The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Teach Reading as Pleasure, Not Punishment

on November 8, 2019

Although I don’t usually remember or quote aphorisms, I’m haunted by one written by John Holt in How Children Fail: “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” Watching children in classrooms struggle with flashcards, workbooks, and other paraphernalia for reading instruction, I can’t help thinking that we’ve trapped them in a forest of systems, diagnoses, and prescriptions that keep them from “seeing the trees”–which in life are reading and writing! Of all the things we expect children to learn in school, reading has the strongest motivating power because it’s a useful and pleasurable activity. Yet many of our young children are still stuck in the mud of being unable to read much beyond their own names. How can we help them

Formal school instruction turns kids off to reading by taking enjoyment, adventure, and usefulness out of it. Mainly, it regiments the reading process so that learning is allowed only in a proscribed and measured sequence. For instance, reading is taught by barring most of the significant forms of print, such as comic books, cereal boxes, and advertisements. When occasionally, the real print world does creep inside a classroom, many teachers act as the literate interpreters of words so that children don’t have to face the need to read.

Also, by emphasizing “decoding skills” in the classroom we divert children from reading real stories and messages, and instead have them work out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, and strange words. We ask questions about symbols, rather than stories. We expect them to decode a page of print on which they recognize only a fraction of the words. We have them practice identifying words on flashcards that have no context. We may even give them rules to memorize that don’t hold true, such as: “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking” (How ironic that the only word in that rule has two vowels together–“does”–is an exception). We divert children from reading real stories and messages in order to work out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, messages and large words. We make them interrupt their understanding of a story to sound-out unfamiliar words that remain meaningless afterword. And finally, we expect them to decode a page of print where they recognize only a few of the words. With all the rigamarole of reading instruction teachers forget–even though many children need to discover– that every printed page is supposed to make sense! Instead we should write messages to each child from time to time and expect them to write back to us, their classmates, and their parents.

In addition we use formal instruction that turns ease into drudgery with reading tasks that are boring, meaningless, and painful. We divert children from reading real stories and messages to working out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, and words: Write in the missing letters in the words below so that each one rhymes with “game.” We ask questions about styles rather than stories: “which word in that sentence begins with a consonant blend? We give them rules to memorize that don’t hold true: “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking” (but the only word in that rule that has two vowels together –Does– is an exception to that rule.

Actually, learning to read is easy– certainly more so than learning the grammar of one’s native language, which almost all children have done by the time they enter school. It’s just a matter of cracking a 26-symbol code that corresponds to the language they already speak. If kids can recite nursery rhymes, figure out what Mom and Dad are spelling at the dinner table and put together a jigsaw puzzle in 30 seconds; reading should also be a cinch for them. Why then are so many of our schools unable to turn children’s natural motivation, speaking experience, and learning ability into reading competence? The answer is that most schools use the hard way to teach what is really very simple. With all the rigamarole of reading instruction teachers may forget, and children never discover, that a printed page is supposed to make sense!


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