1 Comment

Literacy has always been a gateway skill. Those who are opposed to censorship or any suppression of free speech, are often those who have read widely, and started to do so rather early in life. I'm still amazed that phonics is a 'political' thing. Compared to the whole language approach. I don't believe that anyone could ever simply memorize, at any age, the exponentially increasing vocabulary that a child encounters once their reading ability really begins to take off.

I recall so many things. Learning, or guessing, or otherwise becoming familiar with and aware of the definitions of words according to the context of where they showed up in a text. In order that the exercise of reading did not become a ponderous start and stop stagger in and out of an accompanying dictionary. As well as understanding the meaning of words long before I knew how to correctly pronounce them.

In my time, the majority of children learned to read and to read remarkably well according to one factor above all: a natural curiosity to want to know and find out, and understand. This was true of fictional narrative, as well as non-fiction information.

In early grades, phonics was simply a tool, a very important tool used, through endlessly repeated exercise, to gain traction and for most of us, somewhere between grades three and four, our reading skills and confidence exploded. And this continued exponentially straight into middle school. By then, the pronunciation of a (difficult) word, its spelling or definition, was easily verified in a dictionary. What my older sisters in high school used to call 'vocab.'

The point is - we do not live in an oral society, with oral customs and traditions. Or limitations. The closest we might come to that is the memorization of lyrics to pop songs. Or the endless spillage of memes and catchy phrases from TV shows and advertisements.

On the contrary, our so-called 'western' canon has grown, begged and borrowed, cannibalized and otherwise swollen itself to include such a wide swath of ethnic and cultural material as to hardly be contained or confined by simply a Euro-based motif. It's all over the place. And it is literary to beat the band.

We have never before in the history of the world, had such a burgeoning wealth, an embarrassment of riches, so absolutely drenched in stuff to read. All of it English language, whether written in the original, or translated as need be. University libraries' collections are ever-swelling with non-English language collections as well. Much of it Asian, southeast Asian and Middle Eastern. Toss in any Spanish and you include the entire continent of South America (excepting for Brazil) and Central America along with the Caribbean, as well.

So just imagine having all of that stuff to go and play with, and creating some political shrug of, well, it depends. Yes, of course, phonics is a magic key, that opens up a door into a wonderland. Reading was never a waste of time. Even when it includes gum-popping radio-tracking snacking piles of comic books, as every pre-teen in my generation came to know and love. Those were just the appetizers preceding endless tasty full course dinners.

The gift of phonics (and growing literacy skills) went something like this:

In grade three, about 60% of everything I read was generated by classroom reading.

By grade six that had shrunk to about 15%.

By high school, wallowing down there around 5%.

Academics were just the kick-starter to the engine.

Again, this was not unusual. I recall literary arguments in schoolyards as late in life as senior middle school. It was normal. Reading and reading well could win friends and influence your uncle. Who knew?

Expand full comment