Reading for Signs of Life

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

by Bruno Bettelheim and 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…

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