The Teaching of Literacy and the Urge to Vomit

One wearies, or I weary anyway, of the endless news stories reporting that children can barely read or not at all, can’t add, and don’t know anything.

Detroit Public Schools: 93% Not Proficient in Reading; 96% Not Proficient in Math” Nationwide, only 33 percent of public-school eighth graders scored proficient or better in reading….

This in the United States? The exceptional nation, shining city on a hill, guiding light of mankind? On and on it goes: the national toleration of the stupid, the inferior, the lazy, and the uncultivated. More specifically, toleration of substandard teachers, substandard races, substandard approaches to schooling, and intellectually shiftless people bitching about everything being somebody else’s fault.

These laudable thoughts came to me when, having spent recent decades reading of the godawful effects of American schooling, I stumbled across a column I wrote thirty years ago about the same things, and about my daughter Macon. In it I proposed a simple solution to many of our gravest national problems. It can be effected in the home.

Let’s start at the beginning. The alphabet consists of all of twenty-six letters, as mysterious as potatoes. Big deal. How long can it take to learn two dozen little squiggles? Herewith my experience from the aforementioned ancient column:

A story: When my elder daughter was barely two, my wife and I came back from a junket to Russia. We were on the sofa looking at a coffee-table book from Moscow when Macon waddled in and began hollering, “Bee! Bee!” Thinking that a wasp or some related monster had invaded our sacred domestic precincts, I went into protective-male mode and prepared to make war on the beast. No wasp. No bee. Perhaps the child was delusional, a paranoid schizophrenic.

Well, no. She was looking at a balalaika on the front of the book which looked like a lower-case B. “Hmmm,” I thought with my accustomed preternatural perceptiveness. The kid appears to be on to something. She was.

I got a set of those magnetic stick-em refrigerator plastic letters and began showing them to her for five minutes a day, about all the attention span she then had. Before reaching twenty-six months, she knew all of them, upper and lower case. It is true that her pronunciational mastery lagged her alphabetic grasp. You may not know of the letter “Bubble Dew.” It exists.

At three, she was reading. Yes, it was, “Billy chased the cat up the tree,” not “the eschatological significance of the kerygma.” Still, it was reading. It was what millions of kids who have finished school cannot do, even at the cat-and-tree level. She thought it was splendid fun. It did not occur to her that any effort was involved. Of course Daddy was making an enormous fuss over her, which was not a discouragement. Daddy is that way about his girls.

How did I bring about this onset of literacy? The same way I later did with her sister, who also was reading well before kindergarten. I told her that “c” said “kuh,” that a said “a” and t said “tuh.” Kuh-a-tuh. Cat. And look here, Pumpkin, “r” says “err,” and if you put it in front of “at” you get err-a-tuh, rat. Ain’t that something?

She agreed that it was. Indeed she received all of this occult lore with attention and no visible puzzlement. It quickly dawned on her that you could string these letter things together to express interesting thoughts. Soon she could sound out words she didn’t remotely understand and, when the multitudinous exceptions and peculiarities of English intruded, she simply learned them.


A literate American. Currently university professor of art. It is what happens if you feed them.  Credit: Fred Reed.

A literate American. Currently university professor of art. It is what happens if you feed them. Credit: Fred Reed.

I didn’t regard this as a miracle, because it wasn’t one. Kids have been learning to read practically forever. They are absorptive creatures, awash in curiosity. A couple of dozen letters, associated sounds, retentive memories, and voila! There is nothing to it. Patience, encouragement, and phonetics.

Now, if I can teach a not-three-year-old to read in a few months in under a half-hour a day, how in god’s name can the schools fail to do it in twelve years? Only three answers come to min: The kids are stupid, the teachers worthless, the parents shiftless, or some felicitous combination of the foregoing.

Stupidity: If some kids, or some races, simply lack the mental horsepower, it would make sense to separate them, teach them what they are able to learn–and not let them drag everybody else down. Shiftless parents: Ask how many hours a week the parents, or parent, of those failing kids in Detroit spend with them, teaching them to read? If the parents can’t read, they might try learning with their kids. Worthless teachers: A large part of the problem is exactly this, as has been multiply documented and as multiply ignored. In 1984, writing an article for Harper’s, I discovered:

…the results of a competency test given to applicants for teaching positions in Pinellas County, Florida (which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater), cited in Time, June 16, 1980. To pass this grueling examination, an applicant had to be able to read at the tenth-grade level and do arithmetic at the eighth-grade level. Though they all held B.A.’s, 25 percent of the whites and 79 percent of the blacks failed. Similar statistics exist for other places.

They still do.

This is not just sick. It is sickening. We have teachers with a tenth-grade education teaching the twelfth grade. Bright kids read at the tenth-grade level in the third grade. Most of the black “teachers” and a horrifying proportion of the whites couldn’t do it after four years of college. With such a percentage being that retarded, we can be sure that many who passed barely did. It is insane. Why do we put up with it?

Political correctness. Or we don’t care. Or we are a nation of peasants.

In middle or high-school, my younger daughter brought home a chemistry worksheet with common chemical terms badly misspelled–on the order of “pollyefflememe.” Clearly the woman who wrote this was pig-ignorant and lacked even the minimal self-respect to check. In the third grade I could spell “polyethylene” because I had Gilbert’s fifty-bottle chemistry set and liked funny chemical words. This creature was “teaching” my daughter?

Without thinking I asked, “What color is your teacher?”

Anguished “Daaaaaaaaaady!”

She had made the connection. Everybody has. You just can’t say it or don’t want to admit it. You can’t criticize the blacks, because den you be ray cyst, so you can’t criticize the whites, who aren’t all that much better, so you have protected, unionized mediocrity at best and often way worse who, lacking the intelligence, education, or culture to value actual learning, instead play psychobabble feel-good games. A country deserves what it tolerates.

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