Should Children Learn to Read What the Writer Actually Wrote?

As a writer, I choose my words carefully. As an editor, I have helped many other writers choose their words carefully. So do I want readers to be able to read the exact words that were actually written? Of course I do! That seems like a stupid question. However, some prominent professors of education have taught that children should use “cues,” guesswork, and their own expectations to generate their own narrative, instead of reading the words that the writer actually wrote. I feel that unless the children are reading the words that were actually written, they are not really reading. No real communication from writer to reader is taking place.

When I was four years old, I figured out that reading is an act of decoding. The letters of the alphabet stand for sounds. All I had to do was figure out which letters or combinations of letters stand for which sounds. Then, simply by sounding out the letters from left to right, line by line, from top to bottom, on page after page, I could read any book in the house.

My parents have no idea how I figured this out. They had read many books to me, but they hadn’t yet tried to teach me to read. So they were stunned when I pointed to the milk carton at breakfast one morning and sounded out the name of the dairy. In short, I figured out on my own when I was four years old that phonics is the key to learning to read English. In 1998, a major study by the National Academies of Science came to the same conclusion. “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.”

Unfortunately, the main stream of the educational establishment in the United States throughout most of the 20th century insisted that children should memorize whole words as shapes, as if English words were like Chinese characters. There are two basic problems with that approach. One is that it’s really hard for native Chinese speakers to learn to read Chinese. A Chinese person is considered literate if he or she can recognize two thousand Chinese characters. A Chinese person who can recognize 20,000 characters is considered highly literate. I probably could read more than 2000 English words by the time I started school. I probably could read more than 20,000 English words by the end of second grade. I was reading at far above grade level; but that’s because I learned to read phonetically, while the rest of the class was being taught by conventional methods.

The other problem is that English words are nothing like Chinese characters. Chinese characters are built up of pictures; and as Rod Stewart has pointed out, every picture tells a story. English words don’t have an interesting, unique, consistent shape. Worse yet, their shape gives you no clue to their meaning. Furthermore, the shape of an English word can change dramatically IF YOU PUT IT IN ALL CAPS or if you change the typeface. If you teach children to memorize words as shapes, they will end up functionally illiterate, unless they figure out how to break the alphabetic code on their own, as I did.

Children who don’t figure out how to break the alphabetic code end up using all sorts of other strategies for figuring out what a piece of writing says. Often, they can fool adults by memorizing an entire story word for word and then pretending that they are reading it. When the children have to read something that they haven’t memorized, they end up having to guess. Unfortunately, they often guess wrong, especially because their guesses are based on their expectations. To me, the fact that children are guessing instead of reading is horrifying. Yet one of the most prominent people in the educational establishment insisted that this guessing is normal, natural, and good.

In May 1967, the Journal of the Reading Specialist published Kenneth Goodman’s article Reading: a Psycholinguistic Guessing Game. I haven’t been able to find the original article, but I found another rendition of it here. This article laid the groundwork for what became known as the whole language approach to reading instruction.

When I was four years old, I figured out that writing is a way of using letters to record words on paper. Reading was just a way to reverse the process to turn that sequence of letters back into words. In contrast, Goodman wrote, “Reading is a selective process. It involves partial use of available minimal language cues selected from perceptual input on the basis of the reader’s expectation. As this partial information is processed, tentative decisions are made to be confirmed, rejected, or refined as reading progresses. More simply stated, reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.” Goodman then looked at the mistakes (he called them “miscues”) that a child made when reading an unfamiliar story.

When I reviewed the “miscues” that Goodman offered, I was horrified. They suggested to me that the child could not read phonetically. It didn’t bother me that the child stumbled over philosophy, which is a big word that he might not have heard before. However, I was horrified that the child read “I” as “he” and “the” as “his.” It suggested to me that the boy had learned words as shapes and was unable to let the letters of the words speak to him. A child who cannot accurately read simple words like that is going to be in serious trouble when he has to learn from textbooks, instead of just reading lavishly illustrated storybooks.

Goodman then went on to misapply Chomsky’s theory of how people generate sentences to how people decode written sentences. I don’t know how Chomsky feels about that. Goodman also derided phonetic reading by giving the example of a boy who could utter Hebrew chants at his bar mitzvah but couldn’t understand what he chanted. Of course the kid couldn’t understand what he chanted. The text was in a language that the boy didn’t understand! If an English-speaking boy were turning English letters into English words instead of turning Hebrew letters into Hebrew words, he’d almost certainly understand the text.

As a writer and especially as a technical editor, I feel that reading is not a “psycholinguistic guessing game” unless the reader can’t really read or the writing is truly awful. I believe that when people read, they should be decoding the text to reveal the exact words that the writer wrote. To learn how to do that in English, children must learn phonics.

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