The Progressive Review

Writing & Reading Undernews






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Teaching kids to hate reading

Nancy Bailey - Any educator or parent who understands the beauty of reading and the importance of helping a child learn to do it right was appalled to read two recent articles about the subject. Both should make all of us concerned that children are being set up to hate reading. They are being pushed to read earlier than ever before!

Consider the February 1 headline of The Oregonian: "Too Many Oregon Students Unready for Kindergarten State Officials Lament."

What is the crisis?

"The typical Oregon kindergartner arrived at school last fall knowing only 19 capital and lower-case letters and just seven letter sounds out of at least 100 possible correct answers, the state reported Friday."

"They also were shown a page with 110 letter sounds on it. The average kindergartner could pronounce just 6.7."

"Gov. John Kitzhaber, in prepared remarks, called the results 'sobering'"...

"'Things have changed in terms of what is expected when students start kindergarten,' said Jada Rupley, Oregon's early learning system director. 'We would hope they would know most of their letters and many of their sounds.'"

Politicians, venture philanthropists, and even the President, make early learning into an emergency. What's a poor kindergartener or preschooler to do when they must carry the weight of the nation on their backs--when every letter and pronunciation is scrutinized like never before?

Unfortunately, many kindergarten teachers have bought into this harmful message. Many have thrown out their play kitchens, blocks, napping rugs, and doll houses believing it is critical that children should learn to read in kindergarten!

A new study through the University of Virginia has determined that kindergarten is the new first grade! The study, by Bassok and Rorem, from the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, "used two large nationally representative datasets to track changes in kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2006." They found "that in 1998, 31 percent of kindergarten teachers indicated that most children should learn to read while in kindergarten. By 2006, 65 percent of teachers agreed with this statement. To accommodate this new reality, classroom time spent on literacy rose by 25 percent, from roughly 5.5 to seven hours per week."

What's wrong with these high-stress pictures?

There is a mistaken idea of what young children should be able to do--what is age-appropriate. Here's a list of what "typical" children know upon entering kindergarten, from the National Center for Education Statistics report Entering Kindergarten: Findings from the Condition of Education 2000:

Sixty-six percent of children entering kindergarten recognize letters in the alphabet.

Sixty-one percent of children entering kindergarten know you read left to right.

Many kindergartners do not yet possess early reading skills.

Children might not point to letters representing sounds.

New kindergartners might not be able to read basic words by sight yet.

Only 1 in 50 actually read basic and complex words entering kindergarten.

Note this is what occurs but isn't what young children should necessarily be doing when it comes to reading.

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes the critical factor as to how a student will learn to read "is not how aggressively," the child is given instruction, but rather their "own enthusiasm for learning." They also state that many early learning programs "interfere with the child's natural enthusiasm" by imposing on children to "concentrate on tasks" when they aren't ready.

Why are young children being made to learn at a faster rate? Why is there this mistaken notion that children's brains have somehow evolved to a higher level where they are supposed to read earlier and earlier?

Many children will not be ready--not because they're slow, not because they have learning disabilities, but because they're normal and moving along at their own pace! The door should be opened to them in kindergarten and beyond to learn how to read in a relaxed manner. Even when a child has difficulty learning to read (dyslexia for example), you don't attack the problem by pushing the child to read beyond what is considered normal.

When kindergarten teachers expect every kindergartner to focus on reading and learn it at that age, it opens the door for all kinds of problems. Here are a few:

No Joy in Reading. Children learn to hate reading. When you assess children too early, currently done in kindergarten with Response to Intervention testing like Dibels, children learn reading is a chore. It becomes something serious--even fearful for a young child.

Vocabulary Emphasis. Most memorization is boring. When teachers focus on vocabulary acquisition and word recognition, young children lose interest in the stories. Curiosity is squelched. Some sight word instruction is fine, of course, but focusing so much and tracking every word as a data point is obsessive.

Self-Fulfilling Prophesy. If a kindergartener is not reading yet (normal), but they are treated like they have a problem, they really could develop a problem.

Loss of Cognitive Ability/Play. Heavily focusing on reading, at the expense of other important kindergarten tasks, like play, destroys critical aspects of learning. Without play, children lose the ability to think about things on their own. How does this toy work? How do I put the blocks together to build a house? What can I create on my own?

Loss of Self-Worth. It is fine for some children to show up reading in kindergarten, but children who are not reading yet (perfectly normal) may lose the feeling of self-worth. They could also act out becoming a behavior problem. Adults, after all, never trusted them to learn some things on their own.

Reading Ability Isn't Everything. Kindergarten students who already read fluently might have other problems that are overlooked by the teacher. Or they become bored because they are given nothing new to learn.

A Lack of Socialization. We know through research, like the study notes above, that socialization at this period of development is important, but with the total emphasis on learning to read at such a young age, socialization skills, including play, are pushed aside. Students miss out. How will these children get along later on when they are adults?

Too Competitive. Children are taught at an early age that they must compete and win in order to receive approval. They don't learn to care about others. They know some students read better or worse than they do. The emphasis is on reading not on the students and who they are.

Disadvantaged Children. While some students from poor backgrounds may not have been exposed to books and a good reading environment early on, pushing them to read through assessment and drill could squelch their interest in reading forever.

Research. Pushing children to read too soon defies past research by many recognized and well-regarded developmental psychologists and educators whose studies have stood the test of time.

While kindergarten is now the new 1st grade, in 10 more years will kindergarten be the next 2nd or 3rd grade? When will the current reformers be satisfied? When will they quit demeaning children and making them jump through inappropriate developmental hoops?

Enough is enough! Let children be children. Let them be their age. Bring back the joy of learning to read.


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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution Of 'Proper' English, From Shakespeare To 'South Park' by Jack W. Lynch."It doesn't seem possible to make grammar book writers memorable, but Lynch pulls it off with ease and gusto".- NPR  




The average American is subjected to 3,000 commercial messages a day. If you have a good day, a half dozen people will tell you a truth worth remembering. Thus the lies win out 500 to one.

Increasingly, our lives are being run by logos rather than logos, symbols rather than reason.


With writing, the standard for politicians should be at least as high as that for college freshmen. If the latter were to pay someone to write their papers, the full weight of academia would come crashing down upon them. At the higher levels of society, however, such behavior is considered normal and even admirable. At the very least, however, politicians should be required to list the names of their ghostwriters on the ballot and to resign from public office should their scribes decide to change clients.


We don't have to worry about Trojan horses much any more. The real danger comes from Trojan words and phrases — appealing statues of rhetoric concealing the enemy.


Speak United States. Avoid the private languages of academia, technocracy and corporations.

As an English teacher wisely noted, you are allowed only five exclamation points in a lifetime. Use them carefully.

Remember that you are talking to a reader, not your therapist. Since you're don't pay your readers what you pay your therapist, you should give them something they will enjoy.

If you're having a hard time, write for one reader: a friend, a relative, your child, Barack Obama. This helps remove the speechifying and makes the task less confusing.

If you suffer from writer's block, just sit down and write crap. Pay no attention to style, content, or spelling. Just write something. Then read it again tomorrow and save all the good stuff.

Capitalized words can be used for anything that would go on a door, a map, a gravestone, in an address book or at the beginning of a sentence. They are not for words you just think are important.

If you're being funny or ironic, don't feel you have to say so. Never explain a joke. It annoys your good readers and the dumb ones still won't get it.

Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker used to say if you can't be funny, be interesting.

Avoid abstractions. If the evening was indeed 'fabulous,' give us some solid evidence. And if you do a good enough job of describing an incident, you won't need to call it 'racist.' Think of yourself as a photographer using words instead of a camera. Good photographs speak for themselves.

Stories are almost always more interesting than opinions. Use the southern approach and argue by anecdote.




My main reason for adopting literature as a profession was that, as the author is never seen by his clients, he need not dress respectably. - George Bernard Shaw

A writer is a man for whom writing is more difficult than it is for others. - Thomas Mann

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing -Ben Franklin

If a writer is silent, he is lying. - Jaroslav Seifert

The writer is the person who stands outside society, independent of affiliation and independent of influence. The writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government. There are so many temptations for American writers to become part of the system and part of the structure that now, more than ever, we have to resist. American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous. Writers in repressive societies are considered dangerous. That's why so many of them are in jail. - Don DeLillo

The writer's only service to the disintegrated society of today is to create little independent systems of order of his own. - Evelyn Waugh

A free-lance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps -- Robert Benchley

Asking a working writer what he feels about critics is like asking a lamp post what it feels about dogs -- John Osborne

I was recently asked what it takes to become a writer. Three things, I answered: First, one must cultivate incompetence at almost every other form of profitable work. This must be accompanied, second, by a haughty contempt for all the forms of work that one has established one cannot do. To these two must be joined, third, the nuttiness to believe that other people can be made to care about your opinions and views and be charmed by the way you state them. Incompetence, contempt, lunacy - once you have these in place, you are set to go. - Joseph Epstein

Our fundamental want today in the United States, with closest, amplest reference to present conditions, and to the future, is of a class, and a clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatuses, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decisions, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage, with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses---radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners, and, as its grandest results, accomplishing . . . a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual basis of the States -- Walt Whitman

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened & after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you & afterwards it all belongs to you: the good & the bad, the ecstacy, the remorse & sorrow, the people & the places & how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer. - Ernest Hemingway

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both -- EB White in 'Charlotte's Web'

[Mary Margaret McBride asked Carl Van Doren if it was hard to write. He replied]: Yes, it's hard to write but it's harder not to.

If you can't be funny, be interesting -- Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker

The whole duty of the writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Let him start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and he is as good as dead, although he may make a nice living. -- E B White

How do I know what I think until I have written about it? -- E. M. Forster

Writing *** must come from a great emotional upheaval in the soul, and if that upheaval is not present, it must come from the work of any other writer which happens to be handy and easily imitated -- Robert Benchley


The secret of this kind of writing is that it isn't buying anything and it isn't selling anything. - Kenneth Rexroth on the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett

Remember to never split an infinitive. The passive voice should never be used. Do not put statements in the negative form. Verbs have to agree with their subjects. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing. A writer must not shift your point of view. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.) Don't overuse exclamation marks!! Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing. Always pick on the correct idiom. The adverb always follows the verb. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives. - William Safire

If you can't annoy somebody with what you write, I think there's little point in writing -- Kingsley Amis

Printer's ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries. - Christopher Morley

Most of the great works of juvenile literature are subversive in one way or another; they express ideas and emotions not generally approved of or even recognized at the time; they make fun of honored figures and piously held beliefs; & they view social pretenses with clear-eyed directness, remarking - as in Andersen's famous tale - that the emperor wears no clothes. - Alison Lurie, Don't Tell the Grown-Ups

I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. - Ernest Hemingway

I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork - Peter De Vries

I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better. - AJ Liebling

I never knew what was meant by choice of words. It was one word or none. -- Robert Frost

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. -- George Orwell in Politics and the English Language

The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth -- Henry Thoreau

Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead. - Gene Fowler

Dickens didn't write what people wanted; he wanted what people wanted - GK Chesterton

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. - Dorothy Parker

My main reason for adopting literature as a profession was that, as the author is never seen by his clients, he need not dress respectably. - George Bernard Shaw

Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us - George Orwellit 'racist.' Think of yourself as a photographer using words instead of a camera. Good photographs speak for themselves.

Stories are almost always more interesting than opinions. Use the southern approach and argue by anecdote.


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