"How Learning to Read a Book, Is Like Learning to Play the Piano"

January 29, 2021

As I continue to go through my piles of hoarded articles, I came across one of my favorites – “How Learning to Read a Book Is Like Learning to Play the Piano” (Brent Staples, New York Times, March, 2002).

When the article was written there was a debate raging as to what was the best way to teach emerging and struggling readers.

Essentially, there were two camps.  (Sound familiar?)

At the time, the first camp was thought to be more cutting edge and progressive in their approach to teaching children to read.

Espousing what was viewed as a “top-down” model, its view was that learning to read was largely seen as a process that occurred naturally, like learning to walk and talk.  All that was needed for children to learn to read, was an enriched language-loaded environment (such as reading stories to children)  that fostered the natural unfolding of the skills.

For these “top-down” adherents, the teaching of sound-symbol relationships (i.e., phonics) was “so yesterday,” so old school. For those who maintained the “old school” approaches (i.e., the “bottom-up” camp), there was considerable criticism, often expressed contempt directed their way.

From the NYT article  that I’ve held onto for nearly 20 years, the Windward School, a specialized school based in Westchester County, New York, was featured.

As stated in the article:

“Windward rejects just about all of the conventional wisdom underlying programs at traditional schools.  The most important difference is that the school views reading and writing not as a thing that human beings are “naturally wired” to do, but as acquired skills – like driving or playing the piano that require structured practice and constant conceptual reinforcement.”

Citing Ms. Phylis Bertin, the  director of  reading for  Windward’s Teacher Training Institute, she, “likens the school and their methods to a conservatory where aspiring musicians practice scales and play exercises to prepare themselves for the masterworks they one day hope to play. Ms. Bertin says the nation’s sense of having a reading crisis will only deepen until school system and colleges of education adopt a structured approach that reaches the 4 in 10 American children who have trouble learning to read.”

Ms. Bertin stated, “Windward is not the answer.  The answer is to change the way we teach teachers to teach reading.”

Since 2002 the research evidence has not been particularly kind to the “top-down” group.  In fact, their theories have largely been rejected.

The problem is we are still largely feeling the effects of the top-down theories.

Let’s take Ethan, an 8 year old third grader who is struggling to read, spell and write.  Since there were “red flags of concern in first grade,  he should have gotten a healthy dose of targeted, focused, structured instruction.

At the time that I met Ethan he had received little “bottom-up” instruction,”

Instead, the parents were told,  “It’s too early to do anything – we need to wait and see.”

This “wait and see” approach is opposite to all of the best research and one of the reason the Ethans of the world are struggling far more than they should be in the middle elementary school grades.

Ethan could have and should have been practicing his scales, notes and chords as soon as there was any suggestion of difficulty, but if reading, spelling and writing are viewed as a natural unfolding, then you listen to songs and hope they will be absorbed.

 Takeaway Point

If you see your child struggling, even as early as six or seven years of age, don’t wait.  Find a good “music teacher.”

 

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