How to Read
To the Editor:
In Spencer Brown’s article “Dr. Flesch’s Cure for Reading Troubles” (August), one argument given to prove that nothing is seriously wrong with our educational product in the elementary schools (as far as ability to read is concerned) is that “the indications from educational research and testing are that we are now doing as good a job on reading as we did thirty years ago. . . .” Similar statements covering reading and arithmetic have been made regularly in recent years by the Superintendent of Schools of New York City. He has based his conclusions on the results of standard tests in reading and arithmetic given to all eighth-year pupils in the public schools. Time and again these official statistics have been brought forth to silence critics of present educational policies.
However, these statistics are not believed to be valid by those most familiar with the accomplishments of the graduates of our elementary schools, namely, the high school teachers. In regard to arithmetic, I can give first-hand testimony. At meetings of high school chairmen of mathematics departments of all New York City high schools, and at meetings of chairmen of various departments, I have repeatedly heard open statements of disbelief in the validity of the statistics in question. This opinion is well-nigh unanimous among high school people. In the May 1955 issue of High Points, an official publication of the High School Division of New York City, it is stated (p. 34) that “[High] Schools are not satisfied that intelligence quotients, reading achievement and arithmetic ability are being properly ascertained.”
The reasons for the invalidity of the tests in question are easy for any school man to understand. The questions are known in advance. Any teacher anxious to produce a good record or desirous of helping her principal produce a good record might be tempted to drill her class on the test questions in advance of the official test. If only one out of five or so reports are higher than they should be, the city-wide median score will be significantly affected and the picture will be false.
This is not said in order to impute a lower moral code to the elementary school teachers. We high school teachers are prevented from exercising similar impulses to raise the scores of Regents examinations taken by our pupils by a rigid system of secrecy of questions to be asked, review of the marking by specialists at Albany, etc. No such precautions prevail in the city-wide reading and arithmetic testing.
My own experience as teacher and chairman of mathematics for thirty years convinces me that our pupils are poorer in arithmetical ability than children of equal general intelligence were ten or more years ago. Boys who do well in advanced algebra and in solid geometry stumble over simple arithmetic computations in a way that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. This, of course, slows down the work.
In my opinion, the chief fault in our educational system is not with the method of teaching this or that subject, but rather with the administrative rule of guaranteed promotion (also called 100 per cent promotion, continuous progress).
In a report of the New York State Department of Education, called “Mathematics for All High School Youth” (1953), appears this ominous statement: “ . . . continuous progress in the elementary schools is here to stay. Consequently, the teachers of the upper grades may not assume that the children in their classes have mastered the topics of the lower grades. Teachers must teach all the essential topics of the preceding grades as well as their own grades. . . .” That is, the teacher of the ninth year has to teach all the essential topics of arithmetic as well as of algebra. Think of what this does to the standards of accomplishment, to the morale of the teacher, and to the training of those few talented students upon whom our future economic and military strength will rest.
It should have been clear from the beginning that taking from the pupil the incentive of needing to earn his promotion would lead to a slackening of effort and a consequent deterioration of achievement. If promotion is guaranteed, failure to meet grade standards can easily be excused by saying that the pupil is working up to his ability, nevertheless. If promotion is guaranteed, a poor method of teaching is not so likely to be shown up by failure to produce results.
Some say that there are many children who do not care enough about being promoted to be stirred into action by the threat of being left back. However, the great majority do want to be promoted, and they will set the climate of the classroom. They will frown on time-wasting classmates and not, as at present, make heroes of those who defy the teacher. As it is now, those pupils who want to learn have no compelling motive to restrain their less serious classmates.
The widespread lack of respect for teachers on the part of the pupils is bound to be affected for the better by changing to a system in which the teacher’s good opinion is worth something to the pupil.
In a recent modification of its “continuous progress” rule of promotion, the New York City elementary school authorities have set the requirement that promotion will not be granted to those falling two years or more behind their grade standard in reading. (This came about after a blast from Deputy Mayor Henry Epstein in connection with a recent flare-up of juvenile delinquency.) Now, if it is wise to require a certain minimum of attainment in reading, the same holds for writing and arithmetic. After all, the vast majority of children will have no difficulty meeting the low standards in reading. They will still have no compelling stimulus to exert themselves to master the more difficult topics in arithmetic and to correct sloppy writing habits by practice at home. They will still act as a drag on their more willing and more accomplished classmates, especially in the upper grades. Minimum standards in writing and in arithmetic should be set up as prerequisites for promotion.
Like another “noble experiment,” 100 per cent promotion has been tried and it has failed. It is time to admit it. The wreckage, all of it, should be cleared away; and a school regimen should be set up once again that will earn the respect of the children, the cooperation of their parents, and the enthusiastic participation of the teachers.
Chairman, Mathematics Dept.
Boys High School
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
I have no desire to defend Dr. Rudolph Flesch’s book on the teaching of reading, particularly after having read Spencer Brown’s analysis, but I do think that Mr. Brown should have introduced a strongly worded qualification. . . . When I read that “Good readers . . . skim over letters and take in whole words and whole phrases,” and that it is a “known fact that the fast reader is a good reader,” I asked myself, “good reader of what?” I think this an important question. For Mr. Brown to say simply “good readers” is not enough; he should have said “good readers of printed matter in which style is of no importance.”
The rapid, skimming method which Mr. Brawn calls good reading surely should not be used in reading imaginative literature, not only verse, but dramatic and narrative prose as well. The person who reads literature in this manner may be able to outline the plot or argument, but he will miss most of the effect of the connotations of the words he has read, and rhythm and inflection will be lost on him. Perhaps style is of no importance to a child in primary school, but he will not always be a child, and as he grows older he will have to deal with style, not only in most of what he reads and writes, but also in most of what he hears and says. He may perhaps be able to escape from style in inter-office memos, scientific reports, and the like, but what of speeches, editorials, and—heaven knows—conversation, not to mention literature? To train him to read in a manner which makes him insensitive to style is to prepare him poorly for his future dealings with language.
Again and again in my classes I meet this half-and quarter-reading of literature. All I can do to fight it is to advise my students to read as if they were reading aloud, if not actually aloud, to ask them as often as possible to read aloud in class, and to make them attempt to analyze the styles of the works they read. Some students seem able to read a textbook in the social sciences using Mr. Brown’s method and a poem using mine, but it is the thought of the others, who can never really read a poem, that prompts me to object to Mr. Brown’s idea of a “good reader,”
Edwin S. Briggs
To the Editor:
It was gratifying to see COMMENTARY publish Spencer Brown’s criticism of Dr. Flesch’s book, so that those not in the education field can understand Dr. Flesch’s errors.
I feel it is necessary, however, to add some more positive statements about the way in which reading is taught in today’s schools. Most of the school systems with which I am familiar have adopted Basic Readers of the major publishing companies, who employ as consultants the most respected persons in the field of reading today: Drs. Gray, Russell, Gates, Monroe, etc. These reading series are published with accompanying Guide Books for the teachers which contain a well developed, sequential program of phonics and word analysis.
While it is true that children are first taught to read words by sight recognition without analysis of component parts, phonics are introduced as early as the pre-primer reading stage. The program, begun in the first grade and continued through the grades, develops in the following way:
- Initial consonants are taught, using the words the children are familiar with.
- Rhyming words of one syllable.
- Root words and the addition of final s, ed, ing (Help, helps, helped, helping).
- Consonant blends such as br, sl, tr.
- Vowel sounds.
- Prefixes, suffixes, and root words.
- Syllables and accents.
This sequence of instruction includes both phonetic analysis and the structural analysis of words. Perhaps the main difference between Dr. Flesch’s program of phonics and the modern program is one of approach. Flesch’s program requires the teaching of isolated consonant and vowel sounds which are then put together to form words. The modern program emphasizes the whole word to insure comprehension, and then analyzes the component parts so that the child can develop skills for attacking new words independently.
In the classroom children are grouped according to their reading ability and given instruction on their level at their rate. One group might require more phonics drill while another group might require additional language development, emphasis on word meanings, practice in comprehension, or practice in reading more rapidly. Where extreme difficulties appear it becomes necessary to examine the child’s physical, emotional, environmental, and educational background, to diagnose the difficulty and the cause and to apply first aid in the needed areas. Where this practice is beyond the realm of the teacher’s understanding or ability help is usually sought from a supervisor or remedial teacher.
Reading in school today is highly motivated and therefore more meaningful and interesting for the child. If instruction is continued on the child’s own level he will experience success at each stage and enjoy the variety of rich reading material available today. . . .
We have been receiving COMMENTARY for many years and are grateful to you for the many fine and varied articles which you publish.
(Mrs.) Bernice Goldmark
Teacher, Public Schools