What follows is a statement I recently made when asked to testify on teaching reading, before the Borough President of Manhattan:
A chief obstacle to children’s learning to read is the present school setting in which they have to pick it up. For any learning to be skillful and lasting, it must be or become self-motivated, second nature; for this, the schooling is too impersonal, standardized, and academic. If we tried to teach children to speak, by academic methods in a school-like environment, many would fail and most would stammer.
Although the analogy between learning to speak and learning to read is not exact, it is instructive to pursue it, since speaking is much harder. Learning to speak is a stupendous intellectual achievement. It involves learning to use signs, acquiring a vocabulary, and also mastering an extraordinary kind of algebra—syntax—with almost infinite variables in a large number of sentence forms. We do not know scientifically how infants learn to speak, but almost all succeed equally well, no matter what their class or culture. Every child picks up a dialect, whether “correct” or “incorrect,” that is adequate to express the thoughts and needs of his milieu.
We can describe some of the indispensable conditions for learning to speak.
The child is constantly exposed to speech related to interesting behavior in which he often shares. (“Now where’s your coat? Now we’re going to the supermarket, etc.”)
The speakers are persons important to the child, who often single him out to speak to him or about him.
The child plays with the sounds, freely imitates what he hears, and tries to approximate it without interference or correction. He is rewarded by attention and other useful results when he succeeds.
Later, the child consolidates by his own act what he has learned. From age three to five he acquires style, accent, and fluency by speaking with his peers, adopting their uniform but also asserting his own tone, rhythm, and mannerisms. He speaks peer speech but is uniquely recognizable as speaking in his own way.
Suppose, by contrast, that we tried to teach speaking academically in a school-like setting:
Speaking would be a curricular subject abstracted from the web of activity and reserved for special hours punctuated by bells.
It would be a tool subject rather than a way of being in the world.
It would not spring from his needs in immediate situations but would be taught according to the teacher’s idea of his future advantage, importantly aiming at his getting a job sixteen years later.
Therefore the child would have to be “motivated,” the exercises would have to be “fun,” etc.
The lessons would be arranged in a graded series from simple to complex, for instance on a false theory that monosyllables precede polysyllables, or words precede sentences, or sentences precede words.
The teacher’s relation to the infant would be further depersonalized by the need to speak or listen to only what fits two dozen other …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.