Why So Few Adults Read For Fun

The Six Reasons In Brief

  1. Premature Story Reading
  2. Sight Word "Memorization"
  3. Difficulty reading from left to right (but not dyslexia)
  4. The tedium, coercion, error, and frustration of early reading instruction create emotional baggage
  5. We almost always start teaching reading too early.
  6. Suboptimal Curriculum

1) Premature Story Reading

Reading that's not smooth is incomprehensible because the pauses that divide subjects, objects, and parenthetical phrases are in the wrong places. Naturally if you read along with a poor reader, you understand what he or she is reading, but if you can't see the text or your eyes are closed, you soon discover that halting speech is mostly incomprehensible even if every word is pronounced correctly and in the right order. This is a phenomenon related to the architecture of memory itself. As children begin to read, their halting reading and intense thought about how to pronounce each word teaches them that it's "normal" to not understand. Because of this belief, they can't catch their own mistakes when they finally begin reading fairly smoothly and easily.

2) Sight Word Memorization

Children who are forced to "memorize" sight words as the first step in reading instruction usually form an abnormal memory structure that is reinforced throughout life by their constant exposure to the same sight words. The memory structure is essentially a random word generator. It injects one or two random sight words every paragraph. It's triggered by seeing a sight word. Most of the time, the sight word is correctly identified, but sometimes, an unrelated word appears in its place. I once saw a 14-year old look at the word y-o-u-r and say, "I." The substitution rendered the entire sentence meaningless, but because of problem 1 (above), he just ploughed ahead as if everything was fine. Erroneous sight word injections gradually lower comprehension to nearly zero. Because of this and other severe problems, most college students from Georgia read every textbook chapter twice. My studies showed that children who could identify sight words reliably could do so mostly because they had begun to sound out words. Those who could not sound out words, couldn't sound out the sight words either and the vast majority of their guesses were wrong.

3) Difficulty Reading From Left To Right

This is our second memory phenomenon. When two to three stimuli are simultaneous, new memory forms. It's invariably attached to and fed nerve impulses by existing memory. In the same way that there is no first event in a set of two or three simultaneous events, there is no natural and obvious "first" letter in a two or three letter word. Since children looking at a word see all of the letters at once, the first letter children are most likely to say is whichever one they remember first. If that's not the leftmost letter, Chaos ensues. It's important to understand that this is not dyslexia.

As it was originally defined, "dyslexia" was a neurological or ophthalmological disorder that caused children to "see letters out of order and/or backwards." So a child might look at the word picnic and say nicpic. The actual problem? He remembered the sound of N first. In the modern day, "dyslexia" refers to any general inability to read that is believed to have a biological origin. By either definition of dyslexia, all the children I have ever taught to read began as dyslexics. Once a child has learned to read 2 letters in order, he must be retaught the order principal when three letter words are introduced. The same thing happens with four letter words and during the transition to multisyllable words. It's frustrating, but it's not a disease. Confusion caused by the similarity of the symbols 'd' and 'b' isn't dyslexia either. About 50% of my students develop this form of "dyslexia." It doesn't start to fade away until they begin reading from left to right consistently. Then they can see that the d's point upstream(left) and the b's point downstream (right). The problem here is that d and b actually are the same symbol. They get stored in memory as circle + stick. Even letters are just collections of simultaneous events.

4) Emotional Baggage

Children who watch adults read think it's easy. The stories excite children about reading. The first disappointment comes when children try to read and discover they can't. About 1/3 have fairly high reading aptitudes. Many of those become leisure readers. This section is about the other two thirds.

Phonics instruction‑as it is typically implemented‑is slow and often unnecessarily confusing. Whole word instruction is fast‑but only for the most talented students, who quickly teach themselves the hidden rules of phonics while wandering in a sea of small easy words, huge mysterious words, and confusing spelling exceptions.

Endless Errors: The real damage starts with the endless errors. As a child is led through his first book, he quickly discovers that word number two is completely different from word number one. Often word two has no letters or in common with either the word just before it or the word just after it. Any minor weakness is magnified by this approach. A child who might be able to remember the sound of T long enough to say a series of words that begin or end with T, quickly forgets its sound when confronted with the words in a story. People don't like things which require intense thought or lead to endless errors and admonitions. A kid unleashes a Herculean effort to identify one word, then learns he's wrong‑again!.

Coercion: Soon, the child of modest talents has to be forced to submit to the instruction. Now, in addition to learning that he's not especially good at reading, he begins learning about low status. He has to do what the teacher says, has to do what Mommy says, has to do what the lunch lady says.

Tedium: The only stories he can read at all... are rather tedious.

Sam sat. Sam sat. Sam sat on the cat. Sam sat on the mat.

They're not like the stories Mommy reads at bed time, but the most tedious part is being told you are wrong over and over again. It's a special kind of tedium that gradually rubs a child's ego raw. When the frustration kicks in‑after a few months for an impatient child‑or after one to three years for a more tolerant and submissive one, the typical outlet is passive aggression, indirect confrontation of whichever authority figure is trying to force him to do something that no child in his right mind would ever volunteer to do. The child may be able to read someday, but he will never want to.

The key to creating more leisure readers is shortening the duration of this painful learning period and minimizing the severity of that pain. The faster we can get children to the reading-is-fun stage, the more children will reach the finish line (the reading-is-easy stage). Advocates of the Whole Language approach understand this. The lesson that reading is a tedious chore continues right through high school with reading assignments that are usually stultifying (very boring).

Frustration:Frustration is the enemy. Once this emotion starts growing, time is short. Confronted with the demand that he read, a frustrated child can easily pretend to try. He glances at the word's first letter or two, then guesses the rest, feigning ignorance in such a way that neither the child nor the teacher is really sure what's happening. Teachers are not trained to watch for the emotional signals of impending failure. They often ignore errors in an attempt to keep things positive. Young children don't learn much from their errors anyway. Avoiding errors is a far better strategy than correcting them.

Whereas each error forms a memory that actually increases the probability of similar future errors, an adult's subsequent correction forms an associated emotional memory, a negative one. Both types of memory are counterproductive and raise the risk of failure. Success is never guaranteed at the outset, but why raise the risk of failure? Well, there's an answer: Even when a professional teacher knows things are going south, he or she also operates in a system based on coercion. The teacher must keep pushing the child forward. He cannot say to the parent or principal, this child is getting frustrated, so we have to stop for now and let his brain mature. A teacher who did that would soon be unemployed.

5) We almost always start teaching reading too early

Here in the United States, the truth is that we almost always start teaching reading one or two years to early. Many of the children are not emotionally ready for such a harrowing experience. Nor are they ready intellectually. The smartest part of the adult brain (the prefrontal cortex) is highly immature in most kindergarten children. You've seen it yourself: They have trouble following instructions/rules. "Behave." "Portate bien." There's probably a translation in every language. At both of the schools where I taught, the children couldn't stay quiet for more than about two minutes. None of them could apply complex rules like, "I before E except after C." Even those who understood the rules (elites at this age) routinely failed to recognize letter combinations that called for rule application.

In Finland, they wait until children are seven years old before reading instruction begins. The children start out two years behind American children, but catch up in about two years. I would cite the source, but I have no idea where I read it. That's the downside of reading for fun. I have taught children of many ages. My records show that older children learn to read much faster than younger children. They're more logical, more mature, and they know more about their mother tongue.

My first step in creating a new reading curriculum was volunteering as a reading teacher for a local school. Jacob Hackett was using a paper curriculum called Great Leaps. He worked with children in their late teens who were far behind in reading. It was a summer program that lasted one month. One month contains 20 weekdays. Each weekday, the remedial students got two hours of reading instruction. That's a total of 40 hours of instruction. He tested each teen at the start of the program and again at the end. The results showed he was consistently raising their reading levels two to three grade levels. His approach took a lot of volunteers, but it worked. One might ask how long it ordinarily takes to raise a child's reading level two to three grade levels. The answer is 2-3 years. Looking at the low end (a change of just two grade levels), his program was still 16 times as efficient as standard curriculum. His results constituted an indictment of the entire district and many similar districts all across the U.S.

So how did he do it? Well, there were three factors: 1) His curriculum was really good. 2) He understood how reading works. 3) The most important factor was that these children were much older than kindergarteners and first graders. There brains were mature, so... A) They could reason and follow instructions. B) They had long attention spans. C) They were more cooperative than six-year olds. You might be surprised to learn that the school district was not interested in his program. That should give you a clue as to how kids in that district got behind in the first place. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hackett moved to another state. Education reform is a lonely business.

6) Suboptimal Reading Curriculum

"Suboptimal" is really too polite. Most reading curriculum stinks. Illogical, slow, frustrating... It's mostly awful. What struck me as I watched a major school district cycle through one new curriculum adventure after another was how similar each "new" approach was. Most teachers are forced to use one or more reading curricula selected by bosses they have never even met.

Forced to use bad curriculum, forced to start too early, forced to push children ahead too fast, forced to promote failing students from grade to grade, teachers have precious little influence on the failing systems that writes their checks. They often feel forced to lie to parents as well. They emphasize the positive. Who wouldn't? The situation in private schools can be much better. Parents monitor progress more closely because they want to get their money's worth. The students themselves are often a cut above the average student, so the curriculum problem remains, but it's less serious because the kids can carry more of the learning burden themselves.