Going to the dogs

Richard Colvin, back ‘n blogging, critiques the new New York Times’ column on teaching by Susan Engel, a Williams psychology professor and teacher educator. The column is a nice idea, Colvin writes. But the first one promotes the idea that teachers don’t need to teach children to read.

The column is about a kid who can’t read. And rather than the teacher actually teaching the kid to read, she has the kid read to her dog. So that’s the solution. More dogs in classrooms!!!

The teaching problem the column address is what to do with a nice, sweet, amenable third grader who likes to draw but is a slow, reluctant reader who stumbles over new words. Naturally, then, he hates to read aloud. The set up to the column says that the child had memorized words in kindergarten. “Most children,” the column continues, “catch on fairly easily after this, figuring out how to use the meaning of words and sentences as a guide to greater fluency.” This is the heart of the whole language philosophy — reading is natural and fun and when kids are exposed to lots of words they infer the “code” of how letters are connected to sounds and even if they don’t they can learn the meaning of words by guessing and predicting. Problem is, this is a terribly inefficient process. Why not help the kids along by letting them in on the secret of the phonetic properties of the letters and letting them know that, in most cases, the code will tell you what the word is?

By June, the boy is reading picture books fluently. So he’ll be entering fourth grade with early first-grade reading skills. The books will have more complex words and few pictures. What kind of dog will fix that?

About Joanne


  1. I agree with you that teachers need to help students with the reading process by teaching them the phonetic properties of the letters. My grandson is in kindergarten, and we play games with words while he is drawing. He loves to label his pictures. We change beginning letters to inspire new pictures. Hopefully, he will be able to read to the cat his mother has promised he can have when he is twelve.

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    Undoubtedly, a lot of kids have to be taught to read, in order to learn to read. But don’t they also have to practice? The teacher of the little boy said that he was reluctant to practice, and in order to get him to practice, she had him read to the dog. This seems like an excellent idea. It doesn’t say that the teacher didn’t do anything else– but the kid is not going to get anywhere without practicing.

  3. An excellent idea? Come on Cardinal.

    We have a single anecdote which, on inspection, doesn’t seem to be producing particularly impressive results – as Joanne points out, the kid’s “reading” a picture books – and has nothing in the way of an explanatory hypothesis. Other then novelty what’s there of substance to get excited about?


  1. […] Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs. Richard Lee Colvin concludes a critique of a NYT article on teaching with: Speech is natural. Reading is not. […]