Octavia Butler and the reading wars

News & Politics

Somehow, amid my general despair about Iraq and my general elation about the fact that finally no one in my family is currently ill, I've gotten sidetracked by this whole continuing debate about how we learn to read. Some people thought this debate was over and, like many things, ended in the conclusion that a mixture of everything is best. Not so. Others still apparently consider teaching "whole language" reading tantamount to child abuse at worst and racism at best. Did you know that phonics was associated with Republicans, capitalists, and strict teachers while whole language was left for us feel-gooders and Democrats who actually believe you should read to children? Perhaps South Dakota, continuing its lovely push into the dark ages, will next ban pointing out whole words to children and reading to them.

My daughter just turned three. She can "read" six words: sun, moon, cat, dog, Luna, eat, and egg. By read, I mean she recognizes these words. She's memorized that the one with a dog-like tale at the end is "dog," the one with two moon-circles in the middle is "moon." This is how I learned how to read at age two and I don't think it's warped me too much, except that I spent too much of my childhood (and arguably too much of my adulthood) reading. But it's not phonics, and it's not how most kids learn to read these days. At preschool, my daughter learns to recognize sounds and spell things out phonetically. She's got the idea, but not the syntax; she wants to know what does "B" start with, butterfly or elephant?

At the Exploratorium, a hands-on science center in San Francisco, they have a new exhibit on how people read. Apparently, most of us, even those who were taught strict phonics, just read the first and last letter of a word, and the order of the letters in the middle don't really matter much.

Most people, without pausing, can read Mark Twain's aphorism:

I dno't gvie a dman for a man taht can olny sepll a wrod one way.

Everyone I know who was read to as a child and had books in the house learned to read. Those I know that weren't read to have struggled with reading all their lives, no matter how much they were taught in school. If there was ever an unnecessary debate, this is it. Do it all. Throw the book--letters, words, and pictures-- at a kid, make it a book about something they care about, and I bet they'll be reading.

I write this inspired in part by Octavia Butler, who died on Friday of a head wound. The author of Kindred, Bloodchild, and Wild Seed was one of those writers who you inhaled. She was also a brilliant inspiration, a tall African-Amerian woman who never worried about convention, never stopped asking questions, and always let her imagination run fully. She's one of the women I hope my daughter will read one day; once she expands her six-word reading vocabulary.

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