Meet My Teacher: Why Mem Fox rocks

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 Reading Magic by Mem Fox

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:

  1. The ability to recognize and decipher print
  2. An understanding of how language fits together
  3. 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.)

Lucy and Rosie 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!”

So true!

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.
Dear Mem Fox
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.
Radical Reflections.
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.

4 Thoughts on “Meet My Teacher: Why Mem Fox rocks

  1. Hi, Ann! This is definitely interesting and I want to check out Mem Fox’s books! Just a note about what I’ve learned as a teacher and homeschooler. The approach you mention – some phonics with an emphasis on reading aloud and providing fun books to read – definitely works for many kids. My son is one of them. My daughter, however, needed a much more intensive program to learn to read. We used The Logic of English, which is absolutely fantastic and I highly recommend it.

    The difference between my son and my daughter is that he is an intuitive learner and she is a logical one. For him, he could learn some basic (and in some cases, outdated) spelling rules and was fine if he came across “exceptions” – his brain quickly and easily assimilated the exceptions into his “reading toolbox”.

    For my daughter, she absolutely could not do this. She needed clear, consistent rules – and if you know all the rules for spelling in English, which I did not until TLOE, our language actually is consistent rather than full of exceptions as we were taught growing up.

    I too am a huge fan of reading aloud to kids and we read aloud to both even though they are now 13 and 9 and read well on their own. However, another light bulb moment for me was when I realized that while reading aloud helps in so many areas – from developing imagination to increasing vocabulary – it will not help a child who is struggling actually learn to read any better.

    The technique that Mem talks about – skimming – again, is fine for intuitive learners but does a disservice to concrete learners. For concrete learners, anytime they simply “recognize” a word without having to sound it out – based on context, pictures, the beginning sound, or any other feature other than its phonetic construct – is one less time their brains are practicing the art of decoding, which is so vital when it comes to reading.

    The skimming that adults do – recognizing words even when the letters are mixed up or missing – is because the act of decoding has moved to the correct area of the brain. Children who struggle with reading have not moved their reading process to the correct area of the brain yet, and rely heavily on guessing or skimming. It looks like “reading” to us adults, so we think the child is reading, but they are not decoding. This is basically a quick definition of dyslexia – the child’s brain is not yet decoding the letters into sounds – even when the child empirically knows the sounds each letter makes!

    I think that teachers and parents need to be SUPER aware of their child’s learning style and the potential pitfalls of it in order to spot dyslexia early on. If I had know that the dyslexic child often seems to be “reading” (but is actually skimming or guessing), it would have helped me diagnose my daughter sooner. In our case, I did discover it when she was 7 and with 2 intensive years of research-based, targeted intervention, she is reading and writing quite well. Her brain has actually been re-wired to read with the correct area (auditory rather than visual). This ability to re-wire the dyslexic brain is something that scientists have only just recently discovered.

    Anyway, it is absolutely true that different approaches work for different kids, so I’m glad you’ve found something that work for yours. In many cases, families will have children with different reading/learning styles and the same approach won’t work for each child.

    I’ve researched this area extensively, including reading many books and attending conferences – and written about it at my blog with a lot of links to reading resources – if you’re interested: http://www.blog.montessoriforeveryone.com/dealing-with-dyslexia.html

    • Lori, thanks so much for your response! This information is very helpful. I do feel like I’ve been wading into dangerous territory in this post, as I know people have very strong opinions about the best way kids can learn to read. I really appreciate your thoughts about some children requiring a very structured system, and that one that you mention sounds great!

  2. Emily Horacek on September 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm said:

    “Who is interested in a lively discussion about the virtues of phonics versus the “whole language” approach to reading instruction?”

    Me!

    I am not a trained educator, but I am a homeschooler with 6 years experience and so far 3 readers. I’ll be the first one to tell you that different children learn to read in different ways and at different ages, and that there is no one size fits all answer to this question (such as whole language vs. phonic), and I would RUN from anyone that insisted that there was!

    My first two children learned to read without any direct help from me. The first went to private school for kindergarten when she was 6, and despite not knowing much beyond letter sounds at the beginning of the year, by the end of the school year she was reading well ahead of where the teacher was teaching. The second child, homeschooling K at a young 5, was what we called a stealth reader, who with nothing more than being taught the alphabet song and being read to aloud was reading by the end of his Kindergarten year.

    Our third child was not reading at the end of kindergarten. I did the same with her as with the others, letter sounds and a few sight words, and figured she would “get it” when she was ready. After first grade when she was still not reading (she would do her handwriting and I would tell her what each word she had made actually said), I had her evaluated by a reading instructor, concerned that she might have a problem like dyslexia or a vision problem that we had not caught. The eval did not yield anything unusual, but I did come away with some ideas for helping her track, like holding a bookmark above (not below) the line she was reading, and ramping up the sight words. I bought a reading program (finally!), Simply Charlotte Mason’s Delightful Reading, which starts with letter tiles and making words that rhyme. But before I could even fully implement my latest ideas, one day she just started reading. It “clicked”, like so many other parents had told me about. Within a few months she was reading chapter books and was probably caught up to a second grade level if not beyond. Through all of this, she loves books and reading, and I’ll always be glad we were homeschooling so that she was never made to feel stupid by peers or by being separated from the rest of the class for extra help.

    So now my current first grader (4th child) is not a reader, and I am using the letter tiles with him already, though he would much rather be read to. When we read easy readers together I emphasize a few new sight words each time, in case that’s what does the trick for him. And we always listen to good books in the car, which I think I enjoy much more than the children!

    Lori’s comment makes me wonder if the “click” of beginning to read is the point at which decoding has moved to the correct area of the brain? And how could you diagnose dyslexia younger than 7, especially if a child is recognizing letters and their sounds?

    Just one more note, about field trips: I was a part of a online homeschooling group that I suspected was too rigid for me. My suspicions were confirmed when they began to be dismissive of parents taking too many field trips because it didn’t allow enough time for seatwork. Rubbish! If we can’t take advantage of the world around us to help educate our children, then we might as well save the effort and send them to school, I say.

    Emily

    • Emily, I love hearing your story! It seems so clear that children learn to read in different ways, and I appreciate your experience! And I love that story about field trips. They are such a great tool for learning!

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