dropped out - now he memorizes, then dictates his research papers to others. Another is manager, whose spelling on her FB posts was a give-away).

    There is absolutely no reason that writing and reading literature and non-fiction books with rich comprehension discussions, and play/recess time K-5 should be sacrificed in order to teach phonics and spelling in an explicit, structured way which will benefit all kids. (I know plenty of strong readers who could spell better). If that's what's happening in your particular building - by all means push back. Our school manages - but it needs to be conciously addressed and scheduled well.

    Maybe one of the only good things to come out of this over-testing craze is that we're at least paying more attention to those kids who struggle to decode and not simply passing them along like we used to, telling them they'll get it eventually. Readers without learning disabilities do that. But it's not a bad thing that we're finally recognizing and using the science available to help dyslexics join the rest of our readers in accessing the books they'd love to read, and spell something someone else could understand.

    I too started teaching in the 90's with my Whole Language best practice approach. We did some awesome projects without the testing burdens that my students will never forget. However, what I feel really sad about was being completely ineffective in addressing my struggling readers' needs other than giving them more time and better 'quality' books for them to flail away on without better decoding instruction. If only I knew then...

    **If you have some spare time (hah - toddler at home!) research 'orthographic mapping' on how every word is a sight word. David Kilpatrick writes well about this topic and helped shift my whole paradigm on how the brain stores words and how this effects the whole reading process. Fascinating stuff, especially since your Board is becoming an emergent reader himself.

  5. The failure of the public education system to willfully ignore dyslexia should be a national scandal. Literally millions of students had their lives misdirected by a system that found dyslexia too inconvenient to deal with.