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The Meatgrinder Classroom

The first schoolman to seriously challenge what is known today as phonics was Friedrich Gedike, a disciple of Rousseau, director of a well-known gymnasium in Prussia. In 1791 he published the world’s first look/say primer, A Children’s Reader Without the ABC’s and Spelling. The idea was to eliminate drill. Kids would learn through pictures following suggestions the legendary mystic and scholar Comenius set down in his famous Orbis Pictus of 1657.

After a brief splash and three editions, the fashion vanished for an excellent reason: As good as it sounds in theory, it doesn’t work well at all in practice (although here and there exceptions are encountered and infuriatingly enough it can seem to work in the early years of first and second grade). Soon after that the rapidly developing reading power in phonetically trained children makes them capable of recognizing in print their entire speaking and listening vocabulary, while look/say trained readers can read without error only the words they have memorized as whole shapes, a relative handful.

This is devilishly complex terrain. Gedike’s theory held that when enough words are ingested and recognized, the student can figure out for himself the seventy key phonograms of the English language. Indeed this is the only credible explanation which could account for the well-known phenomenon of children who teach themselves to read handily without the use of any system at all. I have no doubt children occasionally learn to read this way. Yet if true, how do we account for the grotesque record of whole-word instruction for over a century and a half in every conceivable school setting?

Money, time, attention, and caring adults in profusion, all have been available to make this alternative method work to teach reading proficiency, yet its record in competition with the old-fashioned alphabet system is horrifying. What might account for this?

I have a hunch based on a decade of ruminating. Since no one has yet bothered to assemble a large group of self-taught good readers to ask them how it happened, let my hunch serve as a working hypothesis for you to chew upon at your leisure. Consider first the matter of time. The average five-year-old can master all of the seventy phonograms in six weeks. At that point he can read just about anything fluently. Can he understand everything? No, of course not. But also, no synthetic barrier to understanding is being interposed by weird-looking words to be memorized whole, either. Paulo Freire taught ignorant campesinos with no tradition of literacy at all to read in thirty hours. They were adults, with different motivations than children, but when he showed them a sentence and they realized it said "The land belongs to the tiller," they were hooked. That’s Jesuit savvy for you.

Back to this matter of time. By the end of the fourth grade, phonics-trained students are at ease with an estimated 24,000 words. Whole-word trained students have memorized about 1,600 words and can successfully guess at some thousands more, but also unsuccessfully guess at thousands, too. One reigning whole-word expert has called reading "a psycholinguistic guessing game" in which the reader is not extracting the writer’s meaning but constructing a meaning of his own.

While there is an attractive side to this that is ignored by critics of whole language (and I number myself among these), the value doesn’t begin to atone for the theft of priceless reading time and guided practice. As long as whole-language kids are retained in a hothouse environment, shielded from linguistic competition, things seem idyllic, but once mixed together with phonetically trained kids of similar age and asked to avail themselves of the intellectual treasure locked up in words, the result is not so pretty. Either the deficient kid must retreat from the field with a whopping sense of inferiority, or, worse, he must advance aggressively into the fray, claiming books are overrated, that thinking and judgment are merely matters of opinion. The awful truth is that circumstances hardly give us the luxury of testing Gedike’s hypothesis about kids being able to deduce the rules of language from a handful of words. Humiliation makes mincemeat of most of them long before the trial is fairly joined.

So, the second hunch I have is that where whole-word might work when it works at all is in a comfortable, protected environment without people around to laugh derisively at the many wretched mistakes you must make on the way to becoming a Columbus of language. But in case you hadn’t noticed, schools aren’t safe places for the young to guess at the meanings of things. Only an imbecile would pretend that school isn’t a pressure-cooker of psychodrama. Wherever children are gathered into groups by compulsion, a pecking order soon emerges in which malice, mockery, intimidation of the weak, envy, and a whole range of other nasty characteristics hold sway, like that famous millpond of Huxley’s, whose quiet surface mirroring fall foliage conceals a murderous subterranean world whose law is eat or be eaten.

That’s melodramatic, I suppose, yet thirty classroom years and a decade more as a visitor in hundreds of other schools have shown me what a meatgrinder the peaceful classroom really is. Bill is wondering whether he will be beaten again on the way to the lunchroom; Molly is paralyzed with fear that the popular Jean will make loud fun of her prominent teeth; Ronald is digging the point of a sharpened pencil into the neck of Herbert who sits in front of him, all the while whispering he will get Herb good if he gets Ron in trouble with the teacher; Alan is snapping a rubber band at Flo; Ralph is about to call Leonard "trailer park trash" for the three-hundredth time that day, not completely clear he knows what it means, yet enjoying the anguish it brings to Leonard’s face; Greta, the most beautiful girl in the room, is practicing ogling shyer boys, then cutting them dead when she evokes any hopeful smiles in response; Willie is slowly shaken down for a dollar by Phil; and Mary’s single mom has just received an eviction notice.

Welcome to another day in an orderly, scientific classroom. Teacher may have a permanent simper pasted on her face, but it’s deadly serious, the world she presides over, a bad place to play psycholinguistic guessing games which involve sticking one’s neck out in front of classmates as the rules of language are empirically derived. A method that finds mistakes to be "charming stabs in the right direction" may be onto something person-to-person or in the environment of a loving home, but it’s dynamically unsuited to the forge of forced schooling.

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