In spite of literacy specialists, computers, standardized testing and other innovations, there is still a significant group of children who have fallen behind in Reading and Language skills during the past several decades. Colleges and universities have found it necessary to initiate remedial English classes. Reading, spelling, grammar and composition skills have been neglected in the crucial early grades. As a retired teacher, who still dabbles in the shallows of the educational pool by working with a few tutoring students, I have strategies which may not be popular with present educators, but which always worked well for me.
I started teaching elementary grades in the late 1950’s. Teachers then believed that,for young people to attain future positions of authority, wherein they would discipline others, it was vital that they first master self-discipline. The children sat in rows at desks. They raised their hands to speak and for permission to leave their desks. The classroom environment was quiet and very structured, but within it, I believe the children felt secure. They knew the routine which would be followed each day, and for some, it was the only routine in their lives on which they could rely.
Reading was taught in the morning when the students were most alert. We started with a Phonics lesson. Each letter in the alphabet was assigned a sound, which the children pronounced, and used to decode words. The sounds were drilled daily. Of course, a few words didn’t fit the pattern, but the sounds at least provided clues.
For Reading, the class was divided into three or four groups: the fluent readers, the average, the below average, and the struggling. Each group gathered around the reading table daily with the teacher, and each child read aloud at least one paragraph of the story that group was working on. Hearing individuals read each day, and questioning them for comprehension, it was easy to keep track of their progress. The groups were flexible; children often moved back and forth. The teacher spent most time with those groups needing extra help. While one group was reading, the others were working quietly on seat work at their desks. There was silence, order, respect for others, good work habits, and there was learning going on.
In the late 1980’s the “Whole Language” system was introduced in Ontario schools. Proponents believed that children would learn to read and write as naturally as they learned to talk. Readers and spelling textbooks were packed away. Children were invited to choose library books corresponding to their interests and ability. Teachers were to provide pleasurable games and activities to help them progress through each required skill. Language was never to be discouraged in the classroom, because the students learned from each other as well as from us. Desks were replaced by tables and chairs. Each day the children wrote an entry in their journals. No corrections were made, lest we discourage their creativity. Red pens were outlawed; they might harm a child’s self-image. If he/she was not progressing with peers, it was only because they were not yet ready. After all, everyone knew that children develop at different rates.
Well, you can imagine the results of this ill-conceived educational experiment. Some children chose only picture books all year. The comprehension skill of those who chose more challenging material was hard to gauge, unless the teacher was familiar with every book in the library. However, there was no time for reading, because evenings were spent devising and constructing meaningful games that would be enjoyable, and still foster skill development. Journals were to be deciphered (if possible) often and meaningful comments added, so the author would know that he had an interested audience for his literary efforts.
For me personally, the most difficult aspect of the new program was the noise. By the end of each day, it reached a volume comparable to thirty little jackhammers breaking up cement during a thunderstorm. There was noise, distractions and social interaction, but I’m not sure that there much learning going on.
Lately I see, from my young friends’ Homework that Phonics is reappearing. Spellers are popping up again like sunflowers and there is at least one class all working together on a novel study. I hope the pendulum is swinging back.
When we once more insist on having classrooms where there is silence, order, respect for others, and good work habits, outstanding educational results in Language skills will again become apparent in the schools of North America.