EIGHT AND A HALF WAYS
TO SKIN A HIPPOPOTAMUS
The debate about teaching reading
At Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School in Houston, Texas, the debate about the best way to teach children to read is over. A recent Associated Press story in the Missoulian described a typical classroom in the poor, mostly black school: Students sit alertly, hands on the table, feet on the floor, eyes on the teacher or board and recite in unison-vowel sounds, prepositions, sentences. This direct instruction, as it is known, has brought the barbed-wire-encircled school to national prominence because of its efficacy in raising test scores. First graders at Mabel B. Wesley ranked in the top thirteen of Houstons 182 schools in reading; the other twelve schools were all from the well-heeled parts of town.
This would seem to be irrefutable proof of the superiority of skills-based reading techniques and a call to arms for the Readin, Ritin and Rithmetic crowd. On the flipside are the whole language advocates who argue that only a reading curriculum based in literature can teach children the love for learning necessary for a well-rounded education. According to two University of Montana literacy specialists, both sides have it wrong. And right.
Learning to Read from a Hippopotamus
Rhea Ashmore and Rick van den Pol are professors in the School of Education-Ashmore in literacy studies and van den Pol in special education. Van den Pol also directs UMs Co-Teach/Division of Educational Research and Service, which assists children with disabilities. Under a grant from the federal Office of Special Education Programs, they have been working with four other university professors and six public school teachers to discover how best to teach reading. Their research has given them insights into the skills-based versus whole language debate.
On one side are the worksheets and drills that use repetition to ingrain grammar, syntax and rules: i before e except after c or when sounding like a as in neighbor or weigh. Weve all used these easy-to-remember references that we learned by rote as kids. Thats skills-based literacy, and its a highly effective way to learn for most people some of the time, and some people most of the time.
On the whole language side of the debate are all the books that were read to us as children. Beloved books like The Cat in the Hat and Good Night Moon were teaching us about language at the same time they were delighting us. Just as listening to music is a good way to start thinking about notes, keys and chords, so hearing a story that uses grammar, syntax and other language components imaginatively is a good way to begin understanding how language works. Ashmore says this is the beauty of using literature to teach reading: Say youre reading a book about a hippopotamus. Hippopotamus. What a great word to let you talk about syllables, nouns and vowels. It doesnt come from a worksheet; it comes from reading. And its fun.
Lessons from China
To see how an eclectic philosophy-which combines skills-based and whole language approaches to reading-works in practice, Ashmore and van den Pol have turned to China, Korea and Japan, where early literacy can mean the difference between a good job or a lifetime of drudgery. Van den Pol points to an openness in Asian educators: They arent hung up on one way being better than another. They use a holistic approach that lets kids know theres something fun about this stuff. Ashmore concurs. Play is considered the basic method for achieving curricular content.
Chinese education policy favors using literature in teaching language. According to the Chinese, if a child can memorize 300 poems from the Tang Dynasty, she or he is considered very clever, Ashmore observes. One of my Chinese graduate students testified that, indeed, many children between the ages of three and ten can perform this feat. Yet children also are drilled in vocabulary and other skills-based modalities. In other words, for the Chinese there is no debate about which way is superior; both have their applications.
Children in Asian countries also tend to start school two to three years earlier than in the United States. Due to the fierce competition for prized spots in the higher education system, children are ushered into school programs at age three by parents who look upon them as a kind of social security: The more successful the kids are, the more comfortable the parents retirement will be. Although less-than-altruistic, this motivation gives children exposure to education at a time when they are naturally open to receiving it. Physiologically, socially and developmentally, children from three to six years are like thirsty sponges ready and eager to learn. Ironically, these are precisely the years when many American kids are home in front of the television.
The Trouble with TV
Television, even quality childrens programs, is worrisome for educators like Ashmore and van den Pol because television is essentially a passive process, denying children the opportunity to test, experiment and make connections on their own. Television, Ashmore says, is essentially brainwashing. Moreover it fails to provide kids with crucial skills-such as the coordination between hand, eye and brain needed for writing. Reading to children, on the other hand, stimulates their imaginations while allowing them to ask questions and relate the story to their own experience.
Eight and a Half Kinds of Intelligence
Another reason Ashmore and van den Pol favor an eclectic approach to literacy is because, as any parent of more than one child knows, what works for one often doesnt work for another. Ashmore cites the work of Howard Gardner, an educational psychologist who spoke at UMs 1996 Genesis Conference. Gardner has identified eight-and-a-half different kinds of intelligence, each occupying its own separate niche in the spectrum from left to right brain. Each kind of intelligence responds to its own particular teaching method-some children respond more to verbal stimuli, others to visual, for example. Given this diversity of children in the same classroom, a wide range of teaching techniques would seem to make sense.
How then does one explain the startling results from Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School? Obviously skills-based techniques work, but the final results of a program relying solely on them may still be unclear. One study found increased behavioral problems later on in children who have taken part in similar programs. Ashmore also suspects that this direct instruction is not as one-sided as it appears in the news clips. Books and literature, she notes, are probably still part of the curriculum, even if they dont receive the press attention.
Reading Begins in the Womb
For parents trying to make sense of the literacy debate, Ashmore offers this advice: Start reading to them in the womb, and dont stop. She says evidence suggests that children who have been read to before they could speak or understand the language had an easier time learning it later on. Another piece of advice: Limit childrens exposure to television; it robs them of time better spent exploring the real world that surrounds them. Preschools and other settings where three-, four- and five-year-olds are exposed to quality books and appropriate language skills also will give them a valuable head start.
What kids will experience in the classroom will depend on the approach that is favored by their school. For the most part, though, as teachers return to UM to renew their certificates and get exposed to the latest thinking in literacy studies, Montanas schools have adopted an eclectic philosophy toward teaching reading. According to Ashmore and van den Pol, thats all to the good. Because, from spelling drills to story time, theres more than one way to skin a hippopotamus. M