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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—except for Jonathan, who is a 12-year-old contradiction in my educational space.

Jonathan comes from an enriched family. He has food, love, and lots of laughs. His dad is an international lung specialist; his mother is the best-read person I know; and his brothers and sisters are (usually) good to him. Now that I am at a point in my life where I philosophically understand why kids with books learn to read, I must still be alert to the exceptions. I listen to the whispering of the juxtaposition.

Jonathan spent two years of preschool in a two-way Spanish-English immersion where 50 percent of the students were Spanish speakers. His two oral languages grew rapidly. Jonathan flourished as he ran and played in this bilingual context. When he spoke to the English role model teacher, he used only English. When he needed something from the Spanish role model teacher, he switched to Spanish without hesitation. In class and on the playground, he used either language with his peers.

Jonathan entered kindergarten and was able to continue in a two-way immersion program. This program had been well established years ago. The first group of students had already graduated from high school and were now bilingual college students. Some of these students were European Americans; some were Mexican American, but they all were biliterate and all were continuing to achieve academically.

In this program Jonathan had the best of everything; the best teachers, pedagogy, field trips, fish bowls, crayons, and curriculum. Jonathan’s prior experiences and this school setting could not have been better. We were ready for Jonathan’s emergent literacy to begin.

He didn’t read in kindergarten; we waited. He didn’t read in first grade; we waited and started to worry. He didn’t read in second, nor third, nor fourth, nor fifth grade. I called reading specialists in several states. I read every book on reading I could find. The message consistently was read to him; talk with him about ideas; love him; give him success in other areas. We did it all. Jonathan’s applesauce was a blue ribbon at the state fair. He became so avid a photographer and joined a senior citizen’s photography club where every member adored him. In his neighbor’s garage he developed an interest in and ability in carpentry. But still he couldn’t read. We worried more and tried everything; stories, phonics, print-rich environment, dittos, sandpaper letters, Cool Whip sentences, more stories more love. With each passing year, we became less philosophically grounded and more eclectic. We tried everything I believed in and everything I didn’t believe in, and I don’t like to admit this to you.

Jonathan’s two oral languages continued to grow at a rapid rate. He knew so much, but he couldn’t write about it, nor could he read.

Tests. Tests. And, more tests. Jonathan knew every specialist in the district. Jonathan soon began to feel very bad; his self-esteem suffered. His family, his neighbors, and his teachers continued to focus on what Jon could do, and not what he couldn’t. But, we were all in agony. The special services division of the district assessed Jonathan with every test available. Jon and his parents suffered through interminable student-study-team meetings where each time new well-meaning strangers offered new advice based on yet another test.

Finally, in the summer of his fifth grade, his desperate parents enrolled Jonathan in a private program that focused on auditory discrimination deficit, a problem that several tests had ruled out long ago. The teacher of this program said it would be different. It was. It was prohibitively expensive; the students had to focus for four hours at one sitting; Jon would have to go every day; the parents had to commit to 40 hours minimum.

I was the least optimistic of all. This program was everything that I knew wouldn’t work. This was a wreck waiting to happen. I understand why Jonathan’s parents were willing to try, but I was confident that this would only do more harm to Jonathan’s failing self-concept. He did not need another failure.

After his initial visits, Jonathan called me long distance and excitedly asked me to come watch him read. I jumped in the car and drove several hours and arrived in time to attend the next session with him. We entered the living room, which had been transformed into a type of reading laboratory for Jon with pictures of tongues and mouths in various positions, manipulative, cards, and a board that reminded me of a 3-D Monopoly game. Jonathan sat down and focused on the instructions and the sounds he was to make. He knew where his tongue went for every sound. He proudly explained the difference in sounds and talked excitedly about “lip poppers” and “lip tappers.” He knew the difference between “fat” sounds and “skinny” sounds; he didn’t confuse the “coolers” and the “tongue coolers.” By breaking down the words into very, very small parts, Jonathan was able to break through the decoding barrier.

“Now I am finally starting to read, Joan,” he proudly told me. For years I have studied the debate regarding whether we learn to read from whole to part or part to whole. Does it help us to have a picture of the puzzle before we start to put the puzzle together? Yes. Does it help us to know the story before we begin to read each page, each paragraph, each sentence, each word, each sound? Yes. If families love reading and spend wonderful times reading to their children, will the children begin to read and love to read? Yes. Except for Jon.

Jonathan is now reading and writing in the sixth grade. He sometimes still struggles with spelling tests. Recently he was trying to memorize the word aboard. Jonathan did not know this word; had never used this word, and could see no need for it in his life. He said to his mom, “Even if I learn to spell it by Friday, I still won’t know it next Monday.”

“Let’s move on to social studies,” his mom replied, recognizing that he understood far more than how to spell aboard. The two of them began to talk about the various people who live in the world, as part of the social studies assignment. Suddenly, Jonathan became very excited and said to his mom, “People. People, now there is a word I could really use. I’ll learn how to spell people, and I’ll always know it.” He knew it on Friday, and he knew it the following Monday, and he still knows how to spell it.

Jonathan is the whispering of the juxtaposition for me. He is the voice of the other. Jonathan teaches me to keep learning from the opposites of my beliefs. After writing this story, I sent a copy to Jonathan and his mom. Jon was delighted to read about himself but disappointed with me.

“Mom, she didn’t get it,” he groaned
“What didn’t she get?” his mom asked.
“She missed the whole point. The reason I’ll always know it is because I need to know it.”

No, Jonathan, I didn’t miss the point. I get it.