Who is interested in a lively discussion about the virtues of phonics versus the “whole language” approach to reading instruction? Or the life of an eccentric Australian author? Or just a cute picture of our kids? You are? Read on.
I wrote a few months ago about Lucy’s completion of her reading curriculum. What I didn’t mention at that time was that I was in the middle of reading about the “whole language” approach and trying to figure out the next steps.
The three tools of reading
In the spring, I happened upon Reading Magic, written by Australian children’s author Mem Fox (who also turns out to be a college professor in the field of teaching reading). Initially I was a little bored by this book, thinking this was yet another author merely telling me how important it is to read to our children. (Yes, I know that! We do that!) But as the book progresses, Mem Fox starts revealing a bit more about the process children go through in learning to read. She describes three tools that everyone uses in reading:
- The ability to recognize and decipher print
- An understanding of how language fits together
- An understanding of the world and a collection of general knowledge
The first tool is what we often think of as “learning to read” — being able to sound out words phonetically. But the second two come through everyday use of language, life experiences, and reading aloud. As we read, we use these tools to guess what is going to be said next, using print to help us guess accurately.
I know I’m really outing myself as a geek here, but I was totally blown away by this information. It helped me to lighten up on the painfully boring phonics and embrace even more fully our favorite everyday activity: reading aloud. I have often read (and just instinctively felt) how important reading aloud is for children in growing their love of books, but I had never really understood how this process works. It was freeing to know that I didn’t need to belabor the phonics point (“sound it out!”) as Lucy and Rosie read books aloud to me. Mem Fox writes:
To give them confidence, beginning readers need to be able to skim right from the start, which sounds like a contradiction: how can they skim if they can’t read? Rhymes and songs provide many words that are easy to “read” since children know in advance — by the predictable rhyme and rhythm — what the correct word will be at the end of a given sentence. They don’t have to “read-see” it. They can “read-guess” it. They begin to think of themselves as readers — the attitude comes first, and the skills follow. (page 109)
(Incidentally, have you read this study that shows how people are able to read and comprehend a paragraph even when all the letters in each word are scrambled, so long as the first and last letters are in place? More proof that we skim and guess quite a bit when we are reading.)
What changed at our house
So, since finishing Lucy’s 100 Lessons, I’ve changed my method for teaching reading a bit:
- If a child struggles over a word when reading a book out loud, I generally say the word rather than waiting until they sound it out. This helps the children to continue on with the flow of their reading, both improving their comprehension and enjoyment, while also helping them to recognize what these words look like in context.
- I’m still doing 100 Lessons with Rosie, but at her own pace. On days that Rosie isn’t in the mood for phonics, we do a reading lesson by having Rosie read a simple book out loud to me, or doing “echo reading” with a slightly more advanced book.
- I have embraced field trips more fully as an educational tool. Not only is it fun to visit the Art Institute and the Planetarium, but I’m seeing that it is also a tool for language study as we experience all kinds of different things together. Just the other day, Rosie looked at an ATM sign and said, “Mama, does that spell ‘atom’?” Not quite, but I can tell her brain is working!
- Reading aloud has taken an even more central place in our homeschool. Frankly, it is truly a relief to have such an enjoyable activity anchor the rest of our schooling life.
I have heard people criticize the “whole language” or “whole word” approach to reading, saying that an absence of phonics caused some children to truly struggle in their reading. What I appreciate about Mem Fox’s viewpoint is the three-fold approach she takes, acknowledging that phonics certainly has its place, while also asserting that it is not the only skill needed for successful readers to blossom.
Not only does Mem Fox have great thoughts about teaching reading, but she has a few opinions on a variety of other things that contribute to learning. I appreciated her chapter on television, particularly this bit:
From a child’s point of view, one of the best things about television is that it isn’t competitive. There’s no such thing as a good television watcher or a bad television watcher. No one has any idea about our capabilities as television watchers — no one is better than we are, or worse. And no parent stands at the school gate and proudly says to another parent: “Brett’s been put in the top television-watching group. We’re so thrilled!”
I know this kind of pedagogical information doesn’t float everyone’s boat, but it is really fascinating to me as we teach our daughters to read. As a homeschooling mother, I long to find ways to teach our children that fit our family, ones that are effective in learning and also enjoyable enough that we’ll actually do them. I’m so glad Mem Fox gave me some tips on reading. It has made life better around here!
And what else about Mem Fox?
As I sometimes do when smitten with an author, I started perusing more writings by Mem Fox. She has some terrific resources on her website, including audio files and detailed instruction about how to read aloud (she studied theatre as a young woman). While there, I was drawn into her tips on writing picture books — a longtime aspiration of Jon’s and mine.
I also discovered her biography, endearingly titled Dear Mem Fox, I Have Read All Your Books Even the Pathetic Ones. It turned out to be a fascinating read, beginning with her upbringing in what was then Southern Rhodesia (and is now Zimbabwe) with her missionary parents and continuing with her drama study in England (including extensive travels), her work in teaching reading at a university in Australia, her book-publishing adventures and ensuing fame, and the birth of her daughter. Mem Fox writes with vivid imagery and a delightful sense of humor. Hearing about her writing process was both challenging and inspiring, resulting in my own personal goal of writing a (short) book in the next year.
Giddy with Mem Fox-isms, I took her Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning, and Living along on our trip to Cedar Campus and devoured it. Within this collection of essays (published in 1993), there wasn’t a ton of information that I hadn’t already read in some form or another in Reading Magic or Dear Mem Fox…, but it was fascinating to read some more of her creative work in teaching other teachers about reading. I saw that her writings about television (from Reading Magic, mentioned above) were originally aired here, and more deeply covered. Fox not only talks about the lack of competitiveness that characterizes the joy of television-watching, but she also calls for that same warm, comfortable, relaxed, loving atmosphere to be cultivated in read-aloud sessions:
…for children to be able to learn to love books they need time to read, a quiet place to read in, warmth in winter, coolness in summer, a comfortable spot to curl up in, and enough light to read by. (page 100)
I appreciate that Mem Fox is not “fanatically anti-television” (her words). She enjoys television with discernment (and encourages others to do so), but also wants homes and schools to develop a warm, loving, familiar culture around reading. I cannot agree more!
It’s been a delight to steep myself in Mem Fox this summer. I am so glad to have had such a personable and entertaining tutor in teaching reading, and I am delighted by the success I’m having in putting her words into practice.