The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

My Message to Phonics Followers

Dear Phonics Followers,

I want to thank all of you who sent me your opinions about the teaching of reading. But since many of your messages were sort of nasty, I won’t repeat them here and embarrass you. Instead I will try to explain my view of teaching reading so you can understand why I believe it is easier and more effective for teaching reading than phonics.

As I’ve said before, I believe that learning to read is like learning to dance, play a game, or sing a song. And because it is a natural part of human development we must treat it that way. Yes, we should also examine books and other things people write, in order to get a feeling for the “game” of writing, but that is not a hard job or a hideout in a new world. Because reading and writing are natural developments in our lives we must pay attention, believe in them, and become a member of the crowd.

The most interesting fact about teaching reading is that you don’t have to explain or repeat much. If you can begin by presenting pictures of animals, objects, or people to young learners, they will have no trouble remembering them in written forms. Just be sure to provide visual information along with new written words, and keep relating them. The key to reading and writing is being able to match what you see, feel, hear, or say with written words. That is not difficult, it just takes some practice.

In addition, a child’s ability to read small linking words such as “and”, “so”, “of”, “is” and “was”, can be easily taught by drawing attention to their presence in speech. Students will come to recognize them as parts of their own talking. What happens to children is that their knowledge of spoken language transfers to their reading and writing abilities when they are introduced to them, and see them as necessary parts of written communication; just as they are parts of spoken communication.

As I have said many times before, learning to read is like learning to dance, play games, or sing songs. It is a natural component of human development, and we must teach it that way. Yes, teachers should examine books, stories and other things that have been written in oder to get ready for the “game” of writing. But that is not getting a new job or entering a new world. Reading and writing are ordinary parts of our humanity. So remember that and believe it. Then start reading, and finally, move on to writing.


Our American Reading History

Although I’ve written about the teaching of reading many times before, I feel that I must explain it once again. Too many schools have been persuaded to teach reading by using phonics, and as a result thousands of smart, healthy, children have been pushed into the misery of phonics rather than the pleasure of visually recognizing words

In order to explain the development of reading from the beginning of time to the present and how we should teach reading now, I will try to describe the world-wide history of language development as briefly and accurately as I can.

According to what was reported by researchers, ancient human beings began to communicate by making oral sounds and carving stone shapes that represented their thoughts, experiences, and needs. Over time, however, sounds and stone carvings were not good enough for them to communicate accurately, and so they used their mental and physical abilities instead. They began by turning grunts into howls, and then howls into precise sound forms now known as “words.“ They also began to carve small, distinct shapes on stones, sand, and dirt piles that became written words.

As the world grew larger and more complex, many human beings now called “people”, began doing what was necessary to merge with others of different backgrounds and behaviors. At first their languages were scrambled and not understandable; but finally when they moved into larger, healthier areas they improved their ability to increase wealth and power. Today, however, language differences still cause problems for people moving into a foreign country. The ones most affected are young children who must work hard to become successful readers

Today, life may still be complicated for American citizens because our written English still contains many old foreign words created in other countries with letter sounds that do not match speech. Although competent adult readers just ignore that problem, many children learning to read become confused by letter sounds. As a result their confidence and pleasure for reading may be damaged.

Although phonics leaders claim that sounding out words is the way to teach reading they ignore the fact that great time and effort are needed for children to learn that skill. It also damages young readers memories of what they were reading, and thus makes phonics unsuccessful. Nevertheless, phonics supporters ignore those problems along with the fact that there is a much easier way to learn reading. They reject the fact that human beings recognize objects, people, places, quickly and with ease. For example, normal young children learn early and easily to recognize their parents among family members, the foods they like best on a table, their own shoes in a crowded closet, and their own friends, classrooms, and favorite books,

None of those methods are difficult for healthy children to learn, and neither is recognizing written words once you become familiar with them. Yes, learning to read takes time, but it is not unpleasant. Teaching children to read requires often seeing words in different situations, saying them out loud, and maybe even singing them. Reading becomes easier and more pleasant than phonics if you have good teachers and students have good parents. If you don’t believe me, try teaching the words below to a child, first by phonics and then by sight familiarity, and see which way works better.

“Where”, “knot”, “plough,” “psychologist”, “character”, “enough”, “ballet”, “cough”, “knight”, “gnome”, “knew”, “who”, “wreath”, “origin”. 

Response to a critic:

Maybe I’m wrong about reading, but I was a successful principal in two schools and earned the award for “Principal of the Year” in Wisconsin.


How to Build a Great School and then Destroy It

When I came to my new school in Portland Oregon it was the only one in a small country town made up of farmers, workers with low paying jobs, elderly people, and homeless wanderers. Our school consisted of two buildings on opposite sides of a long dirty road. One of them was an elementary school and the other a middle-grade school. We had about three hundred students altogether. Because our main building was old and neglected, there was nothing really interesting for students to do inside or outside of it.

Fortunately, however, when I began to complain about our poor conditions the state granted us enough funding to make significant improvements throughout the school and in its surroundings. Our first actions outside the buildings were to clean up the schoolyard and adopt the road that ran past our school. Although there were very few houses on that road and not many cars going through it, drivers regularly threw trash onto the road or got out of their cars to push large, dirty, items down into the valley.

When one of our teachers decided to clean up the road and take care of the valley’s trash he contacted the local police department and persuaded it to officially mark the road as our domain. Then he nailed up a large sign on a tree by the road in order to make our authority clear to everyone driving bye. After that he obtained tools for cleaning up the road and outfits for the students when they were working there. Finally, he organized a group of mature students to do road and valley cleanups as needed during afternoon school time. On the day their work began a big group of other students, teachers, and parents gathered to watch them work and cheer them on; and I joined them. From then on cleaning up that road and it’s valley was repeated three or four times a year, and he was ready to continue for as long as the school existed.

The next activity I got involved with was suggested by one of our middle school teachers. Although her students had a daily study period for homework and reading, most of them fooled around instead of working; and they disturbed others who were trying to study. She figured it would be much better for students to use their time doing jobs and earning rewards than carrying out their current nonsense. When I saw their behavior I agreed completely. It would be good for students to be active and learning new skills during the early noontime. Later, other teachers and school workers suggested that their students would be interested and benefit if they also had jobs and rewards. This time their jobs would be serving children food during the second noon hour.

Later on, when more students decided that they too wanted jobs, we set up a new plan for older and responsible students to clean up the gymnasium at the end of each school day by mopping up it’s floor and putting away the equipment used. We also appointed some mature students to deliver work materials to where they were needed, post students’ art work in hallways, empty classroom trash cans, and wipe up the glass doors inside and outside the school. But our biggest, and most important, new student jobs were collecting used school material that had been discarded into classroom trash cans, but could instead be re-sold to companies for repair and resale. Not only were we paid big money for usable materials, we also paid less for our garbage pick-ups because we were producing less garbage than before. All the school workers in those more demanding areas were supervised in their work time by teachers or other school employees.

Over several of the following years our school operations worked beautifully, just as we had planned. And because we were doing so well, we attracted many visitors from other schools and local newspapers. But even though things were working well for us, the state administration decided to merge all small country schools with larger schools in big cities. Unfortunately, our school was the first one to go.  Not only was it merged with a much larger school in a big city, our special programs were also eliminated.

In my opinion, all those final actions were not only bad news for us but also public warnings against developing new practices in public schools. Despite the fact that we had created the most interesting and effective large school in the state at that time, and served the needs and interests of it’s students better than any other school, the state destroyed us by merging our school with a bigger one in another city. To my knowledge all the new and significant education practices produced by our school have never emerged again anywhere else. And I don’t expect to see them any time in the near future.


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New Version of Change the School; Change the World

Today’s post was written by Don Bellairs, a regular reader and commentator of this blog.  I think he has some interesting and and practical ideas.  What do you think?

We aren’t doing a good job with our high schools.  We aren’t getting kids to come to school regularly. We aren’t getting all kids to graduate, and—when we do—many aren’t ready for college. We are trying to do too much and we need to dramatically cut down.

The act of improving education is an endless, Sisyphean task. We will always experience success and failure as we work to fulfill our constitutional obligation to provide free public education and to treat individuals as equals. But a crucial first step at this moment in our crisis is obvious: Think Occam’s razor. Think Thoreau’s “simplicity.”  Consider any of a thousand other examples in philosophy and common sense that admonish us to do less so that we may do better. American high schools today—different from one another in so many ways—share a common affliction: Like many of the pie-eyed, ambitious teens they serve, high schools try to do too many things at once. School employees—including teachers who have too much on their plates–choose to do first those things that are the most pressing. The unintended consequences are often neglect of the most needy students.

Relocating programs and activities that are not essential–not eliminating them—wouldn’t cost us a penny and would help us address the many problems we face in our public high schools. Certainly there are good arguments for continuing extracurricular programs that are ingrained in a school’s culture. But, if those programs are doing what they are supposed to be doing for high school kids, let’s make them part of the regular curriculum and available to all students. Technological advances and changes in our culture and in our understanding of learning processes now provide opportunities to modify a system of education that is not performing well, revealing opportunities not available until now. Our education systems would operate far more fairly and more efficiently—and more kids would complete our K-12 preparation programs with measurable skills— when schools do less and do it better.

We can gradually outsource the big-budget sports programs; Nike and Under Armour should pay for them anyway—they’re making all the money.  We would be amazed at how easily the Rotary Club can sponsor local sports teams, maintaining fields, hiring and supervising coaches—-they do it now for Little League.  Extracurriculars that serve a limited set of children should be incrementally reassigned to Parks and Recreation departments, churches, civic institutions, and private sector sponsors.

A school’s mission is further compromised by a flock of business people who descend on the upperclassmen with advertisements in many schools every September and don’t let up until June. I served as Activities Director at Oregon’s largest high school and was amazed by the marketing assault I experienced. We were charged ten grand to for them to decorate the cafeteria for a Friday night dance! Two grand for the DJ!  We had to charge $25 per person for attendance. That may not shock people but it should. Fortunately, I was able to change the process for our spring formal—we had in-house decorating done by the Drama Club and charged $10 admission. I came away with an awareness that, despite all the really good stuff we provide for high school kids,  too much of it wastes school money that could be better spent elsewhere.

What I suggest may be blasphemy to many in public education. Cutting football and band? No, not really cutting.  More like finding a new home. Granted, some of the best teachers I have worked with were coaches, drama teachers and band teachers. They were great teachers who did high-visibility work. Their ability to get children working together to achieve measurable goals is on public display so they have to be good. The problem for them: It is too easy to become exclusive when you are winning state championships…and those exclusive programs are what we should be trying to eliminate form public education.

For schools to enfranchise all students, we must learn to display the abilities of teachers who are able to get all kids to work well together, not just a select few. Concurrently, we must acknowledge that large the extra-curricular programs, regardless of how sacred and beloved, often serve an elite fraction of the school population. They operate outside mainstream supervision and often tend to outlive their usefulness after sucking up a lot of the school’s supply of oxygen…to the detriment of the greater good. School administrators I have known have spent too much energy on dance teams and ineligible football players. Youth football, big bands, even dance teams can and should exist, but we must find a way for them to operate outside the domain of the public school. Algebra teachers do not need to compete with jayvee coaches for kids’ attention or respect. They have a hard enough job already.

We can make choices when we design future schools. We can have a few students performing in expensive, state-of-the-art theaters or we can put a large number of kids on raised platforms in the front of every classroom and light them with clamp lights. When we  let both groups perform,  we will be nurturing exactly the same skills. We can re-enfranchise students by providing the same opportunities for everybody. Art classes, sports activities, drama and music do not have to go away—they can and should become integral parts of daily classes so that they serve all kids. Affluent parents who want their kids to participate on dance teams should enroll them in after-school programs instead. They should not expect other students watch the dance team perform at four consecutive assemblies. Those programs can be provided by other sources, without involving the taxpayers and public educators.

The system must evolve. We now know much more about the brain than in the past.  Our understanding of human development is far more profound. We have existing resources to change high schools to models of efficiency and equity without spending a lot of money. Ultimately, we can design functional, wide-open 24-hour sites for community schools that can be easily monitored and maintained. Then, professional journals that now discuss how to improve school statistics would instead be discussing how to make the experience more meaningful for all kids. As we redefine our high schools’ missions, we must glean what is most valuable from the many extracurricular activities that now exist and cast off what is elitist.


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