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July 27, 1986|Milton Chen | Chen is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he teaches educational media. and

For many children, reading and writing are more often acts of, as Lewis Carroll put it, "reeling and writhing." In fact, basic training in these skills has not changed much since Carroll was a boy. Standard issue, first grade: the reading primer. Make sure those basic phonics are stowed under your tiny belt. Next, you'll be dispensed green-lined paper and No. 2 pencils but--now quiet down, children--before you get any original ideas, please spend a few months copying the letters you see above the blackboard, penmanship drills courtesy of a sergeant named Palmer.

This conscription of the young has more to do with the institutional culture of schools than a rich and deep immersion in the language arts. In fact, educators and researchers know more about how children learn to read and write than our schools have absorbed. Our best teachers are turning children on to a love of words, but pervasive problems of reading failure and writing anxiety remain. The results are well documented: around 27 million American adults are functionally illiterate.

In "Writing to Read," John Henry Martin, a former school superintendent and now developer of educational software, and author Ardy Friedberg put forth a simple but revolutionary argument: that children can learn to write everything they can say and read everything they can write. And they can do both at an earlier age than they're allowed.

The major obstacle is not so much the intelligence of children as the hazardous maze of irregular spellings and arbitrary rules that is printed English. Roughly half of English words are phonemically irregular; yet schooling is devoted to, as the authors state, "the contradiction of trying to teach the encoding of a language that is only half encodable." That the "sh" sound is spelled variously in shove, sugar, ocean , and motion is enough to make anyone nauseous.

Martin and Friedberg's notion of encouraging writing as the cornerstone of literacy is not entirely new. It can be seen in action at many good preschools and kindergartens. What is new is the impressive packaging of multimedia materials. Their Writing to Read curriculum is the product of more than a decade of research and mixes High Tech with high touch: an IBM PCjr Personal Computer and software, an IBM Selectric typewriter, cassette tape players, prerecorded audio cassettes, audio headphones, children's books, work journals, felt tip pens, chalk and slate, soft lead pencils and paper, clay and sand trays.

This is no ordinary curriculum. This is a playground for giving life to works, for activating the 2,000- word vocabularies and knowledge of syntax that most kindergarten children possess. "Writing to Read" does recommend some training wheels for guiding the transition to literacy. Most conspicuously, correct spelling is put on hold in favor of phonemic spelling, using 42 phonemes (consonants, long and short vowels and other letter-sound patterns) from which nearly all words can be reasonably spelled.

The materials aim to engage all of a child's senses in the learning process. Children can draw words in crayon and sand, listen to taped readings of "Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel" and "Peter Rabbit," or type with a surprising fluency in hunt and peck. Of course, the total package might also engage all of a parent's wallet. Martin and Friedberg hasten to recommend a tape player and an electric typewriter before rushing out to buy a computer. The key to making it all jell is a patient and affectionate teacher or parent, and even IBM has yet to figure out how to put one of those on a diskette.

Consider this account by one kindergarten student of "The Sindrelu storree," in which the main character tells her "fairree god muther": "I need a pukin and she went and got a pukin and she sed she needed sum mis to trn into horses and she trnd a old mouse into a coch man and off tha went to the bol." The spelling isn't standard, but the ending is: "sindrelu and the prints livd haule ever afder."

This young writer is thinking, reconstructing the story line, listening to an inner voice, and making the alphabet serve a literary purpose--when fewer than 25% of other kindergarten students can barely write their own names. The authors point out that correction of spelling is part of the instruction, "not necessarily aimed at achieving standard spelling but at achieving phonemic clarity . . . there is plenty of time to move on to more accurate spelling."

The more important accomplishment is that young children sense the pleasures of language early on. The rest has a way of falling into place. In an independent evaluation of students in 105 schools, conducted by the Educational Testing Service, Writing to Read students outperformed students in comparison groups in both reading and writing.

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