Connections: Right From The Start

May 01, 1996 3 min read

Taken together, two of this month’s features and the research section dramatize the importance of early schooling. What we do with children in kindergarten and the primary grades can determine the course of their entire academic careers--for good or ill.

“Paradise Lost,” beginning on page 26, laments the corruption of the concept of kindergarten as a children’s garden--a place where children were sheltered from the harsh realities of the adult world during their most vulnerable years. Once a gentle transition to school, kindergarten is changing from a place of play and imagination to a junior 1st grade. Sadly, many children do not respond well to pressure at that age. Some--especially those who are already veterans of day-care programs--lose their enthusiasm for learning. Some become even more disaffected when they enter 1st grade and are immersed in the demanding (and duller) work of drill and practice in arithmetic and reading.

Learning to read is crucial--the key to all learning. “The Best of Both Worlds” (page 20) revisits America’s endless debate over how to teach 1st graders to read. Like so many other issues in society, the discussion has become polarized, devoid of common sense. Dogmatic phonics advocates are so sure they’re right that they want their methodology enshrined in legislation as the only way. Whole language adherents, some of whom don’t understand the preaching they try to practice, often repudiate anything that resembles phonics or repetitive exercises. Good teachers, of course, have a repertoire of teaching strategies and draw upon those that work best with individual children in specific circumstances.

If test scores can be believed, we don’t teach reading very well. In the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 41 percent of the nation’s 4th graders read below the basic level--which means they lack the knowledge and skills to be proficient at grade level. School will always be a struggle for most of them because reading is not just about decoding and learning to recognize and pronounce words. It is also about comprehension. Frank Smith, a distinguished authority on children’s literacy, writes: “The struggle to learn is usually a struggle to comprehend. The moment of comprehension is the moment of learning.”

Millions of children learn to read words out of context. They read texts without understanding what they read. The reason, say some psycholinguists, is that the meaning is not in the text; readers understand only what, to some degree, they already know. If that sounds contradictory, try explaining the following passage from the Encylopaedia Britannica:

At another level of analysis are the Lorentz transformations of special relativity, which formulate the relations between two moving space-time frames. In other words, just two stipulations--that the macroscopic measurement of such relativistic distances be conducted along inertial paths (those followed naturally by unaccelerated particles) and that these measurements be invariant for any inertial frame of reference--are sufficient to establish the principle that any two inertial frames of reference are related by Lorentz transformations.

For millions of children passing from 3rd grade into the content-rich curricula of the upper grades, history and geography are as mystifying as the passage above. They read but do not understand because they have no idea of the abstractions represented by the decoded words. Such children begin to fall behind, and many never catch up. For them, the lamp of learning remains unlighted. And that fate befalls minority and disadvantaged students far more often than it does others.

“Taking on the Test,” beginning on page 36, describes the plight of prospective minority teachers in California who have been denied teaching credentials because they failed a relatively easy standardized test. Because a disproportionate number of minorities fail, they have filed a lawsuit against the state, charging that the test is culturally biased and thus discriminatory. But it is more likely that the harmful discrimination against them occurred long ago, in their first years of schooling, when they were taught to read but not comprehend, and true learning was sacrificed to memorization.

--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Connections: Right From The Start