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Response to an Anti-Phonixxer

posted in: Thoughts on Education

A friend on social media sent me this piece from the Washington Post and asked what I thought. Here’s a quick and somewhat gut-felt response.

First, I have some sympathy with her about the education system; it doesn’t work well for everyone. I also have some sympathy with her feelings about what I’d call the medicalization of education. There’s far too much “diagnosing” of children who can’t read. Some people are genuinely dyslexic and have real glitches that make it harder (but not impossible) for them to read. I also meet a lot of people who’ve been labelled in various ways because it’s easier for a system to shift the blame onto the child rather than admit they failed to teach that child to read. It’s probably time to get rid of the term and redefine dyslexia.

I’m also sympathetic to her notions that some children need more time than the system allows, but when the author describes her daughter, what she doesn’t say is how lucky her daughter is to have been raised in a language-rich home. My kids would also have figured out reading on their own – but many children won’t and they are often the children from language-poor families. If we’re going to allow more time, then we need a place where language-poor children can develop and grow linguistically and get some direction in discovering how the language works. Perhaps school isn’t such a bad idea when it comes to social justice.

When she describes the literacy rates of colonials, she’s describing white men – not white women, black men or black women. Those white men were also refugees or offspring of refugees and motivated by the Protestant desire to read scripture for themselves. Generally, I think it’s a moot point as far as modern education goes. (Still mulling that one.)

Another moot point is Finland’s literacy rates. She needs to brush up on transparent and opaque orthographies before comparing any Nordic language with English.

She’s also guilty of setting up the false dichotomy of noble left organic education and evil right phonics. It’s insane! Some of the most left-wing people I know use the sounds of the language to make sure poor kids get a fair shot at education. In fact, the inclusion of this giant American lie makes me feel as though I’m reading anti-vaxxer rhetoric. “Go with your guts and don’t let Big Pharma destroy your child.” There is no Big Education or Big Phonics. If a teacher is “aggressively drilling (a dyslexic child or any child) in phonics” then they are a poor teacher. If Carol Black weren’t so anti-school, she might get a glimpse of how fun and joyful a good reading lesson can be, even for dyslexic children.

I’m a left-leaning, student-centred, alternative educator with an inexpensive and inclusive reading programme based on the sounds and symbols of the language aka phonics. Some educators love That Reading Thing because our approach happens to be backed up by current research. Some love it because it’s relational and chilled-out in its delivery. I don’t worry about the voting habits of the people who use TRT because to do so would be to the detriment of kids who will flourish in the programme.

I’m equally not worried about the 70% or so of kids who will somehow learn to read – and especially not worried about the highly literate offspring of writers. I am concerned about those teens and adults who experience deep shame because they can’t read in a society that is more dependent on literacy than ever. I’m concerned that 67% of adults in Cleveland are functionally illiterate – which means struggling to read the information on a medicine bottle. And concerned about the 20 year olds who come to a lesson saying, “I’m unteachable” – but who are reading within weeks because they just never knew there was a connection between what they say out loud and what they see on the page, the essence of phonics.

Carol Black and I would both agree that the problem here is school, but her suggestion that school-free is the answer is one that only a person privileged to be amongst the linguistically rich would dare to suggest. She’ll never give “phonics” (which has many incarnations) a fair trial because it happens in school. Until she comes up with an alternative that works for every single child, regardless of their parents’ ability to blog, then she’s working alongside all the other people in her country who don’t really care about the poor. I hope she’d be horrified by that idea.


4 Responses

  1. Gabrielle Miller

    In colonial America they used the alphabet method to teach young children to read (not the same as the alphabetic principle) but certainly better than nothing. We went off the deep end when we embraced the whole word approach and whole language approach (Ken Goodman). I grew up with the whole word approach – Dick and Jane in the 60s. I would have been delighted to have had systematic phonics instruction. Just because many of us learn to read regardless of methodology (Moats says roughly 60%) doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be better spellers and writers with systematic phonics instruction plus good lessons about word derivation and English orthography.

  2. Tricia

    Thanks for that, Gabrielle. Didn’t have time to look deeper at the colonials. I was a Janet and John kid in 60s Canada and one of the lucky 60%. As I said, my concern is for the ones who don’t get it and there are far too many of them to leave it to luck.

  3. Mike Starr

    A very thoughtful and complete response!

  4. Tricia

    Thanks, Mike.

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