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Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World
by Joan Wink
Copyright © 1997 by Joan Wink

I Learned to Read Through Phonics

I learned to read by way of phonics in the first grade.  First, I learned the individual letters and their sounds; from letters and sounds, I moved to individual words; from words, to sentences, to paragraphs, to pages, to stories.  I learned to read by building up the parts; bottom to top.  Reading specialists would say I was a parts-to-whole reader.  Some would say that phonics gets the credit.  I slowly and carefully put the puzzle together piece by piece.  In school I read every assignment, every chapter, every set of comprehension questions at the end of chapters, every spelling list, every grammar assignment.  I read everything I was told to read.  I got good grades and graduated at the top of my high school class.  One problem: I hated to read.  I read only the exact number of pages assigned; I never took a book home to read for pleasure.  I went to college and continued the same pattern.  I spent every free moment in the library, got good grades, graduated with honors in literature, and yet I hated to read.

When my children were babies, I started to read to them.  The baby books said I should, so I did.  With our first child, Dawn, something started to change: I loved the big black-and-white checkered book, The Real Mother Goose. I thought Winnie the Pooh had been written just for me.  By the time we got to Charlotte’s Web, I was hooked on books.  I used to secretly read The Secret Garden even when Dawn was asleep.  With our son, Bo, I broadened my literary base.  I probably have read The Three Little Pigs several thousand times, and I still huff and puff with vigor.  Pecos Bill was the highlight of Bo’s preschool years at home.  From there he moved on to BMX magazines, and we both became authorities on racing bikes.  After BMX magazines, he moved on to motorcycle books. From there, he jumped right into Stephen King and left me far in the dust.  It was at this point in my life that I had to find my own books to read.  I was probably about thirty years old.

When did Dawn and Bo learn to read? I have no idea, but it was before kindergarten.  One day Dawn came home from kindergarten crying because the librarian wouldn’t let her check out The Secret Garden. The librarian said it was too hard for kindergartners and only third-graders could have it.  The same librarian would only let the students check out one book at a time, a rule that Dawn hated.  One day she checked out her one allotted box and shoved three more inside her T-shirt, and headed for the exit.  She had detention for a week. (This meant that we all had detention for a week, as we lived in the country an hour away from school.)

Dawn and Bo learned to read the opposite way that I did.  Reading specialists would say they were whole-to-part readers.  They looked at the picture of the whole puzzle first and then put the pieces together.  Do they love to read?  Yes.  Do they read for pleasure? Yes.

When I first started to notice all of this, it seemed like a contradiction.  How could my kids possibly learn to read if they didn’t do the same thing I had done?  Didn’t I need to teach them the sounds, the letters, the words first?  However it was clear to me that they were not interested in the parts.  They wanted the whole story again and again and again.  Since that time, I became very interested in the various ways that children learn to read and read to learn.  This is what triggered my interest in holistic teaching and learning.  It seems that many kids who were read to as little children, learn to read and love to read.  Homes with books and ideas and love seem to produce kids who love to read.