How Language Arts Teachers Will Save Democracy

Democracy literally means rule by the people. Yet in practice, democracy means that the important decisions within a society are made through public discussions, often among elected representatives. To play a productive role in political discussions, you need a set of skills that do not come naturally, which is why they have traditionally been taught in school. Unfortunately, our public schools in the United States are failing to teach these skills. Many people want to blame the students, the parents, or the teachers for this failure. Yet as I explain in Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, the public schools have been set up for failure, by policies made at a high level.

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Is Your Child Really Reading, or Just Guessing?

Can your child really read? Or is your child simply guessing what words are on the page? There’s an easy way to find out. Just print out this Reading Competency Test from the National Right to Read Foundation: http://www.nrrf.org/readtest.html

Part I of the test consists of eight groups of simple sentences. The sentences in the first group are made up of words that follow the simplest phonetic rules: “The big red hen is mad.” The second group includes some words with consonant blends: “Bang went the black drum!” The final group includes some words that follow more difficult rules: “Phone for some bread and fruit for the child.” Part II consists of six paragraphs. The first one is simple, and each succeeding paragraph is more difficult.

To administer the test, print out two copies. Give one copy to the child, and have the child read each sentence. On your copy, make a check mark each time the child skips a word, substitutes a different word (even if it means the same thing), inserts an unrelated word, or mispronounces a word (remove the check mark if the child corrects the mispronunciation).

This test helps you figure out whether your child is really reading or is just guessing. There’s no picture of an angry red chicken to enable the child to guess what “The big red hen is mad” is supposed to mean. Unfortunately, many of our primary school teachers have actually been trained to teach children to look for clues of that kind instead of teaching children to sound out the words. How do those teachers expect children to comprehend what they read if the children can’t identify which words were actually written? As soon as those children start having to read real textbooks, instead of lavishly illustrated storybooks, they’ll be in big trouble.

According to the National Right to Read Foundation, a student who has completed second grade but cannot read all of the sentences in Part I with one check mark or less in each group needs to study phonics. Likewise, any child who cannot read independently at grade level needs to study phonics. I would also add that any children who are having trouble reading should also have their hearing and vision tested.

When children study phonics, they are specifically taught how the letters of the alphabet are used to represent sounds in words. Unless they understand phonics, they will have a lot of trouble in reading any alphabetic language. In 1998, the National Academy of Sciences published a report titled Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Its main conclusion was that “Adequate progress in learning to read English (or any alphabetic language) beyond the initial level depends on having a working understanding of how sounds are represented alphabetically.”

When and How Should Children Learn to Read?

Massachusetts during the Colonial period and the early days of the Republic was probably the most literate society that the world had ever seen. According to the census of 1840, only 1.1% of adults in Massachusetts were illiterate. Literacy among native-born English speakers in Massachusetts was probably far higher in 1840 than it is today. The high rate of literacy in Massachusetts was no accident.

  • Parents were required by law to ensure that their children learned to read.
  • Local governments were required to provide schooling.
  • The early schools used an effective phonetic method of teaching reading.

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