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Reading for Signs of Life

On Learning to Read: The Child’s Fascination with Meaning

by Bruno Bettelheim, by Karen Zelan
Knopf, 306 pp., $13.95

If this astonishing book is correct, then it must surely bear the most extraordinary news about the nature of the mind to have come our way in decades. For it concludes that children can read unconsciously with little difficulty. Troubles arise only when they must do so consciously. And the troubles are not in response to the technical difficulties involved in reading, in decoding texts, but in the inane reading matter set before children in combination with the advertent or inadvertent callousness of teachers who insist upon their reading it against their wishes. On this account, reading difficulties are an extension of ego defenses. Remove the conditions against which the child is defending himself, and the technical difficulties will wither away. Once the unconscious is shed of its fears, conscious reading will no longer lag.

So convinced are the authors of their conclusion that they are daunted neither by its peculiar logic (the “unconscious” being technically more fluent at reading than the “conscious”) nor by the absence of any save their own anecdotal evidence in its support. They betray a thinly veiled contempt for the conventional view that there are many inherent difficulties in decoding written texts that can cause a child to falter.

If the authors are conceptually right, then their book is indeed extraordinary. But in fact, the mass of evidence, much of which they ignore, weighs heavily against their general conclusion. I shall want to say something about that, for it is not just a matter of bashing two authors for some wild overgeneralizations. This is a passionate book written by two people of deep sympathy and wide experience with troubled children. Whether conceptually right or wrong, the authors have something of practical importance to say to anybody interested in early literacy. There may not be a “conspiracy” between publishers who print those dreary books called “readers” and teachers who shove them down children’s throats, but there is good reason to believe they are dishing out a toxic mix in the schools.

I will try to sketch the conceptual landscape first—the one against which Bettelheim and Zelan look most improbable—and then turn to the more practical problems afterward. Perhaps that will save the unwary from psychoanalytic euphoria and its attendant hangover, and more important, save what is good in this book from the onslaught or the diplomacy of the reading experts.

What is hardest for such optimists as these writers to digest is that, for a list of reasons longer than a psychoanalyst’s couch, reading is a difficult intellectual process. It is not widely distributed among the inhabitants of Earth, and the ease of mastering it varies quite widely, even among readers whose motivations, social backgrounds, intelligence, and other obvious “indicators” are roughly equal. If you should examine the work in the field called “computer simulation,” you will find that the number of things that a “computer reader” has to take into account in order to make up a paraphrase of what it has encountered in a short written text is daunting.

What makes written text exceptionally difficult is that it exists apart from any living context. The written text says the same thing on the subway, in the schoolroom, or in bed. You cannot “read the situation” to figure out what the message might mean as you can easily do in most face-to-face conversation. The context of a written text is more text, and if you want to use that for figuring out what is before you, you have to have understood it first. And if you do not, then all the devices of so-called “anaphora,” like the deployment of definite and indefinite articles (as in “Yesterday I saw a bird; the bird was singing”), will be lost on you. Consequently, even the simplest forms of reference can become garbled. So, in effect, when you read you are coping with a great many subtle unknowns—more, perhaps, than the spirit can bear.

To these must be added other difficulties. There is the boring irregularity of what is called grapheme-morpheme correspondence, particularly in English—a matter dear to the heart of George Bernard Shaw, who left money to the cause of abolishing such horrors as gruff, rough, graph and dough, mow, go, sew. That is a confusing way to put together a written language. The Russians do better with their Cyrillic alphabet and claim to have far fewer troubles in teaching reading. Perhaps Shaw was right.

There are, moreover, some curiously hidden booby traps in the way of mastering reading. Take the matter of what it does to spoken language. As you become increasingly literate, your spoken language changes, and so too very likely does the language environment in which you usually live. As some of us have put it, you learn to speak the written language. What you say becomes more independent of present context (e.g., you come to speak about things that are neither here nor now); your sentences become somewhat more parsable; you take greater advantage of the natural recursiveness of language to imbed phrases within phrases within phrases. When that happens to your spoken language, the linear structure of the written language becomes more “natural.” You do not, so to speak, have to go from the barter economy of spoken speech to the money economy of written speech. We know from the classic studies of Basil Bernstein in Britain that learning to speak in the middleclass code that has been elaborated to refer beyond the here and now is closely associated with reading skill, whereas the restricted code interferes with reading mastery.

These matters are masterfully set forth in a learned and lively book by Eleanor Gibson and Harry Levin (The Psychology of Reading, MIT Press, 1975) for those who wish to examine them further. All that I wish to convey in this tedious recounting is that there has to be some good reason for somebody to breast this sea of difficulties on the other side of which is fluent reading—particularly for weak swimmers. It is not by accident or by laziness that literacy campaigns in third-world countries are considered great successes if 5 percent of those exposed reach a level of moderate mastery. It takes more than a willing unconscious.

Which brings us back to Bettelheim and Zelan. Their book is about how to make reading seem worth it to children who are struggling their way through the sorts of difficulties I have just mentioned (and they are only a sample). Here, I think, their kindly sympathies and clinical judgment shed real light on some difficult issues. I do not see how anybody can fault their two basic maxims: (a) make reading interesting rather than tedious, (b) appreciate what a tough job it is and understand the “errors” that children make not as failures but as hypotheses about the text they are trying to decode. And after reading their account, can one doubt that school “readers” are usually dull and that a great many teachers grossly assault the self-esteem of kids who are valiantly trying to extract some meaning from the dreary texts set before them? Each of the maxims is worth examining in more detail.

About making reading “interesting,” Bettelheim and Zelan set forth a chilling indictment of both publishers and of the educational establishment—including educational psychologists. Educators and publishers after World War I thought that the way to teach reading was through simplification of texts. This took two explicit forms. The first was to cut down on vocabulary; the second was to concentrate on words that occurred with “high frequency” in the language. So, while the first readers published in the 1920s had on average 645 different words, those published between 1960 and 1963 had fewer than a hundred.

And what words! There is a compendium of word counts called The Teacher’s Word Book. If you pick only the most widely used among them, you will find, as Bettelheim and Zelan did, that they are implacably banal. Poetry and mystery will forever be banished. What can you do with verbs like run, walk, give, take, come, call and nouns like dog, cat, boy, girl, house, and shoe? And I’ve already used up more than 10 percent of the quota, without even taking into account the articles, demonstratives, copulas, and other dull tacks and twine needed to hold sentences together. Fables and folk tales cannot live and breathe in such a stale lexical atmosphere. Yet it does not matter that one of the wisest and most humane reading experts in the world. Harvard’s Jeanne Chall, has shown they can be used most successfully to teach reading. So the children are not allowed to read, “‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,’ cried the wolf.” Wolves are, alas, too infrequent, not to mention huffing and puffing. The publishers and the word counters have triumphed. In most public school systems, the series published by Scott, Foresman and Harper and Row win easily over the rest. School administrators have the courage of other people’s convictions.

The result is that the books are not only dull stuff, but peculiarly lacking in the richness of context that prompts good guessing. It is the process of guessing, of course, that prompts our authors to their extravagant claims about “the unconscious.” Perhaps I am too harsh to take them to task for it. What they mean is that if you are interested in what is being recounted and can’t quite make out what the text says next, you’ll come up with an interesting guess based on some combination of what’s there and what you think is likely and/or desirable. It may be the unconscious doing the guessing (if you like). But whatever it is, informed guessing is the essence of reading as of all inferential activity—taking a leap beyond the information given.

We read at rates far faster than our ability to process the visual information before us because we have learned how to use the redundancy or “predictiveness” of the text. If the inferential leap were governed entirely by wishfulfillment and ego defense, the leaper would be a troubled child. Indeed, he would be a hallucinator. Instead, we typically steer our guesses between what is likely and what is desirable or comfortable. It happens that the authors tell their anecdotes mostly about quite disturbed kids at the famous Orthogenic School in Chicago over which Bettelheim presided for many years. A certain number of their “guesses” were indeed wild—at least the ones cited.

Reading, then, is intrinsically risky in outcome. It is bound to be so at some level, for the extraction of meaning from text is seldom an easy way of using the mind. Why else teach literary interpretation, argue hermeneutics, or read The New York Review? When you then add a punitive element to the process of learning to read by treating children’s errors as mistakes, you convert an interesting sport into a form of bloodletting. For, as the authors argue, it is the logical and psychological virtue of errors (“negative instances,” to put it fancily) to provide useful corrective feedback. You do not absorb feedback in that spirit when you have just been told that you are wrong, to sit down, and then see the “turn” pass to somebody else.

Teachers are, in many cases, extraordinarily stupid in failing to see the errors of their students as often revealing attempts to learn, rather than as mistakes to be jumped on. I think this has to do principally with the emphasis in our culture on being right rather than on continuing to work at something, product becoming more important than process. The punitive approach to error is also a good way to destroy mathematical curiosity.

So, as our authors observe, children come to play it safe and to retreat from the risks of reading. But Bettelheim and Zelan cannot resist the bathos of psychoanalytic romanticism in making their point. The children “tell the teacher what the teacher wants to hear…a wellknown defense of the weak when dealing with the strong.” And just what do teachers want to hear? The teachers are often as confused as the children about what is involved in reading. Yet Bettelheim and Zelan have a good point. When the teacher treats the child’s risky efforts at reading with respect and sympathy for the good and interesting guesses they often are, it is often quite breathtaking how quickly the student picks up the reading game—whether in “decoding” a word, a sentence, or a paragraph.

I am not a “reading expert,” but I have studied the perception of written language under a variety of “degraded” conditions like blur, rapid exposure, and through a Judas Eye. I have seen uptight, scared kids turn into roaring cowboys of interpretation once told that, after all, it is only a guessing game about figuring out “what’s there.” Improvement is dramatic. Does it last? I suspect that when they are put back into tense and anxious situations, they become uptight again. In a freshman seminar I taught years ago at Harvard, I told my handful of victims to read six books for the next week’s session (over their protests), “just to get a hang of how the topic is treated.” Of course you can’t “read” that many books in a week. To their astonishment, they “got the hang” quite nicely.

Yes, if you make reading dull with dreary texts, and if you make errors in reading dangerous to self-esteem, and if you fail to respect the seriousness of the efforts that children invest in the task, you are going to create just the kinds of resistances and failures that this little book documents among the disturbed children the authors studied. Indeed, you will even make it difficult for children who, given half a chance, would take wing in pursuit of meaning. The authors are quite right. Human beings at any age are drawn to a voracious “effort after meaning,” as the great British psychologist of the last generation, Sir Frederic Bartlett, put it.

Bettelheim and Zelan urge that parents and teachers “take reading seriously.” I could not agree more. And a good first step is to break the cycle of “empty texts and bored children” by providing a rich literature of fables and myths and tales of human predicaments, as the writers propose. But it is not taking reading seriously to dismiss cavalierly the phenomenal intellectual accomplishment that reading in fact is. When reading is used as a means of reflecting on the nature of what has been said, of extracting the full meaning that is in the text, it transforms the powers of the human mind. There exists indeed, as the subtitle of this book would have it, “the child’s fascination with meaning.” But to ignore, as Bettelheim and Zelan do, the exquisite complexity involved in digging meaning out of what one reads (or, for that matter, what one hears) is not to take reading seriously enough.

Martin Luther, attacking the power of the priesthood, said in a celebrated passage, “The truth is in the text.” Getting meaning out of the text and into one’s head is no mere matter of rising above one’s ego defenses against some unconscious recognition that what is there before one is dull or unpleasant or demanded by a callous teacher. You learn to read not at the psychoanalyst’s but by trying to read in the presence of a reader who helps by understanding what you’re up against and figures out ways of making it easier.

So let us give only two cheers for this book lest the thwarted parents of the world get the impression that the drama of text and the coziness of the teaching situation is all there is to reading. May the authors succeed in reforming both school readers and loutish teachers. And may the process of trying to understand the mysteries of reading continue. Whitehead, thanking Russell after a brilliant lecture on the logic of modern physics, concluded by expressing gratitude to his old friend for “not having obscured the great darkness of the subject.” It is a virtue to which Bettelheim and Zelan might well aspire.

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