Prescription for Literacy

In twenty years of teaching at home, we have found that literacy is the key to education, and interest is the key to literacy.

If a student knows how to read, she can learn anything. Especially in this age of internet information; more knowledge is available at a student's fingertips than any time in human history.

One aspect of homeschooling that I have admitted is a potential weakness is in learning gaps. Of course, we (Colleen and I) believe that the scope and sequence of public schooling is very arbitrary and is largely irrelevant to home educators. But many people feel that this kind of "What your Third Grader Should Know" is the only measuring stick available to ensure the home school is actually doing what it is supposed to do: educate children. I personally do not care about learning gaps because I do not subscribe to the idea that my kids need to learn a certain thing by a certain year or they are in danger of failing as students and later as adults. I have too much confidence in what I am doing to be intimidated by some random professional's idea of what should be taught and when. But I also know I am a minority. Most homeschooling parents want to have the reassurance that their child is learning at approximately the same rate as his public-schooled contemporaries.

So learning gaps are a potential problem for homeschool families. But if a child knows how to read, delights in reading, has excellent comprehension and knows how to find information, she can, and most likely will, fill those gaps herself.

My son Kevin did just that. As he enjoyed his self-directed high school education, he compared his progress with his uncle of the same age, who was enrolled in public school. When the uncle, Mike, learned something that Kevin had not studied, Kevin just found an on-line tutorial, fixed the disparity himself and informed us about it later.

Now. there is a problem with reading that must be acknowledged: Many, if not most, readers have learned reading and comprehension as two separate things. This is ridiculous and is a major failing of public and private schools. I do not know why this state of affairs has been allowed to continue, or how it started in the first place, but I suspect it is the fault of parents who expect the schools to educate their kids for them. Totally abdicating their responsibility as parents to ensure their children are educated, they not only trust the school system to teach their kids, but they also just dump the kids on the system without any support from the home.

The "system", then, is faced with teaching reading to children who do not see reading as a desirable and worthwhile activity that is modeled in the home. Instead, coercive learning must take place and the only way to accomplish that is with a program designed as a one-size-fits-all solution. The key word is "program". Whether it is the current Direct Instruction program, or something that predates DI, or something else that will come down the road at a later date, they are all doomed to failure because the kids are learning to read words, but comprehension is a separate skill.

Our formula is this:
Interest = desire = learning to read = enjoying reading = comprehending = well-rounded and knowledgeable student.

Interest in reading is a function of seeing reading as a fascinating and indispensable activity. Parents who read to their kids and let the kids see ("catch") the parents reading for leisure and for information, will instill in the kids a desire to read. These kids know that books are a world of imagination and information. And they know reading is the key that unlocks the door to that wonderful world. There is no danger of these students learning to read but not knowing how to decipher the words and understand the content. They would never dream of reading without comprehending; that would defeat the purpose of reading!

On the other hand, students who are forced to learn to read against their will see no benefit and will resist. Reading becomes an unpleasant chore that must be endured. Then, on top of that, you gotta figure out what it all means. Yuk!

I cannot make every parent model good reading habits, but I can confidently state that parents who do model this behavior will find their children do not have issues with comprehension. The two will never be separate. The kids will learn to read because they want access to the world of words.

I can also confidently state that parents who take no responsibility for their children's education and do not model reading in the home, will be faced with forcing a reading program down the child's throat. And comprehension will not come automatically. Endless hours of unpleasant homework and the resulting stress will attest to the failure of the system.

(My poor kids have a friend who is seldom allowed to play because he is inside doing homework all evening. I guess I should be impressed with the family's dedication, but instead I am sad that my children are not allowed to bring their friend swimming because the school cannot accomplish their objective in six hours a day--they have to send the kid home to do an additional three hours of coercive busy-work. Homework is a tool that schools use to minimize the time children spend with parents, thereby minimizing the parents' influence on their children. Social Engineering? If they have to send the kid home to be taught by the parents, what are they doing all day with my kid? That's what I would be asking!)

This leads to the next unorthodox step in our prescription for literacy and total education: Give them stuff to read. So many parents deny their children reading material because they want the kids to read a certain kind of literature. It is not my place to say this is wrong, but if the idea is to get the child into reading so that all the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place effortlessly, then coercing a child to read material that is not interesting will have the same effect as any of the reading programs which teach reading as a skill separate from comprehension--they will not be enthralled with reading and will resist rather than cooperate.

It is our belief--and part of our prescription--that discipline can come later. The discipline to read what you are told to read. First, they need to relax into reading and writing and have fun with it. Have fun with word games and experiment with spelling and different sounds and ideas. Later on, when the student is proficient at reading and enjoys an automatic 100% comprehension and retention of the material, then you can teach him that reading is also a tool for productivity; a way to accomplish work and assigned tasks such as college-level essays, writing a business plan or reading the employee's manual for her new job.

Give the child some time to enjoy the new world of literacy. Give them fun books and stories. Mad Libs, word games, puzzles. We write our own stories about our pets and Cassie is learning to read with these stories. They are fun because she knows the animals and their funny antics. Soon she will surprise us by writing her own story. And this will happen without a program or a teacher.

No professional can come close to this kind of result when the desire to read is the missing ingredient. And if the child does have that desire, nobody and nothing will be able to stop her from achieving her own spectacular literacy!

* Cassie is seven. She does not yet read. She knows many words, but does not have the confidence to sit down with a book and enjoy the story. I am not worried. Though our other kids started reading as early as three years old, we also know from experience that when it does *click!*, she will be reading at a level several grades beyond her age, and this will develop within months of the *click!* moment When all the pieces of the puzzle are in place, nothing will stop her.