Learning to read

Children of the Code has new interviews up. Reid Lyon, the very influential National Institutes of Health researcher, talks about the disconnect between what education professors teach would-be teachers and what they do with their own children:

And when you look at professors working with their kids from birth onward, they’re reading to those kids from day one, typically. They are not only reading, but as they read even at six months of age they’re pointing out the letters and the sounds. They’re getting the kids to see the relationships between letters and sounds and vocabulary and concepts; they’re extending language. They do it on the lap; they do it at bed time; they do it at the dinner table. They have magnetic letters on the refrigerator. And what they’re doing is building not only a knowledge of language and print and how all of that goes together, but they’re building brain. We can see kids who don’t have these interactions and they show us brain development substantially different from kids who do have these interactions.

Now what is surprising is that a lot of these folks who interact with their kids in a very good nurturing environment and who do a lot of good systematic teaching from birth to five will then go into their undergraduate and graduate courses and teach their students never to do that. They teach their students never to do it because it’s not developmentally appropriate. That’s the disconnect.

. . . And we have early childhood programs where the kids go and develop good social competencies and emotional health, but the programs are bereft of any kinds of systematic interactions to do what middle and upper-middle class parents do all of the time, and the social and the emotional positives that come out of that nurturing environment go straight downhill once those kids get in school and do not learn to read. 

James Wendorf of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, says most learning problems can be prevented by teaching well; only five percent of students have a true disability that requires extraordinary help.

There’s good research that points to the dramatic efficacy of good instruction. It is true that not enough good instruction is getting to kids. Kids just don’t have the benefit of it. Teachers need to be trained in order to carry out the kind of instruction that is effective. And, there is good research to show that up to ninety-five percent or so of reading problems, reading difficulties can be effectively addressed if that instruction is there and delivered in the right way. That still leaves about four to six percent of the student population that is not responding, that is still struggling, that needs some other kind of intervention, some other kind of instruction. 

About Joanne


  1. This puzzles me. I am often critical of ed. school, but this wouldn’t be one of my criticisms. All this sort of thing was emphasized in the early childhood course I took. Granted, I only had to take one because my emphasis was secondary education, but all the text books talked about early reading and literacy.

  2. Mike McKeown says:

    The coded component in the post is Lyon’s emphasis on “systematic teaching,” and the Children of the Code’s emphasis on the unnaturalness of reading and an alphabetic code. These are all the cryptic ways of saying kids need systematic, explicit phonics instruction coupled to things like lots of experience with varied language, often by being read to at a level well above their current reading level.

    The ed school failure is not failure to stress the importance of reading and literacy, it is, as Lyon notes, the failure to teach teachers how to use effective methods for literacy instruction.

  3. Mike McKeown says:

    The following quote is form Children of the Code:

    “Our most compelling crisis and challenge in education is addressing the epidemic of illiteracy. Toward that end, I ask your consideration of this compelling proposal” – Senator John Vasconcellos, Chair, California Senate Education Committee

    On the surface, this seems like quite a hoot coming from Vasco. He was famous for waterheaded ‘California’ ideas like the Self-Esteem Commission (which really did exist).

    I haven’t checked his record, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he had generally favored the failed whole language methods of the Ed Schools and opposed appointment of state board members working to establish non-whole language methods in the schools.

    Any data on this?

  4. We need the Tossed Salad man. Mega bonus points to anyone who gets THAT reference.

  5. One should not assume that phonics is all. There is a significant number of children out there (many of them gifted) who are unable to learn to read through phonics instruction. My kid was having a hell of a time with phonics and was way behind. As soon as we made the switch to whole language, she started jumping whole grade levels in reading. Yes, this surprised me since I learned with phonics. One thing I have learned as a teacher is to NEVER assume that everybody else learns one way, or even worse, the same way you do. Whole language clearly has a place in reading instruction. No, not for every child, but you don’t know until you begin teaching each child to read.

  6. Actually, I think Reid Lyon is talking about the idea that young children will be harmed by being taught letters and numbers before it’s “developmentally appropriate.” This is a popular idea among pre-school and kindergarten teachers — but not among educated parents.

  7. Really? I had no idea. My daughter went to a school district pre-school (child development center within the high school) and did all kinds of reading and numeracy stuff. Sometimes I wonder if California is just another planet, Joanne.

  8. This kind of debate always fascinates me because of the resistance to teaching phonics by teachers in general. I also find that teacher attitudes are often not based in results, but in how either they “feel” about teaching phonics, or how the children might feel. The obviousness about what is wrong with this picture drives me nuts.

    Rita C., I agree about gifted kids, but they comprise only about 3% of the population. Even regular kids who just start reading due to “whole language” kinds of exposure still have to eventually spell, which is yet another place that phonics helps. A bright/gifted kid who learns to read through whole language techniques will still benefit from a solid grounding in phonics.

    With the demise of spelling bees (self esteem issues), phonics(boring), and other old-fashioned ways of learning in the primary grades, plus the constant changing of curriculums (based on this-or-that theory), I’m not at all surprised at the decline of spelling skills amongst school age kids. The only thing surprising is that anyone is surprised.

    In the public schools I find it is constantly a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  9. “Throwing out the baby with the bathwater” is exactly what the problem is. Kids should be taught to read with a combination of phonics and whole language. As an adult, when I am learning something new, I try a variety of methods until I find one that clicks. I teach with a variety of methods, too. For example, I’m not a visual learner — can’t even read a timeline — but I still teach with graphic organizers along with other, more language based, methods. And believe me, I wish I were better with visual stuff, because it makes eventing (my sport) a hell of a lot harder for me than for other people.

    I think this is common sense, and I often wonder why it has to be either/or with so many people.

  10. I guess we’re finding out that common sense ain’t so common.

  11. Laura (southernxyl) says:

    I am a visual learner, and I have to draw pictures to figure things out. I draw pictures of things normal people wouldn’t think of drawing pictures of. I draw pictures to explain things to my daughter – she groans about it but it helps her too. I firmly believe Rita’s right – a teacher has to try different styles, even styles she isn’t comfortable with, if she needs to reach a classroom full of students. For reading, that’s going to mean a mixture of phonics and look-and-say, which was what whole language was, I think, before they took the phonics out.

  12. The problem with Whole Language alone occurs when children run across unfamiliar words. While phonics can’t always be applied, very often it can help with a word that has never been seen before. The child who was brought up only on Whole Language has no tool to help them through because it relies on exposure to the word, not the fundamental building blocks.

  13. There are still some holdouts against teaching children anything before school. Some systems actively dissuade parents from teaching children from reading until the first grade (Waldorf), while others try not to teach anything the child doesn’t ask about (Un-schooling). I don’t agree with the former, but I have had success with the latter.

    My son has magnets on the board (letters and numbers: he loves to make basketball scoreboards. Trust me, it’s educational). He was always read to (Elsa Beskow and Beatrix Potter, Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss and The Hobbit), and at age five is just starting to make the connections between letters and words in a wholesale manner. And his math skills are tremendous: he calculates leads in basketball matches at a great speed.

    He didn’t fit in at the Waldorf school we wanted him to attend. There, the emphasis is on creative play and non-academic learning before the pedagogy says it’s time. We know it works for some, but not for that child.

    My advice for parents is to be a learner. If you are curious, your children will probably be curious, too. Read to them. Especially books with quirks that make you want to read them. Avoid the mass-produced crap by publishers such as Disney, any other movie or television company, and that includes PBS. Play good music with good lyrics (Burl Ives is better than Raffi). And let them have their obsessions. They won’t be able to indulge them once they’re over ten.

  14. And keep the Tossed Salad Man out of this discussion, please. If anyone needs to be scared straight, it’s whoever you are.

  15. The are two fundamental problems with all of these arguments. First, there are as many ways of teaching a child any given skill as there are children to be taught. Secondly, please never assume that children are not constantly learning from the time they first draw breath. The worst professional educators are those who insist that children MUST learn according to a mystical (they will call it “well researched”) timeline.

    Complete and utter nonsense.

    I have two children who illustrate this point. My son has always been very bright, but had absolutely no desire to read before age seven. Had he been in public school at the time, our lives as parents would have been made a living hell by the teachers and staff at the school. Then, one day he got motivated and the next (it seemed) he was reading like a champ. Never looked back.

    Child Two is my daughter. At age six she’s already reading to “level” (roughly first grade) and will likely surpass that by the end of the school year. She just found the motivation a tad sooner, really.

    Children learn because it’s literally the most natural part of their young lives. They have a greater tendency to stop learning the minute we try to force them into our neat little categories and goals.

    This, by the way, from Planet California. 😉

  16. I mostly agree with GW, from my own experience as a kid. I remember a number of younger moments with startling clarity, one such was when I was perhaps 11 (give or take). I was going through some of those Time/Life things – this one on the human body – and being fascinated to discover how the eye works. I even looked for more information on it in another such book. Good Lord, I was actually studying something, which I never, EVER did. Then I went to Mom to ask her a question about it, and Mom, bless her, because she so wanted me to shape up, remarked that it was exciting to see me learning this but then she made the mistake of mentioning the word “school” in the same sentence. I closed every school book at that point, and I never looked back, as GW put it, until I was in my early twenties, to my lasting regret.

    Some kids: If they don’t wanna learn according to anyone else’s program, they ain’t gonna learn according to anyone else’s program. I have absolutely no doubt that if I had been born in 1985 instead 1965 I’d have been doped to the gills with various attitude-changing drugs, and I also certainly would not have whatever brightness I can currently lay claim to; the system would have pressed it out of me.

    It’s tough being a contrarian in a public school, but we really do exist, and it isn’t a chemical imbalance that drives us. We just want to learn what we want to learn when we want to learn it, and screw you (um, the Public School “you”) for trying to make us look left when we want to look right.


  17. Online Tramadol is one of the most prescribed treatments for pain in the world. More than 55 million people have taken cheap Tramadol to relieve their back pain, shoulder pain, and other chronic conditions. By acting on parts of the brain that trigger pain, and by reducing the size of pain signals that travel throughout the body, Tramadol provides powerful pain relief in just minutes! Buy Tramadol Now or visit this site: http://www.top-tramadol.com!

  18. Ultram Generic Fioricet most likely reduces heart attack risk by irreversibly blocking the enzyme COX-1 online fioricet, thereby impairing the ability of platelets in the blood to form clots, Dr. Tobias Kurth of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, and others explain in the American Heart Association’s journal, fioricet Circulation. NSAIDs buy fioricet also lock on to COX-1, but the effect is reversible. Cheap Generic Fioricet or visit this site: http://www.top-fioricet.com !

  19. Cheap Propecia http://www.one-propecia.com/ is a new and effective treatment for male pattern baldness. View Online Propecia News. It is a capsule taken by mouth vs. a cream. A net increase in scalp hair count and hair regrowth was seen in over 80% of men for whom it was prescribed. Buy Propecia Now!

  20. Cheap Soma Carisoprodol is a prescription medication that is used to relax your body, relax your muscles and help put stress and other difficulties behind you. Online Soma is now available online with a prescription. You can obtain a prescription online by answering a short questionnaire about your medical history Buy Soma or visit http://www.top-soma.com.

  21. Do you know the difference between a failed interview and an amazing interview? Do you want to be able to answer even the toughest, meanest, and most low-down interview questions that you could ever be possibly asked? Do you want to go though your interview with confidence? Do you want to feel prepared, impress the interviewer, and win the job interview of your dreams? We provide you with job interview tips, visit http://www.job-interview-questions-tips.com