Teach­ing chil­dren to read is great­est pri­or­ity

The Covington News - - Religion -

Schools are asked to ac­com­plish many things on be­half of our kids to­day. They are even ex­pected to teach them how to have sex without spread­ing dis­ease. What part of the cur­ricu­lum would you give the great­est pri­or­ity?

Schools that try to do ev­ery­thing may wind up do­ing very lit­tle. That’s why I be­lieve we should give pri­or­ity to the aca­demic fun­da­men­tals — what used to be called “readin’, writin’, and ‘rith­metic.” Of those three, the most im­por­tant is ba­sic lit­er­acy. An ap­palling num­ber of stu­dents grad­u­at­ing from high school can’t even read the em­ploy­ment page of the news­pa­per or com­pre­hend an ele­men­tary book. Ev­ery one of those young men and women will suf­fer years of pain and em­bar­rass­ment be­cause of our fail­ure. That mis­ery starts at a very young age.

A tenth grade boy was once re­ferred to me be­cause he was drop­ping out of school. I asked why he was quit­ting and he said with great pas­sion, “I’ve been mis­er­able since first grade. I’ve felt em­bar­rassed and stupid ev­ery year. I’ve had to stand up and read, but I can’t even un­der­stand a sec­ond grade book. You peo­ple have had your last laugh at me. I’m get­ting out.” I told him I didn’t blame him for the way he felt; his suf­fer­ing was our re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Teach­ing chil­dren to read should be “Job One” for ed­u­ca­tors. Giv­ing boys and girls that ba­sic skill is the foun­da­tion on which other learn­ing is built. Un­for­tu­nately, mil­lions of young peo­ple are still func­tion­ally il­lit­er­ate af­ter com­plet­ing 12 years of school­ing and re­ceiv­ing high school diplo­mas. There is no ex­cuse for this fail­ure.

Re­search shows that ev­ery stu­dent, with very few ex­cep­tions, can be taught to read if the task is ap­proached cre­atively andin­di­vid­u­ally. Ad­mit­tedly, some can’t learn in group set­tings be­cause their minds wan­der and they don’t ask ques­tions as read­ily. They re­quire one-on-one in­struc­tion from trained read­ing spe­cial­ists. It is ex­pen­sive for schools to sup­port th­ese re­me­dial teach­ers, but no ex­pen­di­ture would be more help­ful. Spe­cial tech­niques, teach­ing ma­chines, and be­hav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion tech- niques can work in in­di­vid­ual cases. What­ever is re­quired, we must pro­vide it.

Fur­ther­more, the sooner this help can be given, the bet­ter for the emo­tional and aca­demic well­be­ing of the child. By the fourth or fifth grades, he or she has al­ready suf­fered the hu­mil­i­a­tion of read­ing fail­ure.

My older child is a great stu­dent and earns straight A’s year af­ter year. Her younger sis­ter, now in the sixth grade, is com­pletely bored in school and won’t even try. The frus­trat­ing thing is that the younger girl is prob­a­bly brighter than her older sis­ter. Why would she refuse to ap­ply her abil­ity like this?

There could be many rea­sons for her aca­demic dis­in­ter­est, but let me sug­gest the most prob­a­ble ex­pla­na­tion. Chil­dren will of­ten refuse to com­pete when they think they are likely to place sec­ond in­stead of first. There­fore, a younger child may avoid chal­leng­ing an older sib­ling in his area of great­est strength. If Son Num­ber One is a great ath­lete, then Son Num­ber Two may be more in­ter­ested in col­lect­ing but­ter­flies. If Daugh­ter Num­ber One is an ac­com­plished pi­anist, then Daugh­ter Num­ber Two may be a boy­crazy goof-off.

This rule does not al­ways hold true, of course, de­pend­ing on the child’s fear of fail­ure and the way he es­ti­mates his chances of suc­cess­ful com­pe­ti­tion. If his con­fi­dence is high, he may bla­tantly wade into the ter­ri­tory owned by big brother, de­ter­mined to do even bet­ter. How­ever, the more typ­i­cal re­sponse is to seek new ar­eas of com­pen­sa­tion which are not yet dom­i­nated by a fam­ily su­per­star.

If this ex­pla­na­tion fits the be­hav­ior of your younger daugh­ter, then it would be wise to ac­cept some­thing less than per­fec­tion from her school per­for­mance. Ev­ery child need not fit the same mold — nor can we force them to do so.

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