Dear Margaret Wente…

Over the years you have written a boxful of articles on how our school system has failed to fulfill one of its most basic mandates – teaching children how to read. I have quietly agreed with you every time, cut out the articles and stored them away in the aforementioned box, always meaning to write you about my own painful experience with the school system.

When my daughter began grade school, she began as most children do, full of that mixture of fear and curiousity with which children usually approach the world. Since she was a bright, funny child, I assumed that she would make her way through school without any problems, learning to read, write and ‘rithmetic with the rest of them.

When she was in Grade Two, it became clear that something was going wrong. My daughter could not recognize simple three letter words, and she could not sound them out because she was completely unaware that certain letters made a certain sounds. She would make a great show of reading to me, and since she was blessed with a prodigious memory, she could “read” a book verbatim after I had read it to her once or twice.

Proudly she would rattle off the stories in her Dr. Seuss books. The real test came when I stopped her, pointed to one particular word and asked her what that word was. Of course she didn’t know. So I would suggest we sound it out together. That was the heartbreaking part. Somehow this child, obviously capable of listening, understanding and memorizing, had not been taught the basic code that one needs to learn in order to be able to read.

Thus began my crusade against the Provincial Government’s stubborn insistence that somehow, they knew how to teach children how to read. If they could not teach a child who was avid and had above average intelligence, I reasoned, clearly something was wrong with their methods or their assumptions, probably both.

Before I came to that conclusion I of course approached my daughter’s teachers – the front line troops who, believing that one year of teacher’s college magically turns them into professional educators, have a tendency to treat Moms and Dads like they are utter morons. “Don’t worry” they would say, “children learn at their own pace. Your daughter is just a little slower than the rest of the class.”

Like most parents, I am an authority on my own child. I cared for her, played with her, spoke to her, cuddled her and interacted with her for many years before she started school. If I knew anything, I knew what she was capable of. When my daughter passed into Grade Three, vocabulary and spelling became the new enemies that she confronted every day. If she could not sound out words to read them, how could she spell them? Hours of our family time were now being consumed preparing for the spelling test every Friday. I would devise new ways to improve upon her poor scores – I invented games, offered rewards, threatened and cajoled – to no avail.

I contacted my Member of Provincial Parliament, I wrote to a succession of education Ministers, I accosted them at functions – regardless of their political stripe I wanted to know why the school system was unable to teach children how to read. During my campaign I became aware that I was not the only one who was going through this particular hell. As I started being more vocal about the problem, I found more and more parents who agreed with me. Not that that impressed the many government members that I had words with. They seemed supremely unconcerned about my tale of woe.

In the meantime, my daughter was running out of time. As a result of her desperate struggle to read and spell, she had been placed in a remedial reading program at school. This was the best solution that the Ontario school system could offer my daughter, but it became very clear, very quickly that this program was not “remediating” her problem at all – it merely placed her in a downward spiral of ineffective methods that were not moving her forward.

One day, as I was reading the Globe’s Report on Business magazine I came across an article about a small company on Canada’s East coast called SpellRead (Phonological Auditory Training) Their program is based on the idea that the best way to learn language skills such as reading and spelling requires that students be taught to use the 44 individual sounds of the language. These are called ‘phonological skills’. They are rarely acquired naturally, even by those who have English as their first language. Phonological skills must be explicitly taught.

The skills that Spell/Read offered sounded suspiciously like the skills that my daughter needed. After further investigation I took her out to Halifax to be tested. Not only did they assure me that my daughter was bright and capable of learning, they guaranteed that she would learn with the Spell/Read system. The cost was substantial, but I was prepared to give up much so that my daughter could read. Over the course of two summers I took my daughter out to the East coast, where we lived while she took their program.

That ten-year old girl, the one that the Ontario school system could not teach and indeed had given up on, has just graduated from high school, is completely bilingual and has been admitted to the University of Toronto with a 93.7% academic average. She has won a coveted spot at U. of T’s Trinity College, writes and directs plays in French and English and remembers all too well the shame and confusion she felt when she realized that she could not read and no one seemed to care.

As for me, I still wonder why I pay taxes to support an education system that cannot teach every single child how to read well. It is the sine qua non of education. Even though the Ontario Government’s own Early Learning Strategy recognized the importance of phonemics back in 2003, there was no definite requirement to use it. The result is a system that allows individual teachers to apply curricular tools as they see fit. (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/reading/effective.html)

Allowing this much discretion to individual teachers is a discussion for another day and thankfully, it is not my battle to wage. But my daughter’s story is a cautionary tale to other parents who would be taken in by the oily assurances of government ministers and their puffed-up “experts”.

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6 responses to “Dear Margaret Wente…

  1. Carol,
    It is all about indoctrination not education. Do check out the teacher’s union website and read their mandate, you will disgusted to say the least.

  2. Vincent Clement

    If you were the Minister of Education what would you do differently? It is one thing to throw out a warning. It is another to suggest changes.

    • Vincent –

      Carol did:

      “Even though the Ontario Government’s own Early Learning Strategy recognized the importance of phonemics back in 2003, there was no definite requirement to use it.”

      I’ll even add to it – I experienced this first hand as a camp councilor. The children could not read words they’ve never come across before. I asked them to sound it out and they looked at me like I had 3 heads.

      The book: My Book of Bible Stories – written for children.

      • Vincent Clement

        Fair enough. Hardly pops out, though. And the school system needs many changes (eliminating school boards, putting parents back in charge, introducing competition in the education system via charter schools and/or vouchers” etc).

        My biggest concern is when Carol states “thankfully, it is not my battle to wage”. We all have a vested interest in having an accountable education system.

  3. Agree with hoarydragon – education, especially ‘higher ed’ is mostly about producing obedient, submissive consumers.
    My son learned the newfangled style (word recognition rather than phonics) and he speed reads at an incredible rate with full comprehension, however his spelling is atrocious, especially on uncommon words. It seems to be something of a trade-off.
    Solutions?
    5 time New York State teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto, who turned against public ed has a few ideas.
    Harpers magazine article rang true for me:
    http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/hp/frames.htm

  4. I appreciate the link jrlo……………..Particularly liked the following passage in light of the province’s Early Years Strategy…

    Do your kids the favour of remaining engaged and NEVER accept the labels that schools and teachers like to affix them with………….. “School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently.

    Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff school teachers know well enough to avoid.

    Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.

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