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The Parental Approach Part 2

[Excerpted from The Homeschooling Almanac 2000-2001 Chapter 4, Copyright 2012 by Michael and Mary Leppert. All rights reserved.]

In Part 1, (12-21-12 issue), we discussed how we raised our son, Lennon, using what we call the Parental Approach. This second part covers some of the actual nuts-and-bolts matters you face as homeschoolers, such as using curriculum, etc.

 How Will I Know Which Curriculum to Choose?

This is a tough question for us to answer with our parental approach background. This is because you may consider one or two of the subjects we valued and taught to Lennon a complete waste of time. Or you may value something highly that we didn’t teach at all. The parental approach is completely individualized. But remember that we started with a boxed curriculum, heavily supplemented with storybooks and workbooks on various topics, until we grew into this experience. Our growth into homeschooling included talking to many, many other homeschooling families, reading countless magazines and catalogs, attending conferences and curriculum fairs, and shopping in educational and regular bookstores for things that caught our eyes. Some great-looking materials were dismal failures once we tried teaching with them—some dumbed down, others were not what Lennon responded to.

If I, Mary, had it to do over, I wouldn’t change a thing. The boxed curriculum gave us a great outline and high-quality, well-written materials to learn with, as teachers and pupil. After the second year, we began customizing our core work materials. By then, we had a clear picture of what subjects to teach Lennon, what would come in the near future, and what would come after that. We can safely say that we saw what his learning career looked like up to high school and somewhat into high school. Math considerations were determined by whether or not Lennon decided to “play the game” of college entrance (as David Colfax puts it). . . he did not.

Determining the Direction of Your Curriculum

Our family had compiled a curriculum we were very comfortable and satisfied with, chosen from among the many fine materials available to homeschoolers. Before using some of these materials, we tested them a little bit, doing a lesson here or there or the introductory lessons to see if we liked the entire program. Remember, however, that these are personal choices—as much so as favorite styles of clothing, food, entertainment, and friends. The materials that make up your child’s curriculum will become a part of your family for the years you use them. A poor fit can lead to negative, unproductive experiences common in mass-school.

In schools, most subjects are taught not when the child is ready, but when the system is ready. Schools group children by age, not because children of that age are magically capable of learning a particular subject, but because that is best for the system and makes crowd management easier.

As parents, we agreed that the ability to actually reason (rather than merely form opinions) and to discern is the most important intellectual quality. There are many excellent books available to aid you in teaching critical thinking and reasoning. For reading, we are firm believers in teaching the phonics method as opposed to whole word or whole language. In our experience, those who have learned by the phonics method are usually better spellers and overall better readers than those who learn with any other method.

I want to finish this article with some questions and answers from the Almanac that may shed light on your particular situation.

Q.  Am I really a good influence for my child all day long?

A.  This is an ironic question, but one we hear from parents all the same. We think it reflects a truly humble self-image, which is admirable but for its blind spot. What makes you think you are any less a good influence than a teacher who is doing his or her job? Or a group of children your child’s age? Any way you look at it, for better or for worse, your child’s destiny is to be your child, which includes your being his or her main influence. Just as your child has your genetic makeup, she or he should have your cultural and societal makeup as well.Homeschooling is also a wonderful reason for spending time to better yourself. The better you are as a person, the better parent you’ll be. So if you’re not the best influence for your child, become so!

Q.  What if I don’t feel qualified to teach my child myself?

A.   This is a frequent concern. Virtually every instructional book available—for math, English, history, writing—is self-explanatory because homeschooling is a do-it-yourself field. Many book/learning material companies are owned by homeschooling families; others want to court the vast, growing market in home education. These companies provide detailed instructions for the successful use of their products. Any parent with average reading comprehension skills can successfully teach his or her own children.

As a sidelight, most teachers at conventional schools don’t choose their own curriculum, but are assigned a curriculum selected by the school board or administrator. Teachers present textbook material to 30 or 40 children in a classroom each day, moving them through the school year on time. Homeschooling your own children is very different: The parent and student have much more time together, teaching is one-on-one, you can use your time more effectively and you can always ask someone else to teach a subject  if you find you don’t know it. This applies mostly to upper level math, where a math tutor comes in very handy.

Q.  Are all subjects taught in school really necessary?

A.  No. In some school districts the curriculum is determined by the school administration, based on a well-thought-out philosophy of what children need to learn to be well-rounded; in other districts, the decision is based on what books are available at a discount; in others, there are other forces are at work. But even well-thought-out and well-meaning educational philosophies can be “wrong” for your family or your child. That is why getting to know yourselves and making decisions based on this knowledge is important.

We had to find out the homeschooling style that felt most comfortable to ourselves and our family as a whole.

We sincerely hope that this article aids you and enhances your homeschooling journey. ML


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Six Ideas To Encourage Summer Reading

By Sarita Holzmann, Sonlight, President & Founder

When summer break comes around, you couldn’t stop some book-loving kids from reading if you wanted to. But what about children who still struggle to read? What can you do this summer to encourage them? Here are six simple ideas:

  1. Keep reading!
    Even if you take a well-deserved break from other studies, most children benefit from continuing to read every day. This could mean sharing a read-aloud together at bedtime, having your children read to you, or setting aside 20 minutes a day for everyone to grab a book and read silently.This steady little bit of work each day can pave the way for a reading breakthrough. It also keeps your kids from losing whatever reading confidence they’ve built up over the school year.
  1. Read to a dog
    Several different studies show that reading out loud to dogs can help kids gain confidence and fluency in reading. A quick Google search for “Reading to Rover” will turn up interesting studies and various library programs around the country.
    It seems that kids love the fact that the dog won’t judge them, won’t correct them, and listens with endless patience. Plus, these pets tend to calm children who would otherwise be nervous about reading out loud.So if you have a cooperative dog at home, consider encouraging your children to read one-on-one to their furry audience.
  1. Let your children read books a notch below their ability level
    Sometimes, we eager mothers want our children to push themselves all the time. But when you’re helping children fall in love with reading, that may not be the best strategy. It’s often better to let them read books that might seem too easy for them.You want great stories to draw your children in so they’re compelled to keep going. But when kids are frustrated because they struggle with each page of a book, they will probably miss the joy of the story. They may decide that reading is an unwelcome, unrewarding chore.But if children are allowed to read exciting books a bit below their ability, they will slowly gain confidence and (we trust!) eventually catch the reading bug. When that happens, they’ll probably shoot ahead and start choosing harder books Better to lay a foundation for the love of reading before pushing too far ahead.
  1. Check out audio books for long road trips
    Summer road trips are the perfect opportunity to catch some great books on CD. Just head to your library and check out some audio books before you take off.When my husband and I would take the kids on car trips, I used to get audio books from the library and a small CD player for each child. The only thing we’d hear from the kids for hours on end was, “Can you pass me another book?” I must say, it’s a nice way to promote reading … and some peace and quiet in the back seat.
  1. Join (or create) a summer reading program
    Whether or not your kids are already hooked on reading, they might enjoy a local reading program. With fun events and prizes, these programs can have great influence in getting kids to read. If your local library or book store doesn’t host a program, consider creating your own. A simple sticker chart with some basic prizes (such as an ice cream cone or a special date with mom or dad) could be all that you need for some serious reading fun this summer.
  1. Model reading for your children
    Don’t forget to pick out some great books for yourself, too. When your children see you enjoy reading on your own, it helps them realize that reading is a worthwhile activity. So don’t feel guilty for heading out to the porch with a good book this summer. It may actually help your children!

If you’re wondering what to read during your break, take a look at the Sonlight Summer Readers (my own kids have great memories of many of these titles) or the remarkable Readers and Read-Alouds in Sonlight Core programs. But be careful, parents tell me the pleas for “One more chapter!” never diminish once they start.
Happy reading!


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Institute for Excellence in Writing – Creative Writing from K-12

Webinars for School Administrators – Monthly Webinars are on Wednesday and Thursday of each month during the school year. Visit  for scheduling information.

Andrew Pudewa, the creator and director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, is one of the most popular conference speakers and experts on the teaching of creative writing in America.

Mr. Pudewa gives seminars, workshops and lectures to teacher groups all over the country and his complete writing program is easy and enjoyable to use for both teachers and students.

The father of seven, Andrew brings a youthful joie de vive but serious intelligence to the field of creative writing and his bright approach is irresistible to virtually any student.

The IEW school line includes the incredible disk-based writing program from K-12, eBook downloads for schools, Teacher Resources and Professional Development packages, too!

IEW offers a Magalog to teachers and you receive two FREE downloads when you visit the website and the School Division.

In the 1990s, Andrew Pudewa was introduced to Dr. James B. Webster and his Structure and Style methods while Mr. Pudewa was teaching 7th–8th graders English and history. After participating in the 11-day professional development course held in Canada for several years running, Andrew was given Dr. Webster’s blessing to take the program to the United States and streamline the course work for completion in two days instead of eleven. Today Mr. Pudewa is the principal speaker and director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing. Presenting throughout North America, he addresses issues related to teaching, writing, thinking, spelling, and music. His seminars for educators have equipped them with powerful tools to dramatically improve students’ writing and thinking skills. Although he is a graduate of the Talent Education Institute in Matsumoto, Japan, and holds a Certificate of Child Brain Development from the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his best endorsement is from an Oklahoman 3rd-grade teacher, who called him “the most powerful influence in modeling what kind of teacher I want to be.”

Excellence in Writing successfully equips students of all ages and levels of ability, including those with special needs and English language learners. Its methods not only build written and oral communication skills, but also improve critical thinking. By using Excellence in Writing methods across the curriculum to reinforce content area, students truly learn to write as they write to learn and are transformed from immature or even reluctant writers to competent, confident communicators. It is possible to teach students with very high writing aptitude alongside those with undeveloped writing aptitude, and the system works magnificently at both ends of that spectrum. ♦


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What is a Classic? Plus a Barnes & Noble Reading List

by Kyle Zook

Like the recent polarizing debate over what constitutes a “planet,” there is another term whose definition remains mercurial at best. The term is the word “classic,” and all that it implies. Many cultures throughout history have attempted to exemplify the apex of what was best in creation, be it art, music, science, philosophy, or literature. As products of the forces that have created this shared society, we hold in common certain intrinsic notions of what constitutes excellence, but as yet it remains ill-defined.

Over the last century, the purpose of classical literature has been challenged by many, largely due to the creation of literary canons, mostly by respected scholars who devoted their lives to organizing the collected works of mankind’s belletristic ambitions. It may even be true that the canons which are cherished by scholars stem from some subconscious predilection toward exalting the forces that shaped the society in which they exist, and as such their canons seem comprised, as their detractors say, of “dead white men.”

Yet for all that, it would seem hard to deny the place of books which have so far been added to these canons, and given the lofty title of “classic.” Over time, certain works have crystallized in value, but usually it is due to some underlying factor, what we call the merit of the book, which places that work above all others. Though regardless of how a particular society perceives the value of a particular book, the decision of what value that book has, remains at heart a personal one.

For a book to be handed down through centuries speaks to the timelessness of its appeal; it is usually works such as these that speak to us through certain universal themes that we accept as classics. Love, life, truth, beauty, these are the themes that make up human existence as we know it, and as such we regard the classics as the highest embodiment of those ideals.

Not all books noted as classics are simply aesthetically written, of course. Some books have historical or scientific value, or are held as paradigms by the works which have followed. Much as the Ancient Greeks tapped into their collective knowledge of mythology to infuse their works, the literary canon as it exists today forms a basis that infuses the great works of contemporary society, and knowledge of them can increase our appreciation of the works that follow by giving them different levels of understanding.

It is the laudable goal of the Barnes & Noble Classics program to bring these classic works to a wide audience. By offering these classic works at affordable prices, they have striven to make these highest expressions of the human drama accessible on a large scale. Each edition includes scholarly introductions from dedicated academics, as well as contextual background information like timelines and even contemporary reviews. Also fascinating is the “Inspired by” section, which demonstrates how the book has affected society and in turn produced other works of art or music.

At this time, we would like to humbly suggest three selections from the Barnes & Noble Classics list to consider adding to your own curriculum:

Cyrano De Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand, tr. by Gertrude Hall. Of course, the original is in French, and was an overnight sensation from the minute it appeared on stage in Paris in 1897. Based in part on the real-life Savinien de Cyrano, it is the tragic, and poetic, tale of the unrequited love of a brilliant swordsman and poet who happens to have a nose as large as his heart. His way with words woos the beauty Roxane, not for himself, but for his comrade-at-arms, the handsome but awkward-with-words Christian. The play is a delight to read, and even more delightful to watch; film versions abound, so as a treat it would be a nice pairing to add the video after reading through the play.

Common Sense, and Other Writings, by Thomas Paine. This healthy tome produced by Barnes & Noble (394 pages!) encompasses what might best be described as “the best of Thomas Paine.” As one of the more controversial figures of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine might be described as almost single-handedly galvanizing the decision to separate from England. Though but a recent immigrant to these shores, his rousing tones of revolution reverberated through the populace of the fledgling American colonies. In addition to Common Sense, there are a number of excerpts from his series of American Crisis Papers (1776-1783) including the inspiring address that George Washington read to his troops, which begins, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Also included are excerpts from The Age of Reason, which contributed to his subsequent unpopularity and disfavor by its attack on organized religions.

Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. Like his more popular novel, Main Street, Babbitt succeeds in skewering the empty materialism of American culture. As one of the most prominent businessmen in the town of Zenith, George Babbitt appears to have everything, at least on the surface. His success only leads him to realize just how lonely and empty it is to measure happiness by the number of things a person has acquired. When he meets a young widow he thinks is a “bohemian,” his dissatisfaction with his life leads him down a path where he may have to sacrifice all the things in life he has acquired. The question being, is the price too high to bear? The book’s title gave us the term, “babbittry,” a word for narrow-minded people with an unthinking attachment to middle-class materialism; which is why this book challenges us to think about the things we take for granted.

Of course, these are only suggested books, so why not take a look at all the listings in the Barnes & Noble Classics library, available at There is bound to be some treasure you will find in there, something that may spark your interest and perhaps make you look at the world in a brand new way. —K.Z. ■

Copyright 2007, 2011 by Modern Media. All rights reserved.


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Twelve Reasons To Read Aloud to Your Children

by Cathy Cuthbert, homeschooling mom of two

Most parents read to their young children as a matter of course and stop reading to them when they reach school age. They stop, I suppose, because they don’t see the need to read aloud once their children have been handed over to the expert reading instructors or once they can read to themselves. But there are benefits to reading aloud to your children no matter their age, especially to formerly-schooled children who now homeschool.

Children Who Have Difficulty Reading

Children who have been rescued from unhappy school situations often have had trouble reading. Typically, the schools attached some damaging label to these children such as dyslexia, ADD, ADHD or whatever the Education Establishment can dream up. These children are not incapable of learning to read, however, the joy of reading has been taken from them and sometimes even the joy of being read to has been taken as well. If this describes your child’s experience, you may need a bit of patience to help him but you needn’t despair. Make the commitment to read aloud to him every day.

To begin, choose topics that interest your child and books that are good for reading aloud. Be sure to match his intellect rather than reading level. Determine the time of day he is most comfortable sitting with you to read. Then sit together on the couch and read. If his attention span seems short, make the sessions short at first, gradually lengthening them. If he doesn’t like the book you chose, pick another. Resist the temptation to test his reading ability or make him read to you. Stick to your daily commitment and simply enjoy a good book and your time together.

The idea behind this daily read-aloud commitment is to reawaken your child’s love of stories which will, in turn, lead him to a love of reading. To undo the damage done by reading instruction, don’t instruct. Draw him in without pressure, on his terms and using his interest. View your role as rescuing him from the drudgery of reading and awakening in him the uniquely human power of literacy. You will be introducting him to the evocative, enticing world of literature. There is no need to push. You need merely show the way.

There are people who never develop a taste for reading. I suspect most were pushed to read before they were ready or were discouraged by their school experience. I don’t believe this is natural – at least not in the proportion seen in this country today. But what if your child truly doesn’t like to read? Is this really a disaster – every parent’s nightmare? I don’t think so. There are plenty of vocations and avocations your child can pursue without being an avid reader. Not everyone is intellectual and the truth is that non-intellectuals are not doomed to dull, empty lives of drudgery. Besides, modern technology offers many alternatives to reading for getting information. You can always use the time-honored, low-tech alternative – reading aloud.

Reading Aloud Is for Everyone

What if your child has no reading problem? Reading aloud is still for him. My nine-year-old began reading before the age of four, yet we still read aloud together, typically two hours and up to four hours a day. She reads to herself books that I’m not interested in, while I read aloud classic literature that is beyond her reading ability. My six-year-old son, in contrast, shows very little interest in reading to himself and for the most part can’t sit still for reading aloud in the middle of the day, yet listens while we read in the early morning or late evening, especially fantasy and adventure stories. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and James Gurney’s Dinotopia books held his rapt attention when he was just four, and so did Robinson Crusoe when he was five. I would hate to deprive him of these treasured experiences because he refuses to read to himself.

Every family can benefit from the read-aloud habit. Here are twelve ways.

  1. Reading Aloud Is the Most Effective Reading Instruction. Pressure on children to learn, especially before they are able, creates anxiety that blocks learning. This is the premise of John Holt’s insightful book How Children Fail. Our American practice of beginning instruction too early has been shown by researchers such as Raymond and Dorothy Moore (Better Late than Early) to be damaging. I have recently read that in the European countries where entrance into school is delayed until children are eight, illiteracy is unknown. With reading aloud there is no pressure on your child, yet he is exposed to books in anticipation of when he is ready to begin reading.
  2. Reading Aloud Saves Young Children’s Eyesight. The Moores also note that close work for long periods by children under eight leads to myopia. With reading aloud, your young child will be able to enjoy literature without damaging his/her eyes.
  3. Reading Aloud Provides Time for Close Physical Contact. If babies need plenty of physical contact to thrive and the elderly need physical contact to avoid depression, isn’t it reasonable to infer that physical contact for people of all ages is beneficial, in fact necessary? Sharing a good read together is an excellent time for a long, therapeutic snuggle that will nurture you as well as your child.
  4. Reading Aloud Builds Vocabulary and Teaches Proper Grammar. Most children today are institu-tionalized quite early, isolated with children their own age several days per week, so that their exposure to adult speech is limited. Even when homeschooling, many children watch T.V. for long periods where the spoken language is not quite the queen’s English. Reading aloud is an antidote, providing an example of proper speech so that children will develop adult vocabulary and speech patterns. Also, since the written vocabulary is larger than the spoken one, reading aloud exposes children to many words that they may not encounter at all in conversation. Further, reading aloud introduces vocabulary words in the most effective way — contextually. The subtleties of connotation are presented in a way that no vocabulary list can match.
  5. Reading Aloud Stimulates Your Child’s Imagination. All of us have had the experience of reading a wonderful book, then seeing the movie version only to be very disappointed because the characters didn’t look or act the way we had envisioned. This experience illustrates the difference between the camera and books. The former is prescriptive and limits the possibilities for imagination while the latter is descriptive and stimulates the imagination. Also, children use the stories as the starting point for their make-believe, playing dress up, acting out episodes and developing further adventures.
  6. Reading Aloud Provides an Alternative to T.V. A discussion of the dangers of T.V. can be found in Marie Winn’s The Plug in Drug. Jim Trelease also tackles the subject in The New Read Aloud Handbook. There is little I can add other than to say that I believe, if anything, they understate the damage habitual T.V. viewing does to children and families. The single most important act you can do to strengthen your family is to throw out your T.V.
  7. Reading Aloud Provides Shared Family Experiences. Many episodes from the books we’ve read have become in jokes for our family, while certain characters have become archetypes — Scrooge, of course, for an old miser; Phileas Fog for typical British flegm.
  8. Reading Aloud Creates New Family Traditions. My sister read A Christmas Carol aloud to her children every year and I do the same with my children. I’ve added reading the true story of the first Thanksgiving. Next year I’ll read to them about the first July Fourth. These are new holiday traditions in our family, our way of celebrating special days together and evolving our unique family character.
  9. Reading Aloud Exposed Children to the Lives of People in Other Circumstances and Other Cultures. Through reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, with descriptions of the everyday activities of a homesteading family, my children have a sense of how difficult life used to be and an appreciation for the comforts modern technology affords. The same is true for Walter Edmonds’ stories of colonial America, Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. The possibilities to learn about other cultures are as wide as your choice of books to read aloud.
  10. Reading Aloud Presents Life’s Lessons for Discussion. All the great questions of life and love and death are in the pages of classic literature. Our family spends nearly as much time discussing the moral choices of fictional characters as we do reading aloud. There is more truth about the human condition in one classic novel than in a library full of non-fiction.
  11. Reading Aloud Provides an Emotional Outlet. We laugh, we cry, we fall in love, we rage at injustice—all from the pages of the books we read. Our daily trials are put on hold for a few hours while we enter a world of emotional release.
  12. Reading Aloud Is a Great Excuse for You to Read All That Great Children’s Literature You Missed When You Were a Child.

Which Books To Read Aloud

If you are looking for a list of good read-alouds, think of all the books referred to as classics and start with these. There is a reason these works are known as “classics” and have been read and enjoyed by generations of children, and parents, too. If you need a written list, look for The New Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (out of print). The last chapter of this book is 150 pages of read-aloud suggestions. Trelease stresses that his list in not intended to be comprehensive and it certainly isn’t since he has omitted many classics that are found in school curricula.

The Caldecott and Newbery Award books are another source of excellent read alouds. The Newbery Award has been around since the 1920s, the Caldecott since 1930s. For a list of these books, check with your local library or look for the Newbery and Caldecott Medal books published by The Horn Book that lists all the winners and include the acceptance papers of the authors.

Your library will likely have reference books that list classic literature, often with synopses and information about the authors. Our library for example, has What Do Children Read Next?: A Readers Guide to Fiction for Children by Candy Colburn, which lists the best books for children ages six through 13. Approximately half the listings are recent books and half are older classics. Colburn cross-references the many titles by awards received, time period, geography, subject, age level, author, illustrator and other books you might like. There are other, less expensive books that list literature with synopses, as well. You might find these at your library, local bookstore, used bookstore and thrift shops.

Another source of good books for reading aloud is The Horn Book Magazine. Your local children’s librarian might subscribe to this monthly, although your library may not have it for patrons to read. Ask to borrow it. If you can skip the ads in the front of each edition, which tend to be politicized, and make your way to the reviews, you will find that the books covered are generally of better quality. The reviews give plenty of information for you to make informed choices. A one-year subscription costs $29.95. For more information call 800/325-1170 or go to .

Of course, you don’t have to rely on published lists and someone else’s opinion to find good read-alouds. The best way to determine if a book is a good read-aloud is to preview a couple of chapters yourself. Then, as you read to your children, notice how they respond. They will let you know if the book you’ve chosen isn’t appropriate.

Mr. Trelease cautions parents to consider the emotional level at which a book is pitched to decide if it is appropriate for your children. For example, several years ago we began reading Howard Pyle’s Tales of Pirates and Buccaneers but my daughter became quite upset at the violence among those cutthroats. The Harry Potter books would not work for my six-year-old son, who I’m certain would have nightmares about his parents being murdered. Also, at our house for the time being at least, ghost stories are definitely out.

Trelease also recommends that books with complex sentence structures may not be good for reading aloud, but I can agree with this only to a point. I have found with my children that when the story intrigues them, they can understand surprisingly complex writing, probably partly because we read aloud so much.

I invite you to join our family in reviving an old tradition, not quite as ancient as homeschooling itself, but every bit as venerated in its time. Read aloud to your children, share with them the joy of literature and prepare them for the day when they will read aloud to you.


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One Myth & Two Truths

by Andrew Pudewa

“Good readers will become good writers!” Is a mantra frequently heard in the lecture halls of academia, echoing along the corridors of Junior High Schools, and boldly preached from the homeschool conference lectern, most often out of the mouths of the more wizened and experienced parents and educators, this statement strives to be a truism. But it cannot be such, because it isn’t true; at least not always. Certainly, it does happen that good readers can become good writers, but to extrapolate from that fact that good readers will automatically, naturally and inevitably become good writers is to warp a truth into an untruth, which when preached long and hard, becomes-if you will-a myth, an unfounded belief.

Further damage is done when this error becomes a basis for a teaching methodology. If encouraging children to read a great deal-combined with opportunity to write creatively-becomes the primary method of instruction in composition, few students will each the level of success hoped for, and many will fall short of their need. How do we know this truism to be a myth? Look around. In any family, classroom, or group of kids, count the number of “good” readers; now check the percentage and see how many can be considered “good” writers. Half? One-quarter? Not a majority, for sure. Undoubtedly, the “good” writers in the group are likely to also be “good” readers, but why does one not follow from the other as we have been told? How do we understand and deal with the good reader/poor writer enigma? An astute teacher must ask these questions.

First of all, let us consider the definition of a “good” writer. Competence in composition should mean being able to communicate ideas in understandable, reliably correct, appropriately sophisticated language patterns. Brilliance, creativity and originality are nice ideals, but exist far above and beyond “competence”. Competence means having baseline skills necessary for success in the academic, business or professional world. Greatly lacking nationwide, competence must now-more than ever before-be the primary goal for teacher and parent. By definition, competent writers are able to use language properly and effectively.

One simple and immutable fact about the human brain is that you can’t get something out of it that isn’t there to start with. Supernatural inspiration notwithstanding, human beings in general-and children in particular-really can’t produce thoughts or concepts that they haven’t first experienced and stored. In other words, we cannot think a thought we don’t have to begin with. Even the most unique, creative and extraordinary ideas can only exist as a combination and permutation of previously learned bits of desires to nurture competence? If, what we need is a student who is able to produce “understandable, reliably correct, and appropriately sophisticated language patterns,” then what we must put into the brain are those same reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns. Ah, then reading should do it, right?

Not always. In fact, it’s an interesting observation, but many children who become early readers, independent readers-good readers, often do not store complete and correct language patterns in their brains. Good readers read quickly, silently and aggressively. They don’t audiate (hear internally) each word or even complete sentences. Generally, comprehension increases with speed, but speed decreases language pattern audiation because good readers will skip words, phrases and even complete sections of books that might hold them back. And to the extent that children don’t hear-frequently-a multitude of complete, reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns, such patterns are not going to be effectively stored in their brains.

So, what activity will allow children to store these complete, reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns in their brains? Probably the two most important and least practiced of all “school” activities: Listening (being read to out loud) and memorization. These two are perhaps the most traditional of all language acquisition activities, and yet in our modern educational culture, they have become the orphan children of the progressive parents of psychology and pedagogy.

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents and teachers is to stop reading out loud to our children when they reach the age of reading faster independently. In doing so, not only do we deprive them of the opportunity to hear these all-important reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns, we lose the chance to read to them above their level, stretching and expanding their vocabulary, interests and understanding. We begin to lose the chance to discuss words and their nuance, idioms, cultural expressions and historical connotations. And they lose something far more valuable than even the linguistic enrichment that oral reading provides; they lose the opportunity to develop attentiveness, the chance to experience the dramatic feeling that a good reader can inject, and even the habit of asking questions about what they’ve heard. Tragically, because of our hectic, entertainment-saturated, individualistic, test-obsessed, and overscheduled lives, few of us take sufficient time to read out loud to our students, even in their early teens-a sensitive period when understanding of language and understanding of life are woven together and sealed into the intellect.

Because linguistic information is best stored in the brain auditorily, children who have had read to them reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns for many years are much more likely to develop competence in written (and verbal) communication skills. However, there is another not-so-secret weapon in the sagacious teacher’s arsenal: Memorized Poetry.

There is perhaps no greater tool than memorization to seal language patterns into a human brain, and there is perhaps nothing more effective than poetry to provide exactly what we want: reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns. Although rote memorization and recitation went out of vogue when the great god of Creativity began to dominate ideology in the Schools of Education, it has stood for centuries, even millennia, as the most powerful way to teach, to learn, to develop skills and to preserve knowledge. By memorizing and reciting, you practically fuse neurons into permanent language storage patterns. Those patterns are then ready to be used, combined, adapted and applied to express ideas in a myriad of ways. Additionally, because of the nature of poetry, poets are often compelled to stretch our vocabulary, utilizing words and expressions in uniquely sophisticated-but almost always correct-language patterns. A child with a rich repertoire of memorized poetry will inevitably demonstrate superior linguistic skills, both written and spoken, because of those patterns which are so deeply ingrained in the brain.

What’s even more gratifying, however, is that children love to recite poems they have learned. Seeds of creativity are planted. Language emerges. Poems give words wings. And, if you do have your students memorize a poem, don’t ever let them forget it! Say it once a day, or once a week, or once a month-whatever is necessary-to make it a permanently stored piece of art. Start with the funny ones; move on to the dramatic. Start short; gradually lengthen. Have fun and be proud of their accomplishments. If you can do that, the drudgery of “rote” learning will disappear, and a great joy of language will emerge.

So then, the one myth is that good readers will automatically become good writers. Not true. Many things about writing can be taught directly, but two timeless truths-the two most powerful ways to nurture competent writers-are that we must read to them, out loud, a lot, even when they could read it themselves, and have them memorize great gobs of poetry, thus storing in their brain for life a glorious critical mass of reliably correct and appropriately sophisticated language patterns. — A.P.

Copyright 2010 by Modern Media.


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