Some time ago, I read a book about modern education and literacy. It was thought-provoking to say the least, but difficult to write about. I've been thinking on how to blog on this book for a long time, but the author and his field of specialty are controversial. I'm going to start with the book. If you want to know about controversial aspects or why I don't mind them, please skip to the italics at the bottom.
On Learning to Read is the culmination of a research project Bruno Bettelheim and Karen Zelan undertook in the 1960's (the book was published in 1982), combining the results of a study with solid research into childhood development, general learning behaviors, literacy, and the history of textbooks in the US and abroad. They argue that modern methods of teaching literacy promote illiteracy by underestimating students and assuming that their minds work in a fundamentally different way than adult minds or the minds of children not actively engaged in literacy training. They also places their observations within the context of a century long slide in textbook quality--a degeneration that I can testify has not stopped in the ensuing forty years since this book was published.
I think On Learning to Read is a must-read for any homeschool parent or parent who is thinking about homeschooling--not to mention professional teachers. While I'm only beginning on my journey as a homeschool mom, and therefore have not had the opportunity to put many of this book's suggestions into practice, this book has made me think about the process of learning to read. It has forced me to remember my own experiences as a young reader. And it has made me look at children's books in a more critical light. As a collector of antique textbooks, it has also given me the opportunity to understand how older books are more meaty than newer ones--and it isn't just a matter of dumbing down the vocabulary.
According to Bettelheim and Zelan, before the rise of public schooling and the textbook industry, children generally learned to read out of a copy of the King James version of the Bible, starting with the first chapter of Genesis or some other highly recognizable passage. This was a book they heard adults read from and discuss frequently--a book they knew to be important. It had a rich vocabulary and complex stories. Likewise, the folktales their parents told them acknowledged the complexity of daily life and the struggles--emotional, physical, and intellectual--faced by every child. The result was a highly literate nation. Using census data, Bettelheim and Zelan noted that some parts of the United States at the time had better than 99% literacy.
Since that time, textbooks have replaced the Bible and folklore as sources of literacy. These textbooks use absurdly simplistic vocabulary to tell "stories" that fail to represent the intricacies of the human experience. In other words, they draw on a fraction of the child's working vocabulary to talk about things the child knows are more complex than described. That kind of condescension is frustrating to children as much as it is to adults and it communicates to the beginning reader that there is nothing useful to be gained by reading.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to write more on this topic. There's a lot of good stuff in On Learning to Read--too much to put in one post.
The other reason I have been hesitant to write on this topic is the Freudian perspective. Freud, like many famous thinkers of recent centuries had, to put it gently, many personal challenges. His theories reflect those struggles. As is the case with most theories of psychology, Freud's theories were based on observations of dysfunctional individuals and then expanded to describe the general population. While I have many disagreements with these theories, Freud's observations also contain many grains of truth--especially when stripped of their extremity. I've also seen too many of Freud's theories in action to discount them as a whole. Just because a person struggles in his relationships with God and man does not mean he is always wrong.