April 29, 2006

When Losers Won't Surrender

In the May 1 issue of New York magazine we find an interesting article on the Reading Wars "A Is for Apple, B Is for Brawl." I can tell right off the bat that we're in for trouble because the title confuses letter names for phonics.

Do you remember the opening montage from the movie Blue Velvet? The camera pans through an idyllic small town, replete with picket fences and flower beds, and then burrows into the lawn until we come upon insects devouring the severed ear--a metaphor for evil lying right below the surface of this outwardly perfect town.

This article gives us the educational equivalent of the severed ear.

In the first two paragraphs we are treated to a description of the perfect classroom, but then we burrow in ...

With Kolbeck peering over her shoulder, Enami opens the book and bobs her head, the bright blue beads in her cornrows jostling as she starts reading aloud.

“On a sun day . . . ”

It says sunny day in the book. But Enami’s a little tentative. She hasn’t read this one before.

“A man with a collar . . . ”

The teacher has a suggestion. “Sometimes we look at the picture and figure out if it makes sense.”

Enami eyes the drawing of a man walking a dog. She agrees collar doesn’t seem right. After some discussion, it’s decided that collie works better.

“A dog!” says Enami, satisfied.

She continues—and a page later she trips up on the word disappeared. She takes her best guess: “Stepped.”

“Let’s see if that makes sense,” says Kolbeck.

Again, Enami checks the drawing: a man at the end of a street, turning a corner. Her eyes flash—“Disappeared!” And on she goes.

The severed ear!

This kid isn't reading by learning how to decode the words on the page, but by looking at the pictures and by guessing at the words. That's not reading; that's guessing...

... And no one in the school recognizes this for the horror it is. It's called balanced literacy and is the mandated method in New York City and the preferred method of teaching kids how to read in the U.S.

Let's pick up the analysis in Part II.

Update: This article is getting the treatment over at Kitchen Table Math too. Check it out.


Anonymous said...

hey - great minds think alike!

Anonymous said...

Well, at least learning English as though it was written ideographically/pictographically means you never have to learn spelling.

(This goes back a LONG way -- my father was a California Public School casualty from the 1930s and never mastered spelling. He needed to have me spell-check his business papers.)