Friday, April 24, 2009

Elementary School Reading and Writing

I've been asked to provide more details on the problems I see in the elementary school English Language Arts program. Here is a list of problems followed by explanations.

  • Lack of phonics
  • Lack of vocabulary
  • Weak on grammar
  • Weak on writing
  • No penmanship
  • Poor attitude towards skills

Lack of phonics: When my daughter was in elementary school I was not surprised that phonics was not taught, so I taught my daughter phonics as best I could. My daughter fought me on phonics because her teacher really wanted the kids to guess words without sounding them out.

Here's a story for you. A friend of a friend has a child who was pronounced dyslexic by PISD. The parent bought phonics material and taught her child to read. Her child continued to have trouble at the PISD school and the mother could not understand how that could be since her child could read at home. Well, it turned out that the teacher was forbidding the child from sounding out the words. The parents sold their house and moved to Allen. The Allen ISD said the child was not dyslexic, but needed extra time to read. I have another friend whose child did have dyslexia and was so disappointed by the way PISD dealt with dyslexia that he pulled his child from PISD and sent his child to a private school.

By the time my second child went to PISD I had discovered a good resource for teaching reading: "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons" by Siegfried Engelmann. My son is successfully reading out loud long Greek names in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, while I've seen other boys his age halt their reading when they reach an unfamiliar word.

Lack of vocabulary: Teaching spelling is the closest PISD comes to ensuring our children have learned any vocabulary. PISD wants children to guess the meaning of words and move on in their reading. When I was in elementary school I was taught to stop and look up a word I did not know. Furthermore, when I was in fourth grade we had graduated reading assignments specially designed to impart a significant vocabulary. I'll always remember thinking, "conflagration, what on earth is that?" But I dutifully looked it up and I have found a good vocabulary to be a life long blessing.

By the time my daughter was in high school I decided the vocabulary she received from her education was inadequate and I paid for vocabulary drilling. A good vocabulary should be taught in elementary school so children can benefit from it all through their years in PISD.

Weak on grammar: Yes, they teach some grammar, but it is a light weight dip into the subject. When I was in fifth grade I had comprehensive instruction in grammar. We learned to diagram sentences. When you become serious about writing you find grammar indispensable for self-editing. Fifth grade grammar in PISD is pretty weak. I went to Borders and purchased an English Language Arts book for 5th grade and I am using that to teach my son the three basic sentence types: simple, compound, and complex. Once you understand the difference between a compound and complex sentence, you can better understand why a comma or semicolon is used to demarcate sentence clauses.

My son was being taught to learn how to use commas by guessing and then being corrected without being given adequate instruction on the proper use of commas. You might think this is obviously a stupid way to teach because you do not actually teach and instead you make children think grammar is confusing and hard. Yet, PISD is embracing an approach to teaching that avoids teaching. I'll always remember an administrator from PISD saying to teachers that they are supposed to be, "a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage."

Weak on writing: It stands to reason that if instruction on grammar and sentence structure is weak that instruction on writing is going to be weak, and it is. When my daughter took an English composition / rhetoric class at Collin College she was surprised at how her papers were being marked. She asked me to check one of her papers and I had to agree it needed more correction than she expected. So I asked her, "have you ever had a paper in Plano corrected this rigorously?" She said no. She had never had proper proper feedback on her writing.

No penmanship: Plano does not penmanship. If you are not taught good penmanship while young, it is difficult to pick it up as an adult. You can tell at a glance the quality of a person's education by the way that person holds a pen. Good penmanship is a mark of distinction. Some successful businessmen believe personalized thank you notes to customers are an important business practice, but that not cannot have ugly handwriting. My mother has the best penmanship I have seen. She was taught penmanship with the Palmer method when she was a child. It is a shame our district ignores penmanship and makes good penmanship one more burden for the busy parents to provide for their children because the district ignores it.

Poor attitude towards skills: Reading, writing, grammar, and penmanship are all skills and our district follows a trend in education that disregards the value of skills by calling them stultifying and mechanistic, to use John Dewey's own words.

Some progressive educators want to skip teaching skills and focus instead on teaching critical thinking, but that is a short cut that short changes our children

Our children deserve the best education we can provide.

Vote for Robert Canright.

1 comment:

KateGladstone said...

For more on penmanship, see

Kate Gladstone
Director, World Handwriting Contest
Founder and CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works