Of Hares and Tortoises

Jean Paiget was world-renowned in the field of Child Psychology. A lot of his theories still hold true today (although a lot of his research methods are refuted).  But what is not widely known is the education of his children, most notably his only son, Laurent. Paiget wanted to raise his son in a sterile environment absent of the detrimental effects of ‘teachers’ or other educators, so he secluded his son from other people’s influence except his own. He thought he alone (with his wife) could raise and socialize the perfect kid. Needless to say, his experiment failed miserably. His son was severely socially awkward.

I learned how to read ‘by Phonics’.  Meaning, I learning to sound out the words by the sounds they make. Later on I became aware that kids (like my younger siblings) were being taught with a method known as Whole Word recognition. This is where a student memorizes how to say a word based on how it looks and sounds.

I know this is kind of late for me to say, but in my defense I’ve been learning a whole new culture and the nuances of how things are done here in Georgia. The teachers here teach by Whole Word recognition and the instructional materials support them.

Which if you think about it, feeds into the Soviet style method of teaching; rote memorization. Actually today I saw an example of this in crystal clarity. In a second grade class they were supposed to read one at a time a pretty long passage from the book. They were introduced to some of the words the lesson before.  For example; old, new, fast, slow and funny. The teacher had written the words on the board with the Georgian translation beside it. And explained it to them.

So today, as they were going around the room reading, a couple of students read it perfectly. I mean per-fect-ly! Annunciation and all. Needless to say I was impressed. But the other students who tried to read struggled like crazy.  Then she asked if anybody else wanted to read. After scanning the room, she said the key words that initially confused me. She asked, “No. I want someone to read who hasn’t memorized the passage.”

Memorized? There was no way any of them memorized twenty plus lines of English.  But sure enough, soon after she asked the previous question, she asks who can say it from memory. Two girls stood up and knocked it out. I was stunned. And it goes without saying it was the original two girls who read it perfectly.

Now I don’t know if it’s just these two girls are geniuses and do it in all classes, or they are the only ones who loves English and therefore put forth the effort. And in other classes, the other students are busting out passages of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto or  Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Even still, I hate Whole Word compared to Phonics.

.*The next argument is speaking for students learning to read who are native English speakers*

The Whole Word readers often appear to have an advantage over the phonetic readers, because the process they use to turn written words into meaning is simpler, having fewer steps: First they look at the word, then they remember what the word was, then they say it. The only limit to their reading vocabulary is the number words they’ve memorized; they can pick up lots of words very quickly. Once someone reads the word for her a time or two, hopefully the student would remember the word thereafter, and could even recognize it in new sentences.

But short of that, even if a word was in their spoken vocabulary, they won’t recognize it on the page if she hadn’t seen it before in print, even if it was totally phonetically regular, with all short-vowel sounds. And when it comes to words they didn’t recognize, they will try to guess, coming up either with nonsense words or with words that are similar-looking (same starting and ending letter, totally different middle), or with a synonym that bears no visual resemblance to the correct word on the page.

A reader who has been trained to read words by Whole Word recognition use their brains in totally different ways. In the brain of the sight-recognition reader, reading activates the part of the brain used in visual recognition.

And, it may be easier in the short term to memorize a limited vocabulary set by sight, but in the long term, it is easier to memorize the 70 or so common spellings of the 44 sounds in the English language, plus several dozen or so irregular words, than it is to memorize ten thousand or so vocabulary words by sight.

In the phonetic reader’s brain, reading activates the parts of the brain that are used in analysis, and in the processing of sound (even if the person is reading silently).

The phonetic reader’s reading process is a little more complicated; first they look at the letters of the word, then they convert the letters (singly or in combination) into sound according to a sometimes-not-quite-logical set of English phonetic rules, then they speak or imagine the sounds these letters make, and only then do they understand the word they just read. It’s a lot more work, and takes some discipline. Their reading vocabulary is (at first) limited by their understanding of the phonetic rules; until they’ve mastered the whole rule set, the amount they can actually read is pretty slim.

But this situation soon dramatically changes. The fact is, the set of English phonetic rules, though pretty big, is not infinite.

Once a reader has mastered the English phonetics system his reading vocabulary expands almost overnight to encompass pretty much his entire speaking vocabulary; he gobbles up new vocabulary words almost as fast as you can throw them at him; and the sight-word reader never catches up.

And it’s very difficult for a person thoroughly trained in one method to make the switch and start using the other kind of method–especially as the student gets older.

I need to figure out where exactly ‘reading’ fits with learning a language. Because it’s simply not possible to use the exact same methods with a student who’s native language is not English AND they are learning their own language at the same time. And I know no one is asking me, but their language looks a hell of a lot harder than ours.  Just sayin’…

But for my tutored student Nika, we are going to learn through phonics. I already translated to his mom that his results might take a while to notice, but sooner or later, we are gonna spank the pants off those other kids. (Forgive the competitive nature in me. I know the other kids are my kids, too).

And just like Paiget, we’ll see what’s what in the end! Well, that might have been a bad example.

…still formulating a plan for grammar. (That word, ‘grammar’, doesn’t even make sense to me….. why not change to “GrammER”?)

“Butterfly in the sky
I can go twice as high
Take a look
It’s in a book
A reading rainbow
A reading rainbow

I can go anywhere
I can go anywhere
Friends to know
And ways to grow
A reading rainbow
A reading rainbow”

Reading Rainbow Theme Song


3 responses to “Of Hares and Tortoises

  1. I completely agree with your reasoning! I too was taught with phonics. I don’t know how people read otherwise to be honest. It seems like the easy way out to just remember what a word looks like. It is the exact reason that I’ve never been interested in learning Chinese or any other language with characters. The thought of having to memorize what each character looks like seems difficult and horrible! I know it can be done but I still think phonics is the way to go. You go get ’em and show them how to REALLY speak the English language!

    • I just realized that I said that word recognition was both easy and hard in the same discussion. No I’ve confused myself!

      • it’s alright, girl. I understand what you meant. And now that i have a grasp on what my student knows and doesn’t know in terms of English skills, I can really get down to basics. The funny thing though, is now he is so comfortable with me that he speaks to me in full blown Georgian sentences and expects me to respond. Poor kid. I just say, ” Ho (yes), Now, get back to work.”

Holla atcha boy!

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