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Take a Look! Oh Wait, You Can’t

August 28, 2009

Today is the last episode of Reading Rainbow to air on PBS and George Bush is to blame. Of course.

You see, Reading Rainbow reads whole books to kids and includes substantial cross-curricular exploratory experiences which help kids activate their prior knowledge on the subject. They even go so far as to have children (!) telling other children (!) what books they like to read and why (!). But, according to George Bush and his cronies, this is not the right way to teach kids to read.

You know what, George Bush? That’s because TV DOESN’T TEACH KIDS HOW TO READ.

But TV can spark an interest in a book or a subject. It can make the library feel like a familiar friend to a little kids, because they see books there that they know about. TV can help kids develop vocabulary and narrative skills by following a plot along through a whole book or story. Stuff you see on TV can make you more empathetic to experiences you have not had. Stories can make you laugh.

Seriously, you have to ruin everything?

Apparently, George Bush thinks kids should learn phonics. That’s why no one will fund Reading Rainbow–it doesn’t teach phonics. [Incidentally, apparently it only costs several hundred thousand dollars to fund Reading Rainbow; of course, I don’t have a spare several hundred thousand dollars, but doesn’t that seem doable? Like buying a house.]

I hate phonics (surprise surprise).

The whole reading field vacillates between whole language (stories) and phonics (phonemic and cognate awareness). What sounds like more fun to you? Right, stories beat phonemes every time. Teaching kids cognates (this is an S; S says “sssss” [except when it says something else (ship) or nothing at all (aisle)]) is boooooooooorrrrrrrrrring. And stupid.

Let’s say we were teaching someone how to ride a bicycle. It is actually a pretty complex operation. What if we decided to break down cycling into a bunch of small skills? That would be the phonics approach. We could start with steering. Sit the kid in a chair with some fake handle bars and make him practice steering. Over and over again. Right turns, left turns, branch right, branch left, go straight, cut left, cut right, etc. etc. etc. Do that for a few hours. Then teach the kid to peddle. Have him practice pushing his right foot down. Then the left foot. Then practice both feet together. Chances are pretty good that the kid will lose interest in learning to ride a bike before you even get to braking. You killed a childs’ natural curiosity. Congratulations–that’s pretty hard to do.

Now let’s teach a kid (you’ll have to find another kid, because the one you started with is running and screaming from you the minute you mention bikes) to ride the whole language way. This would start young; the kid rides around as a baby behind mom or dad. OOOOOHHHHHH! Fun. The kid can’t get enough. She always wants to ride, because mom or dad is so expert and so fast and the scenery is great and you just can’t beat the wind rushing against her face. With that love of riding already present, you can start off on tricycles and training wheels (board books and easy readers), which admittedly aren’t quite the same as REALLY riding, but the joy of doing it herself urges the child on to want to ride bigger and better bikes. Their skills are improving all the time by actually doing, not by practicing static skills.

So, I am a whole language fan. It works. More importantly, it nurtures a love of reading. A kid’s got to have that, because it is a pretty magical skill that can just feel like drudgery when you’re stuck in the decoding phase. Phonics is decoding. It is teaching kids how to crack a code. In English, the code is archaic and doesn’t make a lot of sense. It can be very frustrating, especially when the reward is not all that great. C+H=CH. Glad I slaved over figuring THAT out.

Hearing that story on NPR (linked above) made me think about PBS programming, though. There are some newer shows that I have never really liked, and now I realize why they never clicked with me: that they fall into the phonics teaching world.

If we look at the shows on a continuum from phonics to whole language, they go something like this:

Sesame StreetSuper WhyWord WorldBetween the LionsWord GirlReading Rainbow
(letter recognition)————(phonemic awareness)———(vocabulary)——-(story)

Of course, letter recognition and phonics have their place. I just think stories are better. Sesame Street strikes a good balance, I think, in teaching some skills explicitly, but mixed up in a whole bunch of entertaining stories and songs. It is entirely age appropriate. Between the Lions also includes whole stories–real literature, not TV writing–so I can see they are trying to bridge the gap. Of course, I adore Word Girl: rather than teaching vocabulary expressly, they demonstrate the words in fantasticlly funny narrative.

It wasn’t enough to ruin our national image abroad, trash our economy, kill a whole bunch of people, and destroy our public education system, but George Bush had to knock Reading Rainbow, too. Shame on you, George Bush! You don’t need it anymore: you already know how to read (or so you say)! And now kids are going to have to live without Reading Rainbow.

Rest in Peace, Reading Rainbow. I’ve got my fingers crossed for your resurrection.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Lindsay permalink
    August 28, 2009 9:07 pm

    I think the more pressing question here is what will Levar Burton do now? (Also when did he start going by LeVar?)

  2. esodhiambo permalink*
    August 28, 2009 10:09 pm

    My phonemic awareness tells me that there is no difference in pronunciation regardless of capitalization, so Levar=LeVar although it is a shorter form of his given name.

  3. Hannah permalink
    August 28, 2009 11:39 pm

    I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the youth in my area. (I’m in Primary and often help children to read.) They can pronounce all of the words in a given passage, but lack the comprehension of the passage as a whole. They do not recognize phrasing and punctuation and miss out on meaning. But they can read?!?

  4. esodhiambo permalink*
    August 29, 2009 2:57 pm

    Hannah–that is decoding. It tricks people into thinking you can read (including your teachers and your parents). Unfortunately, it does not only affect youngsters.

  5. Rosalynde permalink
    September 2, 2009 9:33 pm

    LOL, Emily, a fantastic screed! Blaming Bush is a venerable rhetorical technique, I think Aristotle invented it. Phonics have worked great on my two oldest so far, so no complaints here. But they probably would have done well with a whole-language approach too. Funny to read about the fierce battles I’ve never even heard of raging in other people’s fields.

  6. esodhiambo permalink*
    September 2, 2009 11:25 pm

    If it’s Good enough for the Declaration of Independence, good enough for my blog!

  7. esodhiambo permalink*
    September 2, 2009 11:33 pm

    BTW, Rosalynde, I am certain your kids started Whole Language–you read to them for years before they started some polishing with phonics, right?

  8. Naomi Sloan permalink
    September 7, 2009 10:02 am

    So I’m curious about this–a lady in my mom’s home ward has developed a reading program designed to help kids who aren’t at grade level get up to speed pretty quickly. Evidently it’s quite phonics based, and she seems to have a lot of success–so much that the principal at the school where some of her tutees (tutorees? Tutorial charges?) attend asked if they could use it as curriculum. So does phonics have a place in reading remediation, or do you think that’s exactly the wrong way to intervene with kids who are already at risk?

  9. esodhiambo permalink*
    September 7, 2009 3:57 pm

    I do think that phonics has it’s place with every reader, not just those in some need of intervention. What I question is the definition of success. I see a lot of kids who are great at naming the words. They can call out words, and strings of words, with the best of them, giving the impression that they are reading. But often retention and comprehension is just not there–so much so that (IMO) they are functionally illiterate because they are not reading for meaning (let alone pleasure).

    The pendulum in the field of reading is now VERY MUCH nearer to phonics than to whole language. We are, though, swinging away with phonics having hit it’s peak about 5 years ago. (It takes a while for reading programs that schools use and buy to catch up). We’ll probably be back at whole language in a decade or so, and then start swinging back. Maybe it is best to hang out in the middle.

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