For years now, the debate has raged: How should children be taught to read? Some people are saying that the real question is whether children be taught to read.
What do we actually know about learning to read? How do children learn to read? The answer is a bit fuzzy at this point. Phonics, whole language, and natural reading all have their proponents.
But with brain imaging improving seemingly every day, neuroscience is starting to clue us in on how the brain processes language, in both speech and reading. “A study in the Journal of Neuroscience,” testube tells us, “found that the area in the brain that reads words is right next to the part of the visual cortex that recognizes faces. So just as one area of the brain can quickly identify a face, another can quickly read a word.”
Not that that really helps solve the problem of reading instruction. It will likely be quite a while until info from brain imaging makes its way to the classroom.
The common wisdom is that speaking is a natural process that children learn automatically, for the most part. Reading, however, is another story. Learning to recognize meaning in squiggly marks on paper or a computer screen is much less intuitive. Not all children accomplish it. Not all adults have either. The Department of Education reports that 32 million American adults can’t read.
Naturally, not all children learn to read at the same rate. Some pick it up by age four and others not until the later elementary grades. Teachers suggest that students only really begin to read for meaning in about the 5th grade. Until then, the work of decoding words, sounding them out, or memorizing them has simply taken too much of the brain’s attention.
Still, everyone agrees that reading is important. Children who learn to read have distinct advantages over those who don’t, and adults who can’t read are at a real disadvantage in society.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the advantages of reading are not what you might expect. While reading certainly develops the vocabulary and entertains children with imaginative stories, some have suggested that reading offers other benefits as well. An article in Bustle says, “According to a the British Cohort Study, kids who read for pleasure at a young age tend to test better than their peers in all sorts of subjects… yes, including math.”
Other benefits include greater understanding and empathy for people of other lands, cultures, races, and so forth. If children read books or articles about people and cultures different from themselves, they have a better basis for openness and tolerance.
Now, however, some people are saying that children do not have to be taught to read: that they “pick it up” on their own. One name for this is the “unschooling” movement. Interesting articles on the subject, particularly by Dr. Peter Gray of Freedom to Learn, have appeared in Psychology Today‘s blogs.
As Gray describes it, “precocious readers appear to be children who grow up in a literate home and, for some unknown reason (unlike even their siblings in the same home), develop an intense early interest in reading. Interest, not unusual brain development, is what distinguishes them from others.”
According to the theory, learning to read can best be done in a mixed age group where children can see the benefits that older students get from reading, get some informal help from those older students, and at some point discover that they need to read on their own in order to accomplish something they want to do.
Another of his suggestions is that, far from being detriments to reading, electronic devices and practices such as texting and emailing give children lots of practice and lots of motivation to develop their reading skills.
Most important is allowing children to learn to read at their own pace, in their own good time – not to push them. If a child likes phonics word games – great! If she doesn’t, find another way to make reading enjoyable and necessary, or, better yet, let her discover her own.
Admittedly, this version of learning to read does not fit in well with the current educational system. It is mostly being tried by homeschoolers and alternative schools. It is possible that it could work in today’s classrooms, but not without significantly modifying them.
Lots of various kinds of reading material – preferably high- interest – should be readily available and most likely chosen by the students rather than assigned. This would of course play hell with the teacher’s role, standardized textbooks with stories carefully calculated to introduce only certain letters or words at a time, and high-stakes testing for reading ability.
Given that, it’s unlikely that this new style of reading education will spread very far very fast. But schools are still turning out many adults – graduates or drop-outs – who are functionally illiterate. Until more is known, teaching reading may well remain guesswork in large part. but if you worry that your child is not learning to read quickly enough to suit you or the school system, the usual teaching methods may not be the answer.
Some children seem to need to follow their hearts and their interests when they are ready and have a need to read. This is not likely to be the solution for all children, just as phonics and whole language are not. If children are going to read as adults, for fun, for business, or just for daily life, they must develop the idea that reading is a worthwhile activity and not a chore.
And maybe formal teaching isn’t always the best way to do that.